A Tom and Dee Scolded on the BTS – A Breaking Point of Thai Norms
The Coconuts Bangkok translation and paraphrase:
Woman: Oh, I’m sorry. This is a public venue. Aren’t you shameless, snuggling up to each other like that?
Tom: So if you see farangs doing that, do you yell at them too?
Woman: Then it’s the farangs’ business.
Tom: So why do you discriminate?
Woman: Well, they don’t do it on the BTS. I don’t discriminate. Thai tradition, you know. I warned you because I want the best for you.
Rejecting the logic that only foreigners are off the hook and can do whatevs, the tom tells the woman to keep her lecturing to herself.
Tom: Thai tradition what? Use that at your home.
Woman: Other people have been trying to tolerate your actions. But if you’re shameless, please proceed!
Tom: If I wasn’t, would I be here?
The argument continues with the tomboy’s lover insisting it’s her private business while the conservative woman insists she’s not being psycho – just expressing her offended values.
Everything ends when a nearby ladyboy steps in.
“You are shameless!” she says to the tomboy. “You snuggle each other, and you keep scolding this woman. Even though you’re a tomboy, you have to be polite. Have you read what people say online? They all condemn people who display public affection!”
This is additional translation offered on the reddit share of this article, from where the Coconut Bangkok translation left off:
Ladyboy: You know that you are wrong, so don’t argue with her telling her to stop. You stop, that’s it.
Tom: And do I have to apologise?
Ladyboy: No you don’t, just stop, that’s it.
Woman: You should stop this behaviour!
Ladyboy: Do you want to fight? If you want to fight then fight.
Then the redditor add these notes:
“I couldn’t translate the stuff after this, too much yelling for me to understand. But the ladyboy says “This is a train, not a hotel” as they’re leaving the train.”
“As a side note, while the article mentions the woman condemning them for “making out”, I only hear her condemning them for hugging.
If they actually were making out, I’m not particularly surprised by what happened. PDA is a huge no-no in Thailand, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising for a heterosexual couple to have gotten a similar reprimand for it, though them being a homosexual couple undoubtedly greatly exacerbated the issue.”
The above happened a while back and I’ve only been able to get it posted now. I’d wanted to translate the entire video but it’s just not proving possible at this point; thankfully Kaewmala’s work in it is already extensive enough to frame the incident and its cultural context. Just to add some additional points and why this is so interesting to me personally as a Muay Thai fighter in Thailand: I’ve fought a lot of “Toms” here in Thailand as Muay Thai is a vocational opportunity to many of them, and I’ve have taken an interest in how they are perceived, and generally mocked, by my male trainers.
Sometime back I shared some of my reading notes from Megan Sinnott’s research on Toms and Dees, a same-sex female romantic relationships in Thai sexuality. In short, when talking about Toms and Dees the term “lesbian” is not really accurate. Lesbian graphs broad western sexual orientation concepts, but there are specific female-to-female romantic/sexual relationships that are characterized by the masculine “Tom” (from the English “tomboy”) and the femme “Dee” (from the English “lady”). Toms style themselves in a masculine way and take on the male role in these relationships but do not necessarily identify as male. For instance the well-known female Muay Thai fighter Lommanee (also called Chalaamnoi, and Nongnan) – who I’ve fought – in her written speech used to use the male polite article krop and male pronoun pom when writing on her Facebook page, but now has changed back to using ka. The Tom in this video certainly takes on a male-like role in engaging with the woman who verbally attacks the couple for “making out” in public (none of that is seen in the video, so we don’t know the full extent the public display was out of line with Thai social conduct norms) [edit: while Kaewmala below says “making out”, a redditor points out the only reference is to “hugging”], but it’s safe to say that even very small acts of PDA (even hand-holding, or hugging, but certainly kissing or “petting” in public) are not the norm in Thai conduct. Kevin and I even felt very uncomfortable holding hands on our soi in Chiang Mai when we lived there, and stopped doing so almost unconsciously.
The Kathoey (male-to-female trans) is a far more visible presence and more readily associated with Thailand from the west. The “Ladyboy” in Thailand is considered a widely accepted (I’d argue that the word “tolerated” is a better choice) “third gender.” While I wouldn’t say that Kathoey are embraced by Thai culture, there does seem to be a huge difference in tolerance between the male-to-female trans and the much more universal offense of women who behave or identify as male. In my opinion, and I am no expert, this offense comes from the higher status of men, socially, culturally and spiritually (women cannot be ordained as monks, so our souls are not on equal karmic channels) – so a man moving downward to be female is more readily tolerated than a female trying to move up the line, so to speak. This is all worth mentioning because the Kathoey jumps into the argument and challenges the Tom to a fight, criticizing her for her PDA. The Kathoey is taking the traditional stand that making out in public is impolite but being confrontational in Thai culture is super not Thai, so the lady who scolds the couple and the Kathoey are both stepping pretty far out of form here.
