A Whole New Playing Field
By Chandler Burr
On a dusty field in Hua Hin, the royal summer home of the king of Thailand, four lovely young Thai ladies who make up the elephant polo team known quite famously here as the Screwless Tuskers are having a blast, hard at work in their hot-pink outfits, swatting balls from atop their pachyderms and avoiding broken nails. Golf, Pu, Toktak, and Jum are not women by birth. Yet the Thai media love them, following the team's transgender members every year to this eccentric, high-profile social and sporting event, where they are inevitably cited approvingly by foreigners as proof of Thailand's legendarily problem-free acceptance of gay people.
Elepolo, as it's called, is one of the planet's stranger international social rituals. The lovely, exotic weeklong tournament proceeds as if the British Empire had never fallen, a tony series of elaborate parties thrown by chipper, wealthy Brits and other monied commonwealth subjects; team Chivas Regal, for example, includes his grace the 13th Duke of Argyll, a dashingly handsome young British diamond-mine owner, as well as various other millionaires. At the luxurious Anantara Resort and Spa, which plays host, they spend evenings sampling Thai oysters the size of baseballs and drinking gin-and-tonics, then playing the next morning's chukka (half-match) happily hungover. And since 2003 the Thai media has focused, positively, on the thin, meticulously groomed young ladies who were born as men and are sponsored by an American named Alf Leif Erickson, who spends $20,000 to $30,000 on the team every year.
All of which tends to obscure the fact that there is perhaps no culture on earth of which foreigners more deeply misunderstand the reality of being gay than the Kingdom of Thailand's. Thailand has long been presented as a gay paradise, but it isn't, exactly'or more precisely, it is if you're a gay tourist; if you're a gay Thai, things have always been much more complicated. But it is the star status enjoyed by Golf, Pu, Toktak, and Jum that reveals both the ambiguous relationship the heterosexual Thai have had with their homosexual compatriots'and the degree to which, starting around a year ago, Thai society and politics have been undergoing amazingly rapid changes of attitude toward homosexuality while Thai homosexuals experience rapid changes in attitude toward themselves.
The mostly European polo players love the Tuskers, pretending to make a big protest against allowing them to use two hands on their mallets, the rule for women. ('Well,' Toktak retorted to one journalist, 'we look like women.') The Thai have been less amused. It is the King's Cup Elephant Polo Tournament, and in Thailand, King Bhumibol is not only revered but literally sacred, so there has been grumbling here at the publicity given katoi'usually translated as 'lady-boys'' at a tournament sponsored by His Majesty. The Tuskers have a serious gay vibe; Erickson is heterosexual, but he's a heterosexual who shouts from the sidelines, 'It's not whether you win or lose, it's how fabulous you look!' While you would have to dig to find a Thai voicing public disapproval, this behavior doesn't, in fact, go over well; traditionally, in Thailand the katoi and other marginals have been accepted as long as they stay quietly on the sidelines.
But in Bangkok things are changing fast. In 1999 a gay man named Pakorn Pimton decided to move from the sidelines by organizing the capital's first gay pride celebration. Pakorn (the Thai virtually never use last names)'a handsome, muscular, gay former dancer who is now a choreographer'says, 'I traveled to London, Amsterdam, Spain; I went to the Geneva pride and Sydney Gay Mardi Gras. That's where I got the idea.'
You could almost say that gay pride in Bangkok was an idea in search of a reason for being. 'There's no discrimination whatsoever against gay people from government or police,' says Lukas Habersaat, a gay Swiss hotelier who is part owner of the Tarntawan Place, a predominantly gay hotel in Bangkok's world-famous Patpong bar district. But, Habersaat quickly adds, 'you don't have any legal rights like you do in Europe. You can't get married. There's no registered partnership.' 'One reason pride was so difficult to organize here,' explains Douglas Thompson, a San Franciscan who for years has run Bangkok's Utopia Tours, a gay and lesbian tourism firm, 'is that the gay ghettos happened in the West because your families threw you out and you had to band together, and here it didn't happen. Family here is absolutely everything.' And so the Thai developed, as gay Americans of the 1950s did, a 'don't ask, don't tell' culture. 'The idea of two men having sex is acceptable,' says Thompson, 'but the idea of two men becoming economically involved with each other, having a committed sexual and romantic relationship, is still very foreign.'
To read more about changing gay life in Thailand, pick up a copy of the February issue of Out.