Reflections by Thanita Wongprasert*
Never have I ever imagined myself commenting on a film, but here I am as a commentator of the first ever documentary film on LGBTI invisibility, particularly Lesbian, in Laos directed by Dorn Bouttasing—Let’s Love and screened at SEA Junction.
One can never successfully generalize Southeast Asia under one conclusion. The issue of sex, gender and sexuality in the region exemplifies such argument. Having said all that, it is justified to say that in SE Asia, discrimination whether at schools, workplace and home remains widespread and casts real impact on a life of a person with nonconforming sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and sex characteristics. My comments are really my reflection on the film, which is in relation to my own experience in activism in Thailand. I identified 3 main points to understand why tackling discrimination in the region is such a challenge, and they have been analyzed through queer theoretical lens.
Firstly, the concept of lesbian in SE Asia that I believe has been shaped by traditional believes and practices is constructively heteronormative. It can even be argued that Asian lesbianism resembles the experience of a transgender. One person is either a man who wears trousers or a woman who wears a skirt. Masculinity and femininity are not seen as coexistence but separation. So, if Mai, the main character in the movie, finds women attractive, Mai should be a man, or project herself to be one. There are ways that Mai can do it i.e. consuming ‘masculine’ products, not crying, performing men-dominated roles. The important point I want to highlight here is that this practice by both heterosexual and people with diverse SOGIEISC (sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, intersex, sex characteristics) feed into the stereotypical gender roles. It is endless. Everyone still lives under the state-normalized standards. Discrimination becomes justified when not conforming to these standards.
Secondly, family values, and the dependence that result from those, foster discrimination at home. Traditionally and up to today, one does not move out until married. Since Let’s Love focused on lesbian women, I would like to point out that they are truly vulnerable. This means that a woman moves from her own family to another whose rules she ought to conform. If you cannot challenge or resist the rules of your own family, then let alone others. I am not surprised to find a person living individualistically free life a rarity in this region. This kind of domination fosters discrimination at home which has resulted in parents abusing their children, dropping out of school, LGBTI teens becoming homeless, you name the rest.
Lastly, tolerance in the context of SE Asia is complex and shaped by social control. I argue that Mai’s parents tolerate her being, until the ‘others’ says otherwise. In our cultures, we care so much about others’ perception of one’s personal life that we are willing to constrain our own thoughts and feelings. The private sphere is shamed and interfered by the outsiders and even strangers. Those comments compliment the stereotyping and process of normalization. Tolerance is mostly one-way in Asia, sadly. It is a person with nonconforming sexuality that has to tolerate the discrimination. It is a geopolitical argument to say that in the city it can be harsher. Demonstrated in this film, isolated areas mau offer protection, while in the cities there are more interactions with different people, different business partners, etc. interfering in one’s personal life. The fundamental question here, is how, in this type of situations, can we make tolerance two-ways? Family is the first unit of influence so how do we empower the individual to respond less passively to discrimination? Or from the family side, how can young people, their parents and society at large break free from traditional values?
An awareness-raising film is an effective start for those who are the victim of discrimination. I would like to express my gratitude to SEA Junction and particularly Professor Rosalia Sciortino for organizing this event and facilitating a safe space for a candid and productive discussion. Till the next one!
Thanita Wongprasert (called Ninar) has been a youth LGBTI activist since her sophomore year and has been involved in activities to advocate LGBTI rights with local NGOs and international organizations. She participated in the Being LGBTI in Asia program as an intern with UNDP Regional Hub and is now pursuing her master on international development at Chulalongkorn University with a thesis on marriage equality laws and policies through a queer perspective