Published on March 25th, 2013 | by Jai Arun Ravine
“Tom / Trans / Thai” by Jai Arun Ravine
As a gender non-conforming person of mixed Thai heritage, I wait at the intersection of tom, transgender and Thai identities, existing within the interstices. This is an excerpt of a longer critical essay (Tom/Gay, Trans/Queer: Mixed Translations Across Thai and Thai American Trans-masculinities) that serves as a companion document to my Tom / Trans / Thai (2011) short experimental film, which approaches the silence around the existence of female-to-male (FTM) identity in the Thai context by addressing tom and trans-masculine gender expression among Thai and Thai American communities and the transnational relationships between gender and language. Culled from interviews conducted with Thai and Thai American toms and trans-masculine people, this project investigates the slippages in masculine presentation and identification within the category tom and the failures of translation regarding Thai transgender men. Interviewees sometimes read me as tom and sometimes as a cis-gender man, and in both situations as someone who desired feminine women, further catalyzing my interstitial dancing in the search for a new kind of being.
I define “trans-masculinity” as culturally specific masculine gender expression by individuals assigned the female sex at birth, in order to be inclusive of tom identity formation in Thailand and female-to-male (FTM) transgender (trans) identity formation among Thais and Thai Americans. While I understand that the construction of gender identity in Thailand and the United States is locally defined, and that both tom and trans contain a multiplicity of experiences and intersectionalities, I bring them together as trans-masculine identities in order to build an archive of Thai trans-masculinity inscribed within Asian and Asian American trans-masculinity, map the dis-continuities between Thai national and Thai American trans-masculinity and open up anti-imperialist conversations across these borders.
This essay serves as a companion document to my recent Tom / Trans / Thai short experimental film project. Here I more thoroughly flesh out my research and critical thinking and reflect on the process of conducting interviews and creating the short film. During a residency at the ComPeung Village of Creativity in Doi Saket, Thailand in March 2011, I interviewed 11 participants (in person, over Skype, or over email), many of whom were also mixed race or luk kreung, who identified as tom, queer, gender non-conforming and/or on the female-to-male (FTM) transgender spectrum and lived in Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Australia and the US. The film translates these interviews through my moving body in an effort to locate the difficulties of gender within the Thai landscape. With the film I wanted to introduce the intersections between tom identity, trans-masculinity, FTM transgender identity and Thai identity in a transnational context, since I don’t believe a project of this kind has ever been tackled before.
One of my reasons for doing this project is that whenever I said the words “transgender” and “Thailand” in the same sentence, people automatically assumed I was talking about sao braphet song, kathoey, or male-to-female (MTF) transgender women. I am interested in providing a counterpoint to the breadth of research and mainstream visibility of sao braphet song, but I also want to question the suffocating silence around the existence of Thai transgender men.
For this purpose, I am interested in bridging critical discussions regarding trans-masculine gender identity formation within Thailand and the US by analyzing the ways gender and queerness are linguistically and culturally conceptualized and communicated. In other words, I want to look at how people think and talk about gender, how they communicate and embody gender (i.e. Is gender talked about as a concept? Is gender talked about as an identity?) and the existing language around gender. I want to look at how language impacts cross-cultural recognition and connection between toms and Thai FTMs, and how language contributes to the invisibility, isolation and silencing of Thai transgender men and trans-masculine people. I also want to look at how language can be the site of building self and community.
Some of the topics I explore in this essay are: 1) Thai Americans’ feelings of disconnection to Thainess because of the tom/dee gender binary, as well as cultural constructions of gender, including the demands to gender oneself as either female or male and the heteronormative implications of language (gendered “I” pronouns: pom/chun, gendered particles for polite speech: khrap/kha) and 2) my difficulties translating “trans” and “FTM” to toms, as well as my position as a trans-masculine half Thai American, not fluent in Thai, and how that affected my interviews and interactions.
Throughout this essay I use gender-neutral pronouns “sie” and “hir” to refer to project participants. I intend to maintain participant anonymity and encourage the reader to think about these formations of gender as outside binary modes. I in no way intend to discredit participants’ self-identification.
Passing Through: Dissonances Between Tom and Trans
One day I went to interview a tom who owned a restaurant in Doi Saket. I had had dinner there a few days prior and had set up an interview time with hir then. When I arrived for the interview and showed hir the Thai translation of my “call for participants,” which had translated “trans-masculine” as “ying bpen chai” (literally, woman becoming man), sie became outwardly confused. Sie had thought I was a cis-guy when we first met, and asked several times in Thai if I was a boy or girl. I was extremely uncomfortable, not only due to the question itself, but also because of our limited language capabilities—the language barrier was silencing me. More than not really wanting to respond, I didn’t know how to respond in terms sie would understand. Sie was a bit distant and short of words during the interview and hir partner did most of the translating. At the end of the interview sie asked again, so I said “puu ying” (woman). Sie replied, “So you are like a tom!” Identifying me as someone “like” hir, sie then said sie would be glad to be interviewed again, any time.
A similar thing happened at another interview with a group of friends—some tom, some dee—in Chiang Mai. Half way through our conversation, a feminine-presenting person (the younger sister of a tom I had interviewed previously) said, “I just realized you are a girl! I thought you were a man!” The discussion reached a point where I explained the physical effects of my testosterone injections, and that FTM transition wasn’t only about bottom surgery. Later, while we were chatting after the conclusion of my questions, one of the toms at the table asked me, “So, when did you know you were like a tom?”
During another interview with a tom in Doi Saket, I passed as another tom until midway through our conversation, when I chose to out myself as “trans” and “queer,” which caused hir a lot of confusion. The energy in the room shifted, and I wondered if I had upset hir in someway. Despite hir difficulty understanding my definitions of “queer,” which sie read as “lesbian” and as not being strict about active and passive roles during sex, afterwards sie seemed fine with it and returned to the idea that I was “like” hir, was another tom, and was a friend. Sie proceeded to ask if I had a girlfriend, and why I didn’t have one. “You don’t want one? Because you can find a good girl.”
During the opening reception of the exhibition at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, I noticed that a person I read as tom was sitting on one of the beanbag chairs watching my film. We made eye contact and began talking. Part way through our conversation sie asked, “You, boy or girl? When you were born, boy or girl?” When I answered, sie revealed, “Me, too. I always knew that I liked ladies. But you, you look like a guy, a lot.”
I hadn’t taken into consideration the ways in which I would be perceived by interviewees, and how these perceptions would influence the quality of our connections and understandings of each other. Despite the ways many toms adapt masculinity, and despite the fact that some toms (to me) seem to pass as male, most had not heard about transgender men and were at times resistant and critical of the concept. Even though some Thais read me as a cis-man or a tom before interviews occurred, after my attempts to explain my personal identification all returned to the language “tom” in order to make a connection with me.
From these experiences I can say that in Thailand masculinity attributed to folks assigned the female sex at birth is explained using the word “tom,” with the condition that “tom” is also defined in terms of attraction to feminine women. Many toms explained their “gender” or their tomness in terms of knowing they had always been attracted to feminine women. Trans-masculine gender expression in Thailand, then, exists in the gender binary already visible in masculine/feminine, tom/dee pairings. Gender of the person to whom one is attracted and one’s own gender must be “opposing.” Masculine gender presentation and attraction to feminine women is one and the same—one directly follows the other. Articulating gender as separate from sexual preference in my conversations with Thais was a difficult task.
So while I wanted to find a sense of connection with other toms, in the sense that tom identity is the only visible trans-masculinity in Thailand (and within tomness I was hoping to find a connection to Thainess), and while I tolerated their questioning of my assigned sex in order for them to realize I was “like” them, I felt simultaneously alienated by being read as tom. I was silenced by the assumption that I desired feminine women in the same way I felt silenced by the demand to say khrap or kha. I delicately asked about what I had only just learned was called “tom/gay,” tom and tom pairings, but I was afraid to appear “too strange” and possibly lose my sense of connection with toms. The ways I conceptualized my queerness and my gender were lost on and illegible to most Thais.
I was also not prepared for how my strong sense of identification with other gender non-conforming and trans-masculine Thais somewhat overshadowed my connections with toms. Mostly this was due to language and cultural context, as with trans and gender non-conforming Thais we could express ourselves in English and be understood. Even though the terms “tom” and “dee” are derived from English words, they have a specific cultural context in Thai; however, “trans” and “gender non-conforming” have no linguistic or cultural context when translated into Thai.
At one point during the process of making my film, I realized that all the toms I spoke with had a strong sense of self and of their community. Even though Thai society might not entirely accept them as politicized beings with a discrete, collective “identity,” they still held them; unlike me, they had a community rooted in Thainess. In contrast, the two trans guys living in Thailand I talked with were extremely isolated, what with the complete lack of information in the Thai media about the possibility of FTM transition, other than the internet, and in the ways toms had difficulty understanding their need or desire to “pass” as male.
I realized that maybe my project was for all the queer and trans-masculine Thais I interviewed who knew no other people like them, who weren’t sure about their relationship to Thainess, who were completely silenced by language. I had attempted to read tom and FTM identities together, as trans-masculinities, but I was seeing the immense divide between them. Many participants had experiences of being read as tom or of people trying to peg them as either tom or dee. Trying to explain that they weren’t tom was a painful process that exposed the failures of language.
For a PDF of the full article, contact Jai via http://jaiarunravine.wordpress.com/tomtransthai.
Jai Arun Ravine is a text-based artist working in video, movement and performance. They are the author of แล้ว AND THEN ENTWINE: LESSON PLANS, POEMS, KNOTS and the creator of TOM/TRANS/THAI, a short film on Thai and Thai American trans-masculinities, which has been exhibited and screened at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, Thailand; Sabina Lee Gallery, Los Angeles; CAAMFest, San Francisco; and My People Film Series, Pittsburgh.
 Derived from the English “tomboy” and used by masculine-presenting female-bodied Thais to refer to themselves. Dee is derived from the English “lady” and refers to their feminine-presenting partners. See Megan Sinnott’s Toms and Dees: Transgender Identity and Female Same Sex Relationships in Thailand. University of Hawaii Press, 2004.
 I was invited to represent the ComPeung Artist-In-Residency Program in the “Chiang Mai Now!” art exhibition at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre with my short film, which was installed from April 7 – June 19, 2011.
 “Cis-” as a prefix (as in cis-gender) is used to refer to people whose internal sense of gender aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth. “Cis-” is used as an alternative to “biological” or “bio-“.