Letter from Bangkok

The Bangkok Transit System is a public elevated train that cuts through the city in a combined route of fifty-three kilometers. It’s huge. It runs twelve meters above the ground on endless viaducts made of concrete casts. It’s brutal. When the viaducts overlap each other and the roads, we see layers of frantic transit. It’s like a scene out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, except that here everything is colorful and loud.

The heat strikes me when we get off at Sala Deng Station — February’s average is 32.7°C (91°F). The next thing that strikes me is the billboard of a shirtless, muscular man covered in body oil. He rests his right arm behind his head and pulls his underwear down with his left thumb. PrEP: a pill a day keeps the HIV away, it reads beside him. Science sent from above. Get it at Pulse clinic.

I tell my partner Lucas that I’ve never seen clickbait so blatantly used in physical form, not even this sort of enticing campaign, outside gay men’s websites. In so-called progressive Rio, where we are from, it would stir revolt; in Shanghai, where we live, it’s unlikely to pass the strict governmental control over advertising. But here in Bangkok, it’s right there, for the eyes of everyone to see.

Even though we had heard that Bangkok was very progressive and open, some things took us by surprise: gay couples holding hands in the streets, teenage boys wearing high heels and makeup, and a large number of transgender people everywhere.

We change train lines and get off at Siam station, in a busy cluster of shopping centers. Here, the elevated train structure appears even more brutal because of the large clamps holding the different levels of rail together. Underneath it, shadowed by the viaducts, there’s the buzzing traffic of neon-lit tuk-tuks, battered old buses, and brightly colored taxis in green, yellow, purple, and of course, pink. People rush up and down on escalators and elevators amidst the bundle of digital billboards. Bangkok is a tropical cyberpunk paradise.

We walk to the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre to see “Spectrosynthresis II,” the largest exhibition to date featuring Southeast Asian LGBTQ art. It spans two of the upper floors of the museum. Going up, we see all kinds of people, and not just a gay crowd, as we expected. Bangkokians of all ages and backgrounds, including families and school groups, are moving around the spiral ramps of the museum under large rainbow-colored panels painted by one of the exhibiting artists.

I’m intrigued by one particular piece, a large photograph of a man in a Buddhist saffron habit, wearing flamboyant makeup and looking straight into the camera. It’s the self-portrait of Thai American artist Michael-Shaowanasail, the description says; when it was first revealed, it created an uproar among the local Buddhist clergy, including loud calls for its destruction.

On the same floor, I study another impressive artwork: a large black and white video installation showing a nude trans woman from different angles. She lounges like Bernini’s Sleeping Hermaphrodite, but she is awake. We watch her impassive expression, her breasts, the silhouette of her body, and her penis laying between her thighs. The artist, Arin Rungjang, was inspired to create this piece by the memory of a trans woman he met when he was a teenager, who committed suicide, leaving him confused and heartbroken. The exhibit does an excellent job of mixing LGBTQ subjects with local religious and cultural traditions, and of conveying the struggles of growing up, succeeding, and being accepted in the region.

The next day we meet June, a local photographer whose work revolves around reporting Pride events around Asia. “Have you seen the campaign ‘Go Thai. Be Free’?” she asks, referring to the slogan of an official campaign to boost LGBTQ tourism in Thailand. “I often say that to be Thai is not to be free. Tourists, foreigners, and ex-pats can live as freely as they want here, but if you are Thai, you don’t get this privilege.”

June points out that the legal framework is virtually nonexistent when it comes to equal or protective laws. In Thailand, it’s still challenging for transgender people to develop a career; besides the social stigma, they cannot change their original name and gender on their official documents. And while there may be one or two somewhat progressive laws to prevent discrimination, enforcement is usually lengthy and expensive.

Thai trans women suffer from being viciously labeled as ladyboys, and the notion of gender identity is relatively new in the country. We learned about a trans woman living on the streets and struggling to find work. She keeps getting turned down because of her papers. Irrationally, the written word speaks louder than a human voice.

The family realm also contains challenges. Asia at large still follows a very patriarchal logic in which the son bears the hope of the family and is expected to support his parents when the time comes. Great importance is given to getting married and raising kids, and with the limited extent of the law, having an LGBTQ family member becomes a worrying factor. Marriage equality is just the tip of the iceberg. Lawmakers seem frightened of what comes next, and they perceive what they don’t know how to control as a threat.

On a Saturday evening, we meet with Mae Happyair at an underground club in Bangkok’s hipster district of Ekkamai. She’s an illustrious figure in the city’s electronica scene and leads a collective of Queer DJs and artists. They organize a couple of parties in town that are magnets for unrestrained self-expression, and one of them is about to kick off.

“There are two sides to it: hate and love. I focus on love.” Mae says. We can barely hear her because of the loud retro electronic music playing on the speakers.

Like many LGBTQ young people, Mae came to Bangkok against her parents’ will, when she was nineteen, betting that the city had something great waiting for her. She tells us that she feels safe in Bangkok because of the massive community of LGBTQ people that support and empower each other.

“It’s important to live in the right place and find your peers,” she says. “Besides, if Thai people don’t like you, they will say bad things behind your back, but they will not bully you or hurt you. So, in a way, you’re still free to be whatever you want, right?”

The music gets louder, and people start to arrive. Tonight’s theme is “Haus of Club Kids,” and fashion is their drug of choice. They’ve put a lot of thought and craft in their costumes, playing with gender aesthetics and wearing bright odd makeup. They rush to the dance floor theatrically. The night has only begun.

—Tomás Pinheiro