issue 201 - November 1989
Photo: Mark Timm
Gays in Thailand are finding humorous - and sexy
ways of preventing AIDS. Mark Timm reports.
Gay people in Thailand have not had to deal with the outright hostility faced by their counterparts in other countries.
'People don't mind if you are gay. As long as you are a good person, it's okay,' says Somboon Inpradith, editor of Midway, the bilingual gay men's monthly.
Gays have won greater respect in Thai society in recent years. A major impetus for this was the 'coming out' of several popular movie stars and other prominent gays.
Then AIDS (HIV) made its appearance in Thailand in 1984. The first official case involved a gay student who had been studying in the US. Thailand's widely read sensationalist press quickly seized on the story and for a while it looked as if prejudice might force gay liberation back a century.
But instead of retreating, gay community leaders rallied and moved into the front line of the battle against HIV. And they have remained there, even though the vast majority (87 per cent) of people tested HIV-positive are not gay but drug-users. In fact only 1.3 per cent of HIV positive people are gay or bisexual. But it was easier for gays to organize, operate as a community, and make the fight seem relevant to society as a whole.
At about this time Natee Teerarojjanapongs was going through the trauma of coming out. And he too took the AIDS panic as a challenge.
'AIDS motivated me because it was being blamed on gays,' Natee says today. 'Gay people are seen as a high-risk group, but in fact it's a matter of promiscuity rather than homosexuality.'
With that message he approached Bangkok's gay bar-owners. At first many refused to admit AIDS was a problem for them. But gradually the bar-owners formed an association to protect themselves and their workers against prejudice and disease. Some were also motivated by the fear that their premises might get closed down by the authorities.
On December 1, 1988 - World AIDS Day - 30 of the bar-owners got together and staged a parade and AIDS information fair at a large shopping complex close to the country's largest university. It was the first time Thai gays had ever stood up publicly for their rights.
There are about 50 gay bars in Bangkok staffed by about 1,500 young, mostly gay, men who can usually be hired for sexual favours. How was the message to practise safe sex to be communicated to them? Condoms could be made available and safe-sex advice could be posted on the wall. But to make sure the message was really sinking in something else had to be brought into play - the Thai love for sanook' or 'fun'. Natee was just the one to do this.
After graduating as a medical technologist in 1985, Natee decided to follow his heart and become a dancer. Shortly thereafter, he formed the Sen See Khao or 'Chorus Line' dance troupe. Wherever they performed, Natee always wove a social message into the choreography. He later formed an all-male company called 'Purple String' which put on shows in gay bars as an alternative to the obscene sex shows usually staged.
The Twilight is a 'front-line' bar - that is, one where sex shows are performed on stage. It is early evening. The dimly-lit bar at the top of the narrow staircase is packed. But this audience consists mainly of workers from the Twilight and other gay bars in the vicinity. Natee is on stage wearing a T-shirt which says: 'AIDS kills. Don't be silly. Get that condom on your willy'. A roomful of hands shoot up when Natee asks the audience how many of them work to help keep their families. When he asks the crowd how many use a condom when having sex, about half as many hands go up and Natee encourages a round of applause.
To cheers Natee tells the workers that the bar-owners will support them if they refuse to have sex without a condom. 'It may hurt a bit,' he tells them, 'but is it better to die of AIDS?'
Natee is then joined on stage by an elegantly dressed individual named 'Lek' or 'Small'. Lek, who definitely isn't, speaks in a deep, masculine voice and tells them about the merits of 'small sex', like masturbation, over 'big sex', like anal intercourse. But whatever the size, tells them, always use a condom. 'Everyone wants to have fun now,' he says, 'but if you want to have fun for the rest of your life, start using condoms now'.
There is another dance and then each person is given a condom and a mock phallus ranging in size from a very large cucumber to a tiny chili pepper. On the word 'go' they race to be the first one to get the condom on. Some of the results are disastrous. Natee awards T-shirts not to those who get it on first, but to those who put it on correctly.
Natee thanks his open gayness for the success of the shows. 'I could not do the show like this if I were still in the closet. How could I go on stage and tell these gay bar workers to practise safe sex? How could I be sincere with them?'
Photo: Debbie Taylor
The Government seems to agree. The Ministry of Public Health funded Natee's 10 shows in gay bars throughout Bangkok. At each performance, ministry officials hand out AIDS information and condoms donated by the US Agency for International Development.
So successful are Natee's shows, the 'gay model' is to be used to educate other high-risk groups. Natee is collaborating with Empower, a prostitutes' organization, to develop education shows for them. And the Health Ministry is considering getting similar shows out to the provincial cities where HIV-positive rates are increasing rapidly.
The effectiveness of the campaign has brought many gays greater self-esteem. Working with the Government has also improved the public image of gays. They are listened to.
'Now society just thinks gay people are smart because they can protect themselves,' Natee says. 'But we still have to prove that we can help with other issues.'
With the broader agenda in mind, the Fraternity for AIDS Cessation in Thailand (FACT) was formed last January, in the hope that it might eventually become an umbrella organization for all gays.
'We want to have a centre for all gay people in Thailand,' says Natee, 'Where they can work together, release their pressures and help society. The time is right. People won't oppose it.'
Near the end of Natee's bar show, a traditionally-costumed 'Bangkok' is locked in mortal combat with a hideous creature dressed in a black jumper with AIDS stitched across the front.
Natee asks the crowd who they think will win, and the answer is a resounding, 'Bangkok!'.
'If you want Bangkok to win,' he tells them, 'you have to fight because you are in the front line'.
Mark Timm is a Canadian freelance journalist working in Thailand.