The Paradox of Thailand's Gender Politics
On my second day in the Phuket Sandbox, I find myself in the Bangla road toilets chatting to a Thai lady who responds in perfect English. After a few moments of De Ja Vu, I realise that I’ve seen her before: standing on the corner of this same building, surrounded by a posse of slathering middle-aged men.
While in many western countries the infamous Thai brides are the subject of banterous locker-room talk, here in the sex-tourism hotspot of Phuket, it soon becomes clear that this is everyday life for these women. Whether being objectified from afar, or groped in close range- these women are thinking not of how they are perceived, but of providing for their families.
Back in the Bangla bar toilet, she continues telling me about her life while dabbing me with perfume. With an unwavering smile, she explains that her children live in the northeast area of Thailand, hundreds of miles away. Most of the money she makes tending to the men on Bangla is sent to them, paying for their meals, school outfits, and other necessities.
In fact, many women hail from the poorer farming regions of Isaan to reap the financial benefits of Phuket’s sex tourism. During the Vietnam War, US military bases were established in Udon Thani and Khorat- fuelling a sex industry that has remained present in the area ever since. However, when the American soldiers moved on, the women of north-eastern Thailand set their sights on the tourist centres of Bangkok and Phuket.
It’s in central Isaan that I find myself living, teaching English, and experiencing the fascinating, sometimes polarising nature of Thailand’s gender politics.
Appearance is Everything: Women in the Workplace
While foreigners of every gender flock to Thailand's thriving TEFL scene, native Thai teachers are predominantly women. This is likely due to the long-standing perception of women as the nurturing sex: suited best to the roles of motherhood and caregiving.
However, what arose from traditional gender binaries has turned into a freeing way of life for many women in Thailand. Teaching allows women to carve their own identities outside of being wives and mothers, have financial agency, and influence the next generation.
As such, the role of “Kruu” is highly respected and shaped by gendered formalities. The most important of these? Dress to impress. For women in the social structure of the school, appearance is everything, and foreigners are expected to abide by these rules.
Traditional binaries of masculine vs feminine remain integral to the way we dress as female teachers in Thailand. Trousers are strictly forbidden, and for someone in a position of authority to wear them would be a serious Faux Pas. Instead, we wear knee-length pencil skirts or dresses woven from Thai silk. Each day, the teacher’s room is a kaleidoscopic array of colourful material, and women complimenting each other on their latest outfits. Frills are welcome, and stilettos are encouraged for those who are unafraid of face-planting in front of their students.
Though bound by tradition, my experience of gender binaries in the workplace has been tempered by the endless generosity of Thai people. In morning assembly, I noticed that the Thai teachers were wearing particularly flamboyant outfits: dressed head to toe in swathes of beautiful silk.
A few minutes later, one teacher asked what clothes size I was and returned the following week with armfuls of handmade clothes. After what seemed like hours of asking “How much?” and her swatting the notes away, I accepted each garment graciously and have been trying to make space in my wardrobe for the dresses ever since.
A Culture That Celebrates “Gender Bending”
With many cultural matters, Thai society seems caught in a tug of war between tradition and modernity, and its attitude towards gender politics is just as polarizing. In contrast to the strict binaries of masculine vs feminine in the workplace, this society is learning to be progressive in its acceptance of queerness. Perhaps the biggest example of this is, as suggested by the name, the infamous Thai LadyBoy.
While the Thai Ladyboy optimizes this acceptance at least in popular culture, you’d be forgiven for wondering how, in a land still ruled by tradition, the new generation is faring. After living and teaching in Thailand for a few months, it soon becomes clear that the level of acceptance goes beyond the drag shows of Bangkok and other metropolitan areas with western influences.
Even in rural communities like KaengKhro, where my school is located, transgender students are both accepted and celebrated. In my first lessons, many pupils introduced themselves to me by clarifying their pronouns.
As time went on, I realised that, regardless of identity, each student receives the same treatment and level of respect from classmates and teachers alike. This shows a reassuring level of confidence from the LGBTQ+ community in school, who are provided with a safe space in which to flourish.
Which brings me to the most brilliantly outrageous display of trans expression: the school’s Christmas show. In the UK, a festive school performance comprises a nativity scene, Santa-centric tales and a few carols.
Here in rural Kaeng-Khro, students aged 17-18 performed a K-pop dance, with cat-walk esque moves and costumes that would put Ru Paul’s biggest drag queens to shame. For the 25 minute performance, gender roles were subverted and identities celebrated, while the school directors, headmaster, and Thai elders cheered on.
Beyond the Classroom: The Male Commodity
Despite not being male and fairly new to the ex-pat scene, I can predict with near certainty that no western male in Thailand has ever complained about the lack of attention they receive. While walking through markets or resort corridors, it’s common to be approached by Thai women attempting to usher you into restaurants, massage parlours, or prostitute-frequented bars.
When on the road in the land of smiles, a single male or group of males signifies sex-driven motives, particularly in areas where there’s a western presence such as Pattaya or Phuket. While this isn’t always the case, there is some truth behind the narrative of the sexually motivated male tourist. The number of prostitutes on these popular strips each night is indicative of a booming business, and one fuelled by “farangs”.
After the sandbox, some fellow teachers discussed how their evenings in Phuket changed if the group consisted of only males. One described going into a bar with another male friend, only for a ‘worker’ at the nightclub to sit with them at the table despite not being able to speak English. Assuming that they wanted more than just a drink - she proceeded to offer them both sex, which was declined with an air of shock.
They disclosed the experience to some men staying at their hotel, who proceeded to laugh and slap each other on the back knowingly. They’d recently sought sexual gratification from a Bangla massage parlour but seemed comforted by their own logic that they hadn’t cheated on their partners back home. After all, it was only a Thai prostitute, and so, therefore, “didn’t count”.
Given that there’s some truth behind the stereotype of the sex-fuelled westerner, it’s unsurprising that men are hounded as they walk down the street. However, as the sex trade in Thailand is mostly limited to tourist hotspots, living in areas like Isaan means western men experience little to no hassle.
Thailand: A Cultural Anomaly
While Thai society may not yet align with our western concepts of gender equality, they simultaneously exceed many of them. As an English teacher in Thailand, you’re provided with the rare opportunity to embrace traditional culture and witness how the new generation is modernising deep-rooted gender narratives.
When taking a stroll through the night markets, or through the banana-tree fringed lanes, any hollers from the locals are expressions of delight at seeing a westerner. Nowhere else in the world have I experienced a warmer reception than in Thailand, regardless of gender.