musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Saturday, May 26, 2012

From Thailand: Lady Gaga and the Male Identity

Last night we saw Lady Gaga perform in Bangkok. Despite the fact that never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be saying those words together in a sentence, the concert was absolutely amazing and I'm very happy we were able to scalp tickets outside before 'Poker Face' came on (coincidentally a song that may or may not prompt me to poke Lauren in the face everytime I hear it).

During the performance Madáme Gagá (as she should be known in France) made several 'speeches', the first of which was a rather humorous homage-of-sorts to the royal family preceeded by a bit of defiance (something to the effect of 'I'm not a tool of the Thai Government no matter how difficult you bastards made it for me to perform here'). The most interesting moment for me though, at least with regards to the title of this post and in addition to the unique spectacle of each song, was a heartfelt (or well acted) profession of love for Bangkok.

It became apparent to me fairly quickly that Bangkok was a special place, especially in terms of the open expression of ones sexuality. In my short time in Bangkok I have noticed, and become increasingly interested in the phenomena of, the seemless integration of people of all walks of life, sexualities and appearances. Picture a very masculine man walking with his arm around a beautiful Thai woman who is arm in arm with a third man who is, to all outward appearance and inward self identification, a woman. Quite a normal scene in one of Bangkok's copious high fashion malls.

The most well-known examples of this are the ubiquitous 'lady boys' - essentially men dressed as women - some of whom perform in cabaret-style shows and some of whom are tragic pawns in a very real sex trade. In the west such cross-dressing, usually complete with makeup and jewelry, would at least be noticed by passers-by and at most (unfortunately) put the person at risk of physical and/or verbal abuse. In Bangkok, however, as a friend pointed out, even tall, broad-shouldered western i.e. decidedly not Thai men in dresses wouldn't even get a second look by most commuters on the train.

It's normal here... in an extremely refreshing way.

This gets to Gaga's infatuation. According to her, she grew up in a strict household where self-expression was stifled. It wasn't until she arrived on the lower east side of Manhattan upon turning 18 that she was finally able to be who she always imagined herself to be (Lady Gaga I guess?). To her, Bangkok symbolized everything lacking in her childhood. Freedom of expression. Acceptance. A place largely devoid of judgement. Liberation from societal norms.

Whether as a result of my own journey through life (albeit a straight life), some imaginary hopefullness or real societal movement, I feel like change is afoot. Gay marriage is discussed regularly by politicians, military officers and armchair pundits alike. POTUS (i.e. no drama Obama) has come out in support of gay marriage in an election year. Maybe nothing truly has changed. Maybe rural kids from conservative America (for example) still do harbor unwavering bias and bigotry towards those that are different. But... maybe not as much as their parents...?

Lady Gaga is, by virtue of her well-known and well-crafted persona, both a benefactor of and great contributor to this movement. She is an outspoken supporter of being open about who you are or believe yourself to be. Be proud that you were born that way, she says on her tour posters, meaning not necessarily how you were physically born but rather how you identify. Thais identify themselves in every way imaginable and are accepted as such. Thailand, at least according to Lady Gaga, has it right.

In case this wasn't confusing enough, the Thai male identity goes beyond transgender-ness (I think I just made up a word). Forever primping in the mirror (which, to be fair, Turkish men also do incessantly), it is not uncommon for straight men to wear bows and berets, eye shadow and lip gloss. It is the eternal pursuit of beauty, symbolized by Thai women and idealized by the men, even at the price of an adrogenous result that has little to do with sexuality and all to do with self-confidence and beauty.

Part of me wonders whether the exuberance with which Thais crowd the spectrum of sexuality is, in some way, a self-perpetuating phenomena. In other words, if people were not as accepting, would as many people openly identify themselves the way they do?

Doubtful. But then again, if that were the case, it wouldn't be Thailand!