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Text: World Copyright
Martin Foreman

Copyright of pictures acknowledged where possible






Spirit, Monk, Woman - and sixty young gay men

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.

Whatever. I'm 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, click here.

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