Being Pink in Khaki

 |  September 30, 2009

Gays may not be permitted to marry in Thailand, and ‘hate crimes’ are still occasionally perpetrated towards ‘the third sex’, but overall, Thailand enjoys a good international reputation for being very ‘pink-friendly’. The constitution includes a paragraph which offers some protection of LGBT _ rights (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual), stating, ‘The Thai people, irrespective of their origins, sexes or religions, shall enjoy equal protection under this Constitution’ (section 5). But, as you can read in the article Retrosexual in this issue, the concept of national tolerance is disputed by some. Around the world the barometer for tolerance towards sexual minorities is often institutions such as the national military which might or might not allow LGBT citizens within its ranks. When it comes to the Royal Thai Armed Forces, which comprises about 306,600 personnel, gays and transsexuals have been allowed to enlist since 2005. Before 2005, Thailand inducted all young men except gays and transsexuals, who were denied doing military service under the ‘mental disorder’ exemption of 1954.

Military service is obligatory for all Thai men. Males over the age of 20 have to take part in a ‘lottery’ where they pick a ticket which determines whether they are to spend the next two years in uniform or not. If they pick a red note, they are going to get a buzz cut, if they get a black one, they remain civilians. However, for volunteers there is a discount of 6 months meaning that service time is reduced to 18 months.

Even though sexual minorities are now allowed into the military one might wonder how it actually feels to put on the uniform when you are gay. Citylife talks to three men who are gay and have been in the army:

Thanee is now forty years old and served in the Royal Thai Navy for two years from age 21 to 23:

“It was a great life experience all together even though it was hard work, some days were really hot, and we often went to bed with stinging sun burn. When I look back at my time in the Navy, what stands clearest is the strong friendships with my fellow sailors. Being a gay man I was a little nervous when I saw the red note I had picked from the bucket at the enlistment office because I had heard unpleasant stories. But it turned out that many of my officers were gay as well, so they kept an eye on me, and gave me a desk job after a while, to let me relax. I was not harassed. But then I did not make a point of telling anyone that I was homosexual. Mostly my closest friends knew, I think, maybe because I am not at all feminine in my demeanour. I was never confronted with violence _ just teased a bit. But I saw some of the really womanish and obvious gays being given extra difficult tasks and also getting beaten up at times. When it comes to being gay in the Thai Armed Forces, I think you can get by as a homosexual if you are not too open about it. It was like that when I served and I think it is still like that today. There are many homophobic people in our country. I had several relationships with other sailors during my time in the navy. That is how it is, when you are young. And there were many other gays around. Sadly, just before I finished my service, when I went to donate blood, I was told that I was HIV positive.”

O is 27 years old and served in the Royal Thai Army for two years from when he was 21 years old:

“Being a solidier really was not in my plans at all, but I got the red note, so what could I do? I was worried since I didn’t know what to expect. During the first two months, when we received basic training, I didn’t show my gayness at all. We worked hard all day, and everyone was trying to get acquainted and find their place in the group. Those were a hard couple of months. But after that I started thinking that I am what I am _ and I began to act as I usually do. I am kind of feminine and soon after everyone knew that I liked men. No one said anything about it, and that surprised me a little. They didn’t abuse me for being gay, many of the guys would even come to help me if I had to lift something heavy _ they treated me like I was a girl. Soon after I was given an office job which was less strenuous. Several guys, also the straight ones, began to flirt with me when I showed my real nature. At one point one of the senior officers came to me and offered his protection, but only if I would service him sexually. I didn’t need protection but he forced me to masturbate him and give him oral sex. But after a while, the two of us got into an actual relationship and became lovers.”

Aum, 22, just finished serving in the Royal Thai Army a year ago:
“I come from a military family and I always wanted to be in the army. It was also expected of me to sign up. It was a great year _ I liked it. Many good friends, a lot of adventures and interesting challenges. The first two months we all struggled to get by. Basic training is really physically hard and there was no time for chit chat. During this period, I don’t think anyone really knew. But after that some of the guys found out. I never tried to hide it, but I am not at all a feminine gay man since I act like a man. I even had a steady boyfriend while I was there. For me being gay in the army was never a problem. I was never mistreated, teased or anything like that. And all my gay friends who served say the same thing. So I do not think that gays should refrain from signing up. I am glad I did it because the memories will be nice to have, when I am older, I think.”
So, what can be concluded by talking to these three guys, if anything? Well, one might deduce from the narratives that how gays feel or what experiences they have in the Royal Thai Armed Forces is individually dependent. We only managed to talk to three people: a large quantitative questionnaire survey would be required in order to draw any cogent conclusions.