Bangkok, Thailand, April 2004: Some DVDs fall out of Son's suitcase.
Mother picks them up and is shocked to see that they are pornography.
Father angrily attacks son. Mother - a squat overweight figure in garish
black make-up, a purple bikini-top under which balloons of silicon gel
wobble and a long blue towel over men's shorts - defends her offspring
by executing a perfect martial arts high kick against Father's head. Son
escapes and the rest of the room collapses in laughter.
I'm in Bang Khae, deep in the heart of the
unfashionable suburbs east of the Chao Phraya river that divides
Bangkok. Rainbow Sky, the city's and country's largest gay organisation,
is holding its twelfth camp - a two day meeting for gay men to get
together and learn about HIV. It's mid evening and the Purple Team are
in the middle of expressing in drama form the risks of getting infected.
No, it's not the son who's going to contract the disease, but Father,
who's been meeting a handsome young man and who - guess what - hasn't
been using condoms.
It's been an entertaining, instructive and
frustrating day. The entertainment has come not only from the drama and
the rest of the evening's offerings, but from the antics of some of the
hosts, who at an early age have reached a perfect pitch of camp that
most gay Brits can only dream of. Instructive, because it has offered
more insight into the way young gay men live in my adopted city. And
frustrating, because after five months my Thai is still only good enough
to understand the general drift of what is being said. Nat, my
translator, is willing and capable - although his pronunciation of
"risky" as "rich" confuses me for a while, suggesting that the
probability of infection depended on the participants' wealth - but to
have him translate word for word is both beyond his skills and
exhausting for both of us. So we compromise between accuracy and
overview and I learn a few more words - siang for risk and
borigan for services.
I arrived late, at least an hour after the bus had
deposited the participants who had gathered at Rainbow Sky's office in
the centre of Bangkok. The event was held in the Thai Red Cross Youth
Centre, in a conference room shielded from the heat and strong sun by
airconditioning and green curtains. I left my sandals among the pile at
the door, made my in and wai'd - palms together, head bowed - to
those whose paths I crossed.
The introduction activities are in full swing as
the hosts encouraged the 30 plus participants to sing songs and play
games, accompanied by drums, tambourine and maracas, to reduce
inhibitions and get to know each other. Surrounding the group are a
dozen or so volunteers, all of whom have attended at least one such camp
in the past. Almost everyone is in their twenties and thirties, which
means that to British eyes everyone looks ten years younger. Danai, the
taller of the two hosts, would be taken for fifteen or sixteen in
London, while his companion looks a year or two younger.
Eventually four teams are formed - blue, yellow,
red and purple - identified by the scarves round their necks. For the
next session, an introduction to HIV, they all squat on the floor facing
the whiteboard, like a troupe of boyscouts out of uniform. Because
they're mostly young, they're mostly in street fashion, t-shirts and
calf-length trousers. Low slung jeans are also common, revealing a
variety of underwear, including the t-backed briefs worn by the most
fashionable participant, a youth in a baby mohawk, ornate ear jewellery,
skin-tight shirt, thick belt and various low-hanging chains - not to
mention an uncut thumbnail over an inch long.
I tear my eyes away and look over the rest. They're
not just boy scouts. A few are in their thirties, and two or
three are of indeterminate gender - with long hair and blouses covering
faint breasts. The norm for Thailand; in the previous month's camp in
the northern city of Chiang Mai, according to my informant, almost half
the participants were gathoey - people born male but who dress
and identify to a lesser or greater extent as women. But they are not
out of place in a camp for men who have sex with men. Equally at home is
one of the hosts, a tom - in English we'd say lesbian - and
by the end of the day there are at least ten women who participated in
Rainbow Sky's first camp for lesbians joining in the fun. Not for the
first time, I reflect that gender politics in Thailand is somewhat
different from Angloland.
