Who is missing from the historical record? How can private collections of documents contribute to the formation and growth of queer archives and what can these items tell us about the societies they originate from? This is a professional and personal journey through private documents and how they portray societal relations towards trans children in Thailand.
From our special on "Queering Memory".
Who is ‘They’ in this study? and Why they should be seen and heard?
The word kathoey or กะเทย, in Thai, generally implies a Transgender woman. I use the term ‘Kathoey’ because I actually identify myself as a kathoey. My attitude towards using this term has the purpose to transform negative meaning to positive meaning. I would therefore like to represent this term to foreign readers in positive way in order to recognize cultural diversity. When referencing Kathoey children in Thai society as well as implicitely all transgender children worldwide I use the pronoun “They” which may remind readers of they-them-their pronoun which is used in trans, queer, or non-binary community in Western society. Here, however it references Kathoey children in Thailand.
Nowadays, the story of Kathoey children is present in social media as well as mainstream media and advertising. The image of the male student with short hair, in school uniform but with effeminate behavior can generally be seen in Thai elementary or secondary schools but their voices and Kathoey/Trans identities are not vocalized because of their age, lack of self-awareness and the cultural aspects of the local context (such as the Thai seniority system). Trans children in Thai schools cannot express themselves in terms opposite to the sex assigned to them at birth. Such expression is only possible from ages 15/16 and up (around 18) due to strict rules schools have regarding uniforms and appearance which stem from gender binary classifications. They can never, of course, become girls in the physical sense at that age but at certain occasions Kathoey children can be exempt from these rules on the ground of certain mandatory school activities such as Thai dance. In these instances, they can express as the opposite of their assigned gender.
Research conducted on children under the age of 12 is missing but a study of secondary school students who identify as LGBT conducted by Plan International showed that 1/3 of them experienced physical abuse in school while support for LGBTQ was practically non-existent. (UNESCO and Mahidol University, 2014).
In large part, this was due to a lack of knowledge on sexual diversity. Although sexual education is being taught at school it is without sexual pedagogies emphasizing sexual diversity, sexual health and bullying of LGBT persons. Moreover, the content of one high school textbook labeled homosexuals as sexual deviants (UNESCO, 2016) only to be recently revised in 2019.
In this article, the methodology is characterized as archival research on Transgender children and I intend to raise the issue of Transgender children in Thailand through examining my personal archives - my elementary school notebooks which preserve my childhood memory as a Kathoey kid in a Thai School and apply queer archival theory as a research approach.
The Development of Archival Notions from Women’s Archive to [my] Queer Archive(s)
Archive positions between recording and forgetting represent human experience and memory. The archival collections are established by individual, group and collective memories: there are personal, organizational, and public archives. Boundaries between these preservations are inevitably blurred. However, notions of archive have been seized, borrowed and developed by a wide range of disciplines.
‘Who is missing from the historical record’ is the significant starting point to re-conceptualize and challenge the traditional archival term and also initiate the preservation of archival materials of marginal lives. Both women and queer are always neglected in conventional archives and historical writing.
Women’s archives were founded on the premise that women’s lives and activities were not adequately documented in traditional repositories and that women’s archives turned collection development on its head in the 1970s (Mason and Zanish-Belcher, 2007, p.344). The roots of feminist archives and archiving are found within such information and documentation effort, as well as the genealogies of explicit feminist movements to which they are more frequently attributed. Since the 1950s, or before queer theory, LGBT movements had a crucial role to advocate for equal rights regardless of sexuality or gender identity and provide knowledge to the community. Censorship and obscenity laws forced these movements to become information generators and providers, and organizations routinely developed regular publication schedules disseminating literature on housing discrimination, workplace harassment, medicine and legal information, as well as general support for people who felt isolated (Cifor and Wood, 2017, p.5).
Gays and lesbians have initiated establishment of their own archival houses or buildings and it became a model of space information resources of LGBTQ such as The Lesbian History Archive in Brooklyn and One National Gay and Lesbian Archives at USC. The emergence of queer theory in the 1990s, according to the significant works of Teresa de Lauretis (1991), Judith Butler (1990) and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1990), has challenged heteronormativity and gay and lesbian identity. In queering the archive, queer theoretical functions as questions of power have also been central to the discussion. Collecting archives means the archival exertion to create historical awareness and to be visible in history.
My previous, uninformed perception of archival material was of dusty old documents or of contemporary documents stamped with the Thai official emblem or garuda. Moreover, the word “archive” or “Jod-mai-Hade” in Thai language led me to think of its materiality in paper form because in Thai language “Jod-mai” translates as “letter” and “Hade” translates as “event”. The archive or Jod-mai-hade of my perception has now shifted from being a material source to record and/or document collective events and the personal lives of elites to record and/or document the individual experience of ordinary people.
Retrieving my Trans Childhood Memory Through Re-reading My Elementary School Report cards
I retrieved my elementary school report cards that document a variety of memories and attitudes, such as my gender identity regarding of my childhood. These reports record the attitudes and experiences of people represented in these archives (i.e. teachers and parents); therefore, they provide the possibility of critically creating something different, something new and something valuable. These materials are able to function as evidence of my experiences of having been a transgendered child, and as retrieval of my childhood memories.
The elementary school report cards are an official document that many Thai elementary school students receive every semester. My mother preserved them very well as she always had the role of reading and filling them out. Their covers have different colors for each grade: 1st grade - pink, 2nd grade - Blue, 3rd grade - green, 4th grade - orange 5th grade - purple, 6th grade - yellow. They are made of paper in a square shape and are 16 pages long. My report cards (see Image 1) cover the years from 1999 to 2007 when Kathoey are beginning to be acknowledged in Thai society.
