Thailand Taught Me How Biased Against Gay Rights I Really Was

Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court made a monumental ruling when it repealed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The act, which prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriage, was deemed unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the Constitution. While the decision was limited (it does not, for instance, require that states recognize out-of-state same-sex marriage licenses), it represents a step in the right direction that is likely to leave an indelible mark on this country’s social identity.

As the nation responds to news of the ruling in different ways – some with outrage and others with relief – I cannot help but feel as if, when it comes to gender and sexuality, the United States is lagging behind. We have proclaimed ourselves to be a nation of democracy, of freedom, of civil liberty, of uncensored information, of sexual liberation, of justice, and of religious tolerance. We have squarely stared down the issue of discrimination time and time again, be it the fight for women’s suffrage in the 1920s, or the call for racial equality in the 1960s. The conclusions we've reached have always been the same: discrimination, regardless of the grounds on which it stands, is inherently wrong. And here we are, fighting the same fight again.

The fact is that, regardless of the Supreme Court’s ruling, the same-sex marriage debate has skewed the perspective of an entire country. Even so, many of the issues surrounding homosexuality, gender identity, and equality are still seen as avant-garde, or even radical. I had to leave the country before I could realize the extent of my own bias. It took me coming to Thailand, of all places, to see the other side of the coin.

Thailand is often thought of as a tourist destination. It’s seen as a retreat from the rigors of the Western world, a place to relax and take in sun. What people don't often discuss – or merely whisper about – is that Thailand possesses an atmosphere of tolerance that far surpasses the “open-mindedness” of the United States. Here, people can find a momentary respite from the unrelenting onslaught of intolerance regarding sexuality and gender identity. It is almost as if, rather than being celebrated, sexual orientation and gender are merely treated as facts of life. In Thailand, it's not uncommon to see men and women in drag. There is an attitude of nonchalance that surrounds an individual’s choice to identify with a gender, and a respect for sexual autonomy that is only just coming of age in the United States. Yet, contrary to the fears of those of who oppose same-sex marriage, sexual immorality is not running rampant in Thailand. The fabric of family life remains wholly intact, arguably even more so than it does in the United States.

As an American, I was initially slightly taken aback by Thai openness surrounding sexual identity. Unlike in the United States, where the “alternative” sexual culture is often forced underground, in Thailand, such cultures were impossible to ignore. The “out of sight, out of mind” approach taken by so many Americans seemed to break down when things were so plainly in view.

Once I was able to get over the unabashedness of Thai sexuality and gender, I discovered that there were subtle nuances that went with this tolerance – namely, a reserved approach to sex itself. I had simply assumed that a culture open to unique individual sexual identity would also promulgate, if not accept, sexual explicitness. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

In the United States, we see sex everywhere we go. It’s on television, it’s in the news, it fuels advertizing, and is a pillar of Hollywood productions. Sex sells, and I, like many other Americans, had become desensitized to its portrayal. I am not bothered by the Carl's Jr. ad campaigns, or Hooters, or Victoria's Secret fashion shows. I think that the swimsuit issue is the best edition of Sports Illustrated, and believe that if, all of a sudden, I decide to switch my brand of underwear to Calvin Klein, I’m guaranteed to look like that ripped Italian guy. Hell, it’s science, right?

The simple fact is that our reluctance to cultivate an atmosphere of tolerance lies with our sexually saturated culture's inherent shortcomings, rather than any immortal truths concerning sexual identity itself. We should be more put off by flippant displays of sex than by any individual's sexuality, and yet the opposite is true. People who rail against against alternative sexualities are pretty much saying, “I like my sex and want to keep it on the front page but, yours? Yours?! I’ll be damned if I have to look at that for even a second!”

That, I think, is why things are so different here in Thailand. Thais, on the whole, are sexually conservative, both in the way they act and in the way they dress. There is a modesty here that is refreshing, and which allows people to live their lives without the bigotry and hate that is so often seen stateside. People are accepting of alternative sexual identities because they are not barraged by sex all the time. They don’t see homosexuals or transgendered people as sexual deviants because sexuality isn’t the first thing on their mind. The sexualization of culture in the United States has drastically hindered the way our country approaches sexual identity.

If the Supreme Court’s long-overdue ruling on DOMA tells us anything, it’s that America’s attitude towards sexual identity is not going to be easily changed. The process will be gradual and slow, and we will continue to witness discrimination and bigotry. Even so, the ruling is a big step in the right direction, and I hope that it will shed a positive light on sexual identity, allowing the issue to finally emerge from the shadows. 

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Stuart Ahlum

Stuart graduated from Princeton University in 2013 with a bachelors degree in Philosophy. He is currently teaching English at Mae Fah Luang University in Chiang Rai, Thailand and spends his free time reading, writing, riding his motorcycle, frequenting local coffee shops and watching the West Wing, which is damn good!

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