Trans-Man: transcending gender

"I'm trying to find myself, here...In one direction is a Thai girl...in the other, a farang boy. In one direction is a tom. In the other, a transgender man."

By | Tue 26 Apr 2011

“I’m trying to find myself, here…In one direction is a Thai girl…In the other, a farang boy.
In one direction is a tom….In the other, a transgender man.
I’m here at the intersection of tom, trans and Thai…waiting.
I don’t know if I should say kha, or krap.
I don’t want to gender myself so I hesitate to speak.
I want to be polite but I’m silenced by language.”

– Opening dialogue from short film ‘Tom/Trans/Thai’ by Jai Arun Ravine

“Ah, she is a tom,” I thought to myself as I walked up to the ComPeung Village of Creativity in Doi Saket and spotted my interview subject Jai Arun Ravine, hair cropped short over a face dotted with wisps of facial hair, walking up with a masculine swagger in jeans and a t-shirt.

It didn’t take long to have my powers of deduction shattered.

“Though I identify myself as trans-masculine, in Thailand people would most likely think I am a tom (short for tomboy, and a term currently used for masculine looking lesbians). I would also appreciate it if you could refer to me as se (pronounced ‘see’ and used as a pronoun instead of she or he) and hir (pronounced ‘here’ and used instead of her or him). I prefer gender neutral pronouns. In Thailand I am forced to choose between krap or kha.”

as se (pronounced ‘see’ and used as a pronoun instead of she or he) and hir (pronounced ‘here’ and used instead of her or him). I prefer gender neutral pronouns and in the Bay Area in San Francisco where I live, our community talks this way. In Thailand I am forced to choose between krap or ka.”

Utterly bewildered, I decided to leave all preconceptions at the door.

Jai, born into the female body, is a luk krung _ half American and half Thai. Se grew up in rural West Virginia with no sense of a Thai identity, and under a different name (which se no longer identifies with). “I used to go to book shops to find travel books on Thailand as a way to connect to being Thai. While studying for an MFA in writing and poetics at Naropa University in Colorado, I came to Thailand for the first time and joined Payap University’s Thai Studies Programme for 4 months.” It was then, seven years ago, that Jai, who is also a dancer and performer, began to identify hirself as queer. “I had this sense of being foreign all the time; the dominant feeling was of being alien…and on two fronts. I was trying to become Thai but felt very white and fat. Not only that, my queerness seemed to be a barrier for me to pass as a Thai woman.” It has taken Jai several years of transition to slowly define hirself, and while se is much more confident and comfortable in hir own skin, the process is far from over.

“For me, queerness is separate from trans-ness. Trans-ness is to do with gender, feeling like I have masculinity that I wish to express, while queerness is desiring of stuff outside of the heterosexual normative behavior. The word trans itself is a prefix for across, transform, transcend…the word symbolises the creation of space outside of a binary thinking of female and male gender and sexuality. Trans-ness relates to gender; queerness relates to sexuality.”

Jai ponders every word and answer, frowning in contemplation and staying silent until the exact right expressions are uttered. Feeling the need to project hir gender is proving to be a tough journey which must be undertaken with gravitas.

“In Thailand, there are tom and dee (short for lady, a term used for feminine lesbians), and pretty much nothing in between. If you are assigned the female sex at birth but don’t fit into normative heterosexual roles, then the only visible genders to choose from in Thailand are either tom or dee – masculine or feminine. I discovered that things were more ambiguous for me. I find myself attracted to other trans, but I am also attracted to masculinity as well. Transgender men can be attracted to anyone: there are no rules. I used to feel outside of myself, as though I was not fully engaged, not quite existing. I needed to express my masculinity as well as femininity, and since I have done so (in part by taking hormones and herbs), I feel so much more grounded. It is not just the physical side, but also the emotional aspects: my voice has changed but I also see myself clearer…I am more level, more even. Some transgender people are also gender-nonconforming. People like me don’t feel that we conform to cultural categories or gender roles. This goes against thousands of years of society and cultural beliefs and norms. In the US I have found other people like me and they have helped me to discover myself as well as offer a support system. For those of us who have transitioned, there is a great sense of liberation.”

Jai’s self-evolution and dialogue with other Thai trans-masculine people in the United States led hir to question whether there were others like hir in Thailand. Se therefore applied for a residency as an artist at ComPeung Village of Creativity in order to do research on tom identity and trans-masculinity in Thailand as well as to create a short film which will hopefully help create a dialogue between Thai and US counterparts. “In Thailand there are two boxes: tom and dee. But in the US, the days of gendered butch and fem cultures have been transcended and nuances have emerged for those who don’t identify with the binary gendered world.”

Jai’s research has led her to interview 11 Thai and luk krung trans-masculine people in both Thailand and the US, though se admits that se has found less than a handful of transgender men in Thailand. “Interestingly the trans-masculine people I interviewed in the US felt that their gender excluded them from being Thai whereas Thai tom had pride in both and felt no separation between the two. US trans-masculine people also feel disconnected from the tom-dee culture here because that is not how they define themselves.”

Jai feels that conceptualisation and communication of what gender is differs greatly between the two cultures. “For instance many tom I speak to define their gender in terms of being attracted to dee while those in the US separate gender from attraction. Tom, on the most part, are quite happy being defined as such and it was hard to get them to think about transgender men or other people existing outside the gender binary. Most tom I spoke to had never heard of trans-men; for trans-men in Thailand there is no information, no resources other than the internet. One tom told me that she felt confused because I was a tom…yet not a tom. She didn’t understand what I meant when I said that I was identified as trans-masculine.” After a lengthy silence se continues, “In western discourse, gender is defined as how you express yourself, whereas sex is defined as what you are assigned at birth. In Thailand, however, the word for gender and sex are both the same: ‘phet’. There are overlaps between the categories of ‘tom’ and ‘transgender men’ but I don’t think that Thai people who are born female, but who identity as male, or as neither, can truly be defined by the word tom.”

Jai is quick to clarify that se is not here on some crusade to promote the concept of transitioning. Se merely wishes to create a dialogue between similar people in two cultures. Hir hope is that Thai trans-masculine people in the US may be able to feel more connected to their Thai roots by finding similar trans-masculine people to relate to in Thailand, while trans-men and those who are curious in Thailand, will be able to tap into the solid support system and resources of their US counterparts. “Most tom are perfectly happy the way they are, but I do believe that some would wish to transition if they knew it was possible. Hopefully our online group will provide help for them. Both sides have something to give.”

This solemn young person’s journey is far from over, both se’s sexual and gender progress, as well as se’s search for hir Thai identity.

“I am constantly changing and transforming. I feel that it is just how it should be for me. I am becoming happier within and without, but I know that the journey is far from over. As to my efforts at being Thai, I have come to the realisation that I can take and claim parts of Thainess that I can identify with and I am fine with leaving others.”

Jai’s short film, ‘Tom/Trans/Thai’ has been supported by ComPeung (www.compeung.org), is part of Chiang Mai Now! Art exhibition at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (www.bacc.or.th)¬†which runs until June 19th. For more information, to view the trailer, or to acquire a DVD of the film please visit jaiarunravine.worldpress.com/tomtransthai/.