Different Like Me

June 28, 2018

All my life, I've been "different."  Growing up, I never liked the things I was supposed to like.  I liked playing house and dress-up.  I was REALLY into the arts.  I enjoyed skipping, dancing, and swinging.  I didn't walk or talk like the other boys.  My stance was never macho, and I was rather inclined to swish or sashay (away).  My voice was pretty high and didn't really drop that much after puberty.  I was sensitive and in touch with my emotions.  All my best friends were girls, and they treated me as one of their own (for the most part).  It's not that I went out of my way to be this way.  It just came naturally to me...



As a teenager and young adult, I tried to regulate, mitigate, and/or censor the feminine parts of myself.  I wanted to be the person that my culture told me was worthy of love, