Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Tefl Tales: Homosexual, Transvestite and Trans-gendered Students in the Classroom

First-time travelers to Thailand often comment on the apparently large number of homosexuals in the south-east Asian nation. Swishing effeminate men, shameless cross-dressers and angry young lesbians seem to be everywhere.

For anyone with a shred of tolerance this all becomes quite pedestrian rather quickly. But with a constant stream of bug-eyed, naive individuals outside their hick towns for the very first time, the impression develops amongst a fair number of the ostentatious and over the top transvestites that foreigners are a great source for mining attention and interaction.

Shouted comments and wretch-inducing leers from the legions of gender benders can be annoying at times. Unfortunately, this attention-seeking behaviour does not always stop at the classroom door. While the sight of Thai men prancing about on the city streets in skirts and make-up is an everyday occurrence, there is something about the university atmosphere that makes the appearance of a male student in the full female school uniform a bit jarring at first.

This is compounded by the fact that the decision to wear women's clothes is apparently commensurate with how large, awkward and hideously ugly the young man is.

If there is any illusion out there that the desire to dress up as a woman is the domain of dainty, small-boned individuals with a natural ability to pull off a convincing act, think again. Call it a massive attempt at over-compensation.

Other gay male students who don't tower above their classmates nor have fists like picnic hams, generally avoid the skirts. They choose instead to dress in a camp style while still mincing around and occasionally making a spectacle of themselves.

There may be a tendency by outsiders to proclaim all of this as evidence of a tolerant, open society that is streets ahead of the west when it comes to accepting differences and making everyone feel welcome despite their sexual orientation. There's probably some truth in that. But I've come to realize that superficial, feel-good observations made during two week holidays rarely provide accurate insight.

Thailand is a society where fitting in is highly important to most people. To be different in any way requires you to latch onto one of the many roles that exist and can be occupied in an attempt to smooth over discomfort and make things easier for everyone involved. Within that ready-made persona, you can follow a stereotypical set of rules, act out a well-tested play book of lines and mannerisms and feel like you fit in after all. There is also pre-determined etiquette on how your specific group interacts with society at large.

Though perhaps not fully able to partake in all the opportunities in society, "katooeys" (the Thai word for transvestite) can benefit from the unspoken agreement that allows them to be harmless clowns. In exchange they are allowed the freedom to do most jobs, though certainly not anything deemed official or "important." And apparently most crucial to them, they can carry on their lives acting and dressing as they like with relatively few hassles. Discrimination does of course exist, though it may manifest itself in more subtle and insidious ways in a country where outward confrontation is frowned upon more than in the west.

This brings us back to the classroom setting. Unfortunately, many katooeys and other over-the-top homosexuals engage in disruptive and flat out rude behaviour while a lesson is being conducted. All Thai students come a bit unhinged with a foreign teacher as they know the usual rules don't apply. For the flamboyant trans-gendered set, this can result in very inappropriate comments and pushing the boundaries towards the lewd and unacceptable.

The only way you can deal with this is by completely blanking it and refusing to take the bait. Once it becomes clear that their attempts at grabbing the spotlight have failed and that you will treat them exactly as every other student and not discriminate against them (though their rudeness would often make such a response completely understandable) they settle in and demonstrate whether or not they are capable of achieving a good grade in the class.

There are, of course, a good many gay students, both male and female, who don't engage in this kind of acting out and are usually no more or less remarkable than any other pupil. I go out of my way with these students in an attempt to make it clear to them that the only thing that matters to me is the effort they make.

And then there are the instances that you realize you may be taking everything a bit too seriously. I have learned the hard way that if I'm ever unsure about a student, it is best to skip the use of gender specific pronouns. Failure to do this can lead to an acute sense of embarrassment.

During the first day of the semester a number of months ago, I was getting to know the students of an "English for Economics" class, when I asked a question of "the gentleman in the back row." The result was an instant and spontaneous eruption from the entire group as they shouted out "Not gentleman, LADY!!! BWAHAHAHAHAAAAAA!!!"

I momentarily blanched as images of reprimands, human rights commissions, newspaper headlines and "outrage" flashed before my eyes. Until I remembered where I was and my students (including the young ..er ..lady in question, who smiled and nodded knowingly) did their collective best to release the pressure of what could have been a cringe-worthy situation for the ages.


Anonymous said...

Though I appreciate your effort to understand Thai LGBT people, I am afraid that your understanding of the difference between effeminate gay males and transgender youth is inadequate. Please do a little more studying and observing and perhaps engage in a conversation with them.

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