Though the faith's teachings transcend issues of sexual identity, the monkhood in Thailand is struggling to accept or even come to terms with the truth about the gay and transgender men within its ranks
Published: 26 May 2013 at 00.00
Newspaper section: Spectrum
Despite being born a boy, 28-year-old Deer has never accepted her masculinity. She is, she said, and has always been, female.
Growing up with six sisters in a small community in Si Sa Ket province, northeastern Thailand, it's perhaps not surprising that Deer adopted some feminine ways. As a youngster, she said she acted and spoke much like a girl.
It wasn't until she reached adolescence that Deer began to realise that it was not her surroundings that were shaping her behaviour, but rather her soul. It was nature over nurture.
"I've felt trapped inside a male body ever since I can remember. When I was young, I acted, talked and dressed like my sisters, and didn't feel there was anything wrong with that."
The problem for Deer was that her father didn't agree. As his only son and heir, Deer was destined to carry on the family name. Being gay, or transgender, simply wasn't an option.
"When I turned 12, my father spoke to me really seriously about the way I was acting. He said he was disappointed, and had decided that the only way I would be able to change my ways [and stop acting like a girl] was to join the monkhood."
Deer said the experience was "terrifying".
"My parents took me to the local temple and forced me to join the monastery against my will. The minute my head was shaved I started to cry. I felt naked without my hair, as it was the only escape I had from being a boy."
Deer was forced to spend six years as a monk, before leaving at age 18. Soon after, she moved to Bangkok where she has lived, as a woman, for the past 10 years.
"Leaving the monastery marked the end of my old life," she said. "But I still have the scars."
NO PLACE FOR KATOEY
Deer's story is not unique in Thailand. The relationship between katoey (a word used by some of the interviewees here to encompass both gay and transgender people) and religion is complicated, to say the least.
Venerable Shine Waradhammo, a monk who defines himself as a Neo-Buddhist, said that under the basic tenets of Theravada Buddhism, which is practised in Thailand, katoey are simply not recognised.
"Buddhism [in Thailand] was created only for heterosexual people. Male and female are the only genders that are recognised by the religion," he said.
As a result, people who fall outside those two groups "have no place to be", he said.
"It's already difficult for katoey to integrate into society, but religion makes it worse."It's not impossible, however, for a katoey, or at least a former katoey, to take holy orders.
Take the case of Sorrawee "Jazz" Nattee, aka Miss Tiffany Universe 2009, who earlier this month turned his back on the bright lights of the entertainment world in favour of the saffron robes and serenity of a Buddhist monk.
"I want to be a monk for the rest of my life and I'm ready to leave my worldly possessions behind," Ms Sorrawee, who's now known as Phra Maha Viriyo Bhikku, said after being ordained at Wat Liab in his home province of Songkhla.
After four years in the spotlight as a glamorous "ladyboy", Ms Sorrawee had her breast implants removed to meet the criteria for life as a monk. The abbot of Wat Liab was happy to confirm the former cabaret star's return to the masculine fold.
"Jazz is 100% man, emotionally and physically," he said.
The situation is not so straightforward for everyone. Many katoey in the monkhood are forced to live dual lives.
In an article published on his "Neo Buddhism" blog, Ven Shine says many katoey escape the demands and requirements of their "real" lives as monks by posting images of their alter egos, or true selves, on social media websites.
"Social media platforms provide a means of communication for young monks. Like all young people they want to express themselves, and sometimes that means wearing makeup or dressing in women's clothes."
Whether or not these young men are merely "experimenting" by posting pictures of themselves in "boob-tubes" [fashioned from rolled up robes] or uploading videos to YouTube of themselves lip-syncing to girl-band pop tunes is a moot point. Less frivolous is the belief held by some quarters of society that a life in the monkhood is the only way for katoey to rid themselves of the sins committed in a former life.
Not uncommon in Thailand is the opinion that "gayness" and transsexuality are retribution for the bad deeds, or karma, of an earlier existence.
"Many parents with gay sons, especially those in upcountry communities, believe that the monkhood will resolve their children's gender identity crises," said Jetsada "Note" Taesombat, coordinator of the Thai Transgender Alliance, which among other things provides a telephone and web-based support service for people with gender issues.
"It might sound strange, but they truly believe that becoming a monk will turn their gay sons straight," she said.
The reason why so many gay monks post "inappropriate" pictures of themselves online is because they are reacting to life in a monastery, she said.
''They don't want to be monks. They are forced to do it by their parents who think that a few years inside a monastery will 'cure' their gayness.''
Nopparat Benjawatananun, director-general of the National Office of Buddhism, agreed.
''Many families believe that the monkhood can change the behaviour of their gay children. They think that being a monk will lessen their sons' sexual impulses and make it easier to control themselves,'' he said.
Despite the strength of feeling, it's clear from the evidence of the Facebook images and YouTube clips, that the regimen does not always produce the desired results. But that's not Mr Nopparat's concern.
''The National Office of Buddhism has no authority to rule on monks' behaviour. If someone is accused of doing something wrong, that's for the abbots and other senior figures within the temple to sort out,'' he said.
He certainly has no problem with ''feminine'' monks.
