In the last 10 years the west has seen its liberal wings spread, gaining mass media attention globally for its embracement of all things LGBTI. However, 9,000 miles away in the developing city of Bangkok, the west prove to be hundreds of years behind, with the east having led the way for LGBTI. gay marriage, rights for transsexuals and recognition of gender fluid individuals.
Whilst Bangkok has been notoriously depicted as a city of drugs, smuggling, prostitution and sex trafficking, thanks to Hollywood films such as the Hangover part 2, it’s infamous streets of Pat Pong have a much more modern tale to tell.
In the heart of the metropolitan city is Pat Pong road, renowned as being one of Bangkok’s best tourist attractions with its elaborate night market, it turns out, it’s not the only thing you can purchase in its cobbled streets. It is one of the only countries in the world that has re-designed a sex industry to attract visitors.
In Fact, since the first noted club openings in Pattya during the Vietnam war, to ‘accommodate’ US soldiers on tour, The Thai tourism authorities’ welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) individuals, and Bangkok is often the only Asian city included on lists of gay-friendly tourist destinations worldwide.
Unlike some of its neighbours in the region, there is no law against homosexuality in Thailand and transgender people can express their identity publicly without fear of persecution.
From the High-End Cabaret shows in Phuket, to the streets of Pat pong in Bangkok where naked women lean through curtains for their next client, to men shoving sex menus in front of you, it’s not the Vegas show girl, or highly regulated red-light district that it has been likened to.
Gender-affirming surgery, is a small but growing niche in Thailand’s medical tourism industry, which attracts more than 2 million visitors a year.
But it seems with growing western scepticism of how transgender is really treated in Thailand, members of the Trans Thai community are left feeling ambushed.
Whilst the east has clearly accepted the trans community into society, it has been fantasised into an entire tourism industry, monopolising on the westerns intrigue with gender and sex, have trans people become a tourist attraction?
The answer: Yes.
But they don’t care.
In fact, when speaking to a headlining act at the Simone Cabaret Theatre in Phuket, the dancer told all.
“I like dancing, I like the costumes, I do show, because I like show, people come and see how pretty we are, how we have talent”.
When asked if cabaret shows such as Simone have helped the trans community, she stated.
“There’s a difference between us and the girls in the bars.” Miss. T stated.
Referring to the trans gender escorts who work the infamous Pat Pong road, Miss. T makes it clear that even within its own community there is a class division between trans persons.
Regardless of its acceptance of Trans individuals, the reality is harsh.
It is the only country to be famous for prostitution, whilst prostitution remains illegal.
This screams a message about the Thai authorities and there clamp down on illegal activity, a message that its citizens cannot give. Why is that? Because in doing so they would not only lose their income but it would send the country into ruins.
With activities such as these bringing in an estimated … in tourism every year, the country would collapse without it: let’s not forget, this is the country that only 14 years ago suffered from one of the worst modern natural disasters: The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.
Speaking to Chris Grey, a business consultant in Thailand for the past 15 years, spoke to us at the show. After working between the Thai and British
Government for decades, he had this to say:
“They do enough so it looks like they are monitoring it, occasionally a raid will happen if the club is getting a bad rep, but all in all, they are either paid off by the club owners, or they get commission from them for turning the other way. And really you can understand it. The country has been hit by natural disaster.” Stated Chris.
Whilst the girls in cabaret shows have a better quality of life than the ‘bargirls’ of Pat Pong, the governments intent to clamp down but the authorities lack of gumption, the one clear thing is that it is those in the transitioning period that need to be focussed on.
People like, Mr. Than.
A petite 20’ something, usher, who had been through gender reassignment, still made to wear her old name badge.
She is not working the streets of pat pong, nor is she ticketed as a tourist attraction. It is time the east and west work together to stop fetishizing transgender, whilst some may feel they are adored in the process, it is affecting those unwilling to be in the ‘show’ industry, pushing transitioning girls out of everyday societal roles.
Despite this, the East remain ahead of the West. The East have welcomed LGBTI visitors for decades, allowing them to celebrate their sexuality publicly, it has created a safe harbour among those transitioning, with thousands traveling the globe every year to undergo reassignment by their world’s leading surgeons. Lastly, because without the West’s marginalisation of LGBTI, there would be no demand for a sex or performance industry.
Unable to catch her name before she disappeared behind the bar to fill an order, she gave little eye contact, sinking into the backdrop of an organisation that should be supporting her. An organisation that is a so-called haven for LGBTI.
In fact, the only time she looked at anyone, was when a journalist from Evade, sidestepped the headline acts to tell her she was beautiful. A simple message from girl to girl.