Wrapping Up: The Conclusion of Filming!

Hey everyone! Sorry for the long hiatus. I just started settling down in Shanghai after two months in Thailand.

73.59 Gigabytes of footage, 3 locations across the country, and dozens of interviews later, my Dale project has at last completed phase 1! Now it’s time I finally sat down with everything and start fitting it into the evolved storyline– a picture of Thailand’s gender and sexuality that I’ve found at times surprising, inspiring, and impressive.

The most amazing things I’ve learned have been talking to people who consider themselves activists in their community. From Tannia Sukkhapisit, the indie filmmaker I mentioned earlier, to Tor, the founder of Mplus+, a Chiang Mai-based NGO that works with male sex workers and ladyboys from all walks of life, I was with no shortage of people who had thought long and hard about the state of Thai gender and sexuality from an intellectual perspective. Coupled with the personal stories of over a dozen transgender/ladyboys, from young professionals to performers to sex workers, I’m really excited to be weaving these storylines together into my short film.

Things I Learned During my Project:

  • Contrary to popular (Western) belief, Thai society isn’t Entirely accepting of gender difference. While everyone agrees that the integration of gender non-conforming people is perhaps better than any other country, and while transgender do not experience nearly as much violence (although not entirely zero aggression) as they do in the States, people still have troubles. At the most personal level, family and community stress, and on a national level, discrimination from the laws and regulations. Tannia’s banned film, Ploy’s escape from her hometown, and the military ban on transgender are just some examples of where Thailand, like America and the rest of the world, is still experiencing issues.
  • The root of gender/sex activism is native. In other words, the impetus for cultural and social change in Thailand doesn’t come from Western NGOs or activists; but from native Thai people like Tannia, Tor, and the  kathoey community. I REALLY think this makes Thailand wholly unique from its neighbors like Cambodia, Laos, etc., and I’m willing to bet it has everything to do with Thailand not having ever been colonized. Although Western gender theory certainly has great influence (Tor and I even talked Judith Butler– AMAZING!), having the hands on outreach come from native Thai proved to be absolutely essential to activists’ effectiveness.
  • Sex workers who are ladyboys will say they are often there by choice, and that sex work is work. This was the main philosophy of Mplus+, and a controversial concept to say the least. I’ll have more to show for this in my film, so I don’t want to spoil it.

  • Very few people will admit that they have family issues, but Tannia said it best when she said that her family has never said a word against her, but she knows that inside if her family could have chosen, they would have preferred her to not be kathoey.
  • It’s damn hard to get people to talk on camera, and even harder to get behind the surface of that veneer of “Thai Smile.” You hear a lot of the same language, same rhetoric– the “born like this,” “ever since I was young, I felt like a girl” narratives– but what I found surprising was the comfort and fluidity of being gender non-conforming behaviorally, without the pressure nor desire to necessarily change physically. Some ladyboys I met had gotten top surgery, but only a handful took hormones, and most had only done small cosmetic alterations (cheeks, nose, etc.) Gender was really about the performative-– acting, walking, dressing, talking… and few ladyboys felt the pressure of needing to transition beyond that.

Things That I Wish I Had Gotten Access To (But Didn’t This Time):

  • Insider footage from a sexual re-assignment hospital. You could imagine how stonewalled I was on this front. I got some footage from inside an HIV clinic for MSM (men who have sex with men) and ladyboys, and some of outside/peripheral footage of these hospitals/clinics, but no dice on interviewing a doctor who performed such surgeries.
  • Student voices– there are TONS of ladyboys in school, from as young as high school (although most transition once they’re away from their parents). I’m sorry I wasn’t able to speak to any who were still in school.

If I had more time and more money, I’d almost certainly return to get these perspectives.

Until then, I conclude Phase 1 of my project. Expect a trailer soon (I PROMISE I’d get it done by mid August!), and a fully edited work by the end of the year.

Also, Thai friends: look out for me asking you to help translate and subtitle some sections of my work.



About Vivienne Chen

Vivienne Chen is a freelance journalist, blogger, fiction/poetry writer, English and Gender studies major at Princeton University, and activist for sexual freedom and LGBT equality. She is also a member of the University Press Club, and blogs at UniversityPressClub.com.

Posted on August 6, 2012, in Info. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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