While many gender categories from the West, such as gay and lesbian, have been accepted in Thai society and their differences distinguished in terms of their representational use in particular social contexts, other Thai sexual definitions, such as “third sex” or “Kathoey”, have challenged Western knowledge and categories.
Re-reading my school notebooks, I found them to be very interesting. They illustrate my school performance in details. Each child is written about - first by the teacher and then in response, by the parent - regarding their overall behavior. There is no behavior report in secondary school notebooks. For an effeminate boy, it was written in a remarkable way, in that instances of gender identity are revealed.
With respect to the evaluations and descriptions contained in the elementary school report cards (see Image 2), they were fueled by various social discourses such as being good, being smart and being healthy; meanwhile, students were being shaped by these measures as to what constitutes appropriate behavior, adequate exam results and development of reproductive health.
Part of the disciplinary process in shaping and regulating behavior through the elementary school report cards is reporting on both the negative and positive results of students’ GPA and behavior to the parent, thus serving to elicit a variety of reactions from the students, such as anxiety, guilt or pleasure. However, the report is also meant to direct the students to improve themselves through hard work and express themselves in terms of appropriate behaviors.
Nevertheless, the result is often that, due to the observations of their behaviors both inside and outside school, many children must learn to hide or repress their so-called ‘inappropriate’ behaviors.
It appears that elementary school report cards provide evaluations in order to determine and change behaviors and abilities of students. This invisible power, transmitted through the report cards and delivered to pupils, is exercised in order to condition students to behave according to established social norms and to achieve certain required standards.
The section in the report card containing the behavior report (see Image 3) demonstrates the identity characteristics of a young Kathoey in a Thai elementary school, while also illustrating how the Thai educational system governed my gender identity.
I discovered that the report itself depends on establish patriarchal and heterosexist social constructs regarding its description of how girls and boys are supposed to behave. School children are written according to variously constructed characteristics: e.g. curiosity, courage, creativity and empathy. However, one of my habits, according to what was written by my advisory teachers (and repeated in every semester from the 1st grade to the 6th grade), is Riab-roi, or เรียบร้อย in Thai, which means polite or courteous person, thus implying effeminate behaviors and considered a female characteristic in the Thai context.
In the school behavior report one advisory teacher wrote in my 4th grade first semester report card, it was suggested to my parents that they “should support [me] to play sports in order to look stronger.” The teacher, in implying that I have feminine habits at school, suggested to my parents that they should help me become a normative boy rather than encourage me to be myself.
I can’t deny that I was a boy who was not getting into team sports or outdoor activities in school like the other boys but I had a greater interest in delicate things and I loved helping my mother in the kitchen. So, what is the problem with being a polite or courteous boy in Thai society?
Being an effeminate boy in the Thai context is seen as being opposite to the normative boy who should be manly and/ or likes to play sports. The constructed opposite of the Thai male is not the female but the Kathoey, that is, not femininity but unmasculinity.
The Kathoey represents all that a masculine Thai is not (Jackson, 1995, p.225). Living in patriarchal culture which has always reduced the value of the femininity, being labeled as Kathoey or Tut means being deviant or abnormal in society.
Being different impacted negatively on my relations with my family and my friends, as I am afraid of being unaccepted, unsupported and unloved. In a Thai family and in Thai tradition, talking openly about sexuality or sex issues with children can be considered societal taboo. My parents have never mentioned my gender identity or talked about it directly because they don’t know how to deal with it and sex education in school did not deal with the sex/gender diversity issues at that time.
The content of sex education in school textbooks was limited to binary sex/gender topics and gender variant people were regarded as abnormality. My childhood experience as a non-conforming gender kid has been silenced all the time inside and outside the school.
The emergence of my gender expressions at a young age in report cards reminded me about how I perceived sexual difference while in school. My earliest memory of sensing that I might be different from other children was during elementary school when I became aware of my sexual difference from both other boys and girls, as highlighted by school policies regarding school uniforms and appropriate appearance (e.g. girls were to wear skirts and boys were to wear pants and have their hair cut short). My acquisition of a Thai transgender related vocabulary appeared at a young age. I have been teasingly called kathoey or tut (Thai slang word meaning faggot) by other children at school. From my experience, children not only learn to distinguish between the established constructs of "boy" and "girl" in school but they also learn the difference between themselves and others.
In conclusion, elementary school report cards are unique personal archives of Thai students that can hold childhood memories, behavior and identity. But for Thai LGBT students, it is possible that their identity or sexual orientation can be exposed through school report writing. By disseminating the required elementary school notebooks throughout the education system, the Thai state reaps benefit from the disciplinary function of the report cards. They steer development of young people and urge them to become part of (what the state sees as) ‘effective’ population, despite many students being unable to comply with these expectations.
From our special on "Queering Memory".
- Cifor, M. and Wood, S., 2017. Critical Feminism in the Archives. Library and Information Studies, 1(2), pp.1-27.
- Jackson, P.A. 1995. Dear Uncle Go: Male Homosexuality in Thailand. Bangkok: Bua Luang Books.
- Mason, K.M. and Zanish-Belcher, T., 2007. Raising the archival consciousness: how women's archives challenge traditional approaches to collecting and use, or, what's in a name? Library Trends, 56(2), pp.344-359.
- UNESCO, 2014. Bullying targeting secondary school students who are or are perceived to be transgender or same-sex attracted: Types, prevalence, impact, motivation and preventive measures in 5 provinces of Thailand. Available at: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0022/002275/227518e.pdf (accessed 15 February 2018).
- UNESCO, 2016. Review of Comprehensive Sexuality Education in Thailand. Available at: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0024/002475/247510e.pdf (accessed on: 15 February 2018).