One more very interesting point is the Tom‘s appeal to western-ism, asking the woman who is scolding her if she would be scolding Falang (“western foreigners”) for kissing on the train. The woman says she would not because that’s Falang business, her concern is that this Thai couple – albeit not conventional or “traditional” in being same-sex – is behaving in a manner that is non-traditional, non-Thai and therefore is impolite. I certainly stare at westerners, who are generally in western/Thai relationships, who break the PDA codes by holding hands or canoodling in public. It would appear that these couples are more tolerated by Thais because of the western, falang half of it. The Thai woman (usually it goes this way in these couples, but it can be reversed) is kind of given a “pass” because she’s accommodating the western culture of her boyfriend; a Thai woman acting this way with another Thai (in this case another woman) is offensive.
In my ongoing research into gender in Thailand and in particular the Tom-Dee dynamic, I’ve discovered that Toms and the Tom lifestyle are not a product of, but can be centered around, modern commercialism in Thailand. The introduction of the shopping mall and commerce brought in places for young, modern Thais to hang out – just like in the west – and away from the traditional roles and limitations of rural life or family, women who naturally identify with the Tom identity had somewhere to go and try on the social accoutrements of this identity. Toms also could go get jobs in retail, allowing them more independence (the financial independence alone allows for variance in sexuality, as many Toms might be pressured/forced into hetero relationships in rural life as women don’t have many ways of earning an income outside of family and marriage relationships), as well as the very simple and yet truly important fact of being able to wear pants. All government organizations, schools and employment, require men to wear slacks and women to wear skirts. So Toms grow up wearing skirts in school and would have to wear skirts in any kind of government job, so having employment in retail has this very simple, but certainly not small, freedom of being able to escape the gender coded dress. The BTS, where this incident took place, is also a symbol of modernity and runs through the city centers, stopping at the shopping malls throughout Bangkok. In my opinion, the train is an artery that runs through commercial spaces that are nexuses for Tom identity to live openly – it’s the traditionalism that the accusing woman uses as her ammunition that feels more out of place in this place… but then, I’m a westerner.
Below is Kaewmala’s Facebook informative take on the event. For those that don’t know her, she is one of the best Thai cultural critics online. I highly recommend her Thai Woman Talks – Language, Society, Politics & Love blog.
Kaewmala’s Facebook Mini-Article
A challenge: Count the ironies in this video.
Let’s just take the two most obvious ones: whose performance do you find more ironic, between the woman berating the tom-dee couple for making out in public and allegedly violating Thainess or the conservative katoey seemingly oblivious to possible LGBT discrimination?
Since the video shows only the subsequent arguments about the alleged offense, I wonder how much the tom-dee couple actually fornicated. Were they heavily fondling and exchanging tongue, or just hugging and kissing/smooching? (Their clothes seem undisturbed, so I guess they weren’t trying to undress one another.) So what exactly was so offensive to the woman and the katoey?
a) a couple making out in public
b) a Thai couple making out in public
c) a same-sex couple making out in public
d) a femme-butch couple making out in public
My observation: since the woman said that if a farang couple made out in public (in reply to the berated tom’s question) it would be the farang couple’s business, I guess foreigners making out in public would not bother her so much. So answer choice a) is out. That leaves b) to d) to consider.
And I’d like to ask further: would the Thai woman and the katoey have reacted the same way had it been:
a) a foreign couple?
b) a heterosexual Thai couple?
c) a Thai gay male couple?
I recall a recent study by a Thai queer anthropologist which offers a revealing insight: straight Thai women seem to have the most problem accepting tomboy lesbians. For whatever reason. Whereas Thai men have very little problem accepting transwomen (male-to-female transgendered persons who have already had sex change), but still have problem accepting katoeys without sex change (‘inbetween’ gender).
On the other hand, this incident may not have much to do with LGBT, and the couple being tom-dee may just be incidental, and the female and katoey haranguers may just be the normal Thai conservative moral police often found among the sexually uptight Thai middle class who have been taught to mistake imported Victorian values to be authentically Thai.
However one reads this, the most amusing aspect is the reaction of the other BTS riders who tried their best to appear uninterested! 55555+
Note: See additional commentaries in comments.
Kaewmala ThaiTalk It seems very complicated as there are many aspects of reality, many layers of grievances, and multiple discrimination. Yet, it often boils down to whether a person regardless of gender, class, status, group affiliation, personal views, etc. is afforded the same rights as everyone else. Thai society is still struggling in this transition from a highly stratified society (in so many ways) to one where all is expected by more and more people to be equal while as many still prioritize the idealized version of the Thai Culture over individual rights and equality. It’s a world in which one group of people embrace change, another resist it, and the rest don’t want to think about it, couldn’t be bothered, or are confused by it. And social media help clarify in which category you belong.all the above from Kaewmala’s Facebook post. The story, video and partial transcript is covered in a Coconuts Bangkok article.
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