''That's never a concern. I've met many monks that act and speak in a feminine manner, but they are smart, don't break the rules and are well-liked by the local community. For me, they are fully qualified to serve as venerable monks,'' he said.
Pongsathon Janleuan, director of the M Plus project in Chiang Mai, said when looking at the issue of gay monks it is important to treat each case individually.
M Plus is a non-profit organisation that works with the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, but it is primarily concerned with promoting sexual health among men who have sex with other men.
''Just because some gay monks put on makeup and dress like women, doesn't mean all gay monks do. It's a personal issue and we should consider each situation as it comes,'' he said.
Like in school, monasteries should provide clear rules on what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, he said.
''Then, regardless of sexuality, if someone misbehaves, they can expect to be reprimanded.''
The problem, as Mr Pongsathon sees it, is that people are heavily biased against the LGBT community. ''Society doesn't have enough intellect to analyse the core issues,'' he said. ''The public is quick to criticise gay monks for trivial things like putting on makeup and wearing dresses, but if a 'straight' monk behaves badly, people look the other way.''
According to Ven Shine, geography is another factor worth considering.
''Thailand is home to a great deal of sexual diversity, and that is reflected in religious communities,'' he said. ''It's not unusual to see a gay monk, and in northern and northeastern parts of the country, there is a very high concentration of them.''
Much of Thai culture, ''from the performing arts to poetry has a feminine flavour, and this is particularly evident among communities in the north of the country'', he said.
Mr Pongsathon of M Plus agreed.
''The reason why there are so many gay monks in the north of Thailand is because society there is much more laid back. Northern people care less about a person's sexuality than they do about what that person contributes to society,'' he said.
The problem is that not everyone in Thailand is as open minded as people living in the North, he said.
''Northern people know that gay monks are central to their communities, but other Thais don't see it that way. They are too quick to judge them for acting in ways they consider inappropriate. It's a very narrow-minded way of thinking,'' he said.
For Ven Shine, it's not just society that needs to be more open minded. Religious organisations do too.
''Theravada Buddhism is based on a very patriarchal system, and that contributes to the institutional homophobia,'' he said.
When a young man first enters the monkhood, he is asked several questions, in Pali, by a senior monk. One of them is ''Puri sosi'', which translates as ''Are you a man?''
''This is clear evidence of at least some degree of sexual discrimination,'' Ven Shine said.
''There are more katoey living in Thailand than anywhere else in the world, yet we've learned so little from them,'' he said.
''Even though we stage transgender beauty contests across the country, we don't really accept them as part of society.''
Despite Sorrawee Nattee's successful renaissance as Phra Maha Viriyo Bhikku, Ven Shine said he is upset by the disrespect shown to the former showbiz star by the media.
''Even though he met all the criteria set by the Buddhist authorities and was eligible to be a monk [as he had retained his male genitalia], he was still attacked by the media. It was wrong to criticise him like that.''
Mr Pongsathon agrees that gender should be of no issue if a person is truly committed to a life in the monkhood.
''Gay people have just as much right as anyone else to get ordained. Sexual orientation shouldn't have anything to do with it,'' he said.
''The gay and straight monks I know in Chiang Mai and other northern regions all joined the monkhood because they wanted to study the dhamma. But people judge the gay ones differently, often disrespectfully.''
What people forget is that in becoming a monk, a person transcends sexuality, he said.
''In their world. there is no male or female.''
Phra Payom Kalayano, the abbot of Wat Suankaew, said that despite the obvious difficulties, things are getting better for gay people who want to follow a religious path.
''In the past, katoey had no hope of being ordained because the rules were stricter and society was less open minded. But they have just as much right as anyone else to join the monkhood,'' he said.
''The best thing about katoey is that they are intelligent and well loved by local people, and they are really good at handicrafts. Masculine monks like me can't do that stuff.''
FROM MONK TO NUN
But these utopian ideals are not how Mimi, a katoey in her late 20s, sees it.
As a boy she spent six years as a monk in a temple in northeast Thailand, before moving to Bangkok as an adult, she told Spectrum.
It was in the capital she realised she was a katoey and began living as a woman. Despite the gender change, she remained committed to her religious beliefs and developed a good understanding of the dhamma.
Recently she visited her local temple, which she had been supporting financially for some time, and asked to be ordained for a week as a nun. ''I asked the head nun to ordain me so I could continue to practise the religious ceremonies. But when she looked at my ID card, she said she couldn't accept someone like me in the temple,'' she said. ''I didn't know what to say. It was like I'd been slapped in the face.
''I was annoyed, so I asked her how she could take money from a katoey but not allow one to be part of the temple. I asked her, 'What's wrong with you?'.
''She didn't answer. She just walked away,'' Mimi said.
According to Ven Shine, the only way to rid Buddhism in Thailand of such deep-rooted prejudice is to changes the way people are educated.
''We have to stop telling people that being gay is a sin. By saying that someone's sexuality is down to karma is very disrespectful. We have no right to brand anyone a sinner,'' he said.
''We should also accept people into the monkhood regardless of their gender. And that includes katoey, whether or not they have the genitals they were born with.''
Ven Shine said that the concept of men acting like women is explained in Buddhist scriptures as Vatsana, which means destiny or fate. ''It is something they are born with. It can't be changed,'' he said.
Writer: Chaiyot Yongcharoenchai