The day progresses. There are talks, question and
answer sessions and breaks for coffee and lunch. At times the group
breaks into two, each alternating between the air-conditioning and the
neighbouring assembly area with a roof but no walls, where ceiling fans
ineffectively battle against the heat. In free moments, groups gather by
the table where each individual has left their personal record book. You
search for the book of someone you like - write a message or draw a
picture and add your telephone number if you want. Alternately, you can
send them a heart, which will be delivered anonymously in front of the
whole group. But that's as far as the romantic entanglements go. Yes,
there will be up to sixty (including the organisers) young gay men
sleeping together in dormitories tonight, but there are strict rules
against sex on the premises. And to ensure that the rule is observed, by
the end of the evening the organisers intend to have them so tired that
the only thing their bodies will be capable of is sleep.
The condoms come out in the afternoon. There are
the usual tricks - putting them on the dildo and blowing them up - and
one that's new to me - rubbing KY on some and oil on others until those
exposed to the latter disintegrate. And an exercise in the afternoon
where everyone holds a bottle of water and drops of liquid are passed
from one to the other, turning some red. It's supposed to illustrate the
random, and alarming, way which HIV can pass from one person to the
next, but the message gets lost in the mechanics of the situation.
To pass the time at the end of one session, the
game of ghost, monk and woman is played. It's the Thai version of
scissors, rock and stone, but more active. Two people stand back to back
as the others around them chant. At the end of the chant, the two spin
round to face each other, adopting the pose of a ghost (trembling
upturned hands), monk (one hand at the breast, pointing upwards) and
woman (both hands modestly spreading a virtual dress). Ghost yields to
monk, monk yields to woman and woman to ghost. The participants adopt
the women pose less often than I'd expect.
Before dinner there are games on the lawn. Passing
a ping-pong ball from team member to team member only using a spoon in
the mouth. Or passing the ping-ball up through their clothes as they lie
on the ground. Or a relay race with three team members together holding
ping-pong balls between their cheeks so that it looks as if they are
kissing each other as they run and stumble towards the line. Hogwarts-style, the teams that win are appointed points, the culmination of
points granted frequently throughout the day.
The evening is long but, as an Observer not a
participant, I have a comfortable seat while the growing crowd squats on
the floor. There are stage performances by graduates of previous camps -
mostly traditional Thai dancing with its deceptively simple gracious
controlled movements. There are the drama performances by the different
teams, designed, according to the organisers, not only to entertain, but
to illustrate how well they have understood the complex issues
underlying HIV. Unfortunately, with the exception of the Purple Team,
whose leading members have Presence and Loud Voices, the performances
are hesitant and quiet and half the audience is busy gossiping, greeting
friends or talking on their mobile phone. Then there are the reunions -
the welcome back to graduates of previous camps. Each group seems
different; those representing camp 10 are overwhelmingly young and -
yes, I have to say it - camp.
To cap it all, suddenly the room is shocked into
silence when two participants - one large and loud, the other slight and
histrionic - start shouting and throwing things at each other. I don't
understand what is being said, although it is obviously to do with
jealousy. Then one points to two members of separate teams and accuses
them of something. Confused, they are taken from the room. Then the
protagonists disappear, the lights go off and everyone is told to hush.
A birthday cake is brought out and the missing team members are brought
back into the room. It's their birthday and the whole scene has been
staged for their surprise. While one smiles, the other is crying in
shock and it takes ten minutes for his equilibrium to be restored. In
this culture where confrontation is taboo, the whole scene seems very
unThai, but it is, apparently, a camp tradition.
tired and I'm behind schedule in writing a report on this and other
Rainbow Sky activities. I'd like to stay and watch another day - even
better, get involved. But I can't/ So I take my leave and bow and wai
my way out of the room. A group of camp graduates (who are not camp.) is
heading into town and give me a lift. I've made some new acquaintances
and maybe they'll turn into friends one day.
If you can read Thai and want more information about Rainbow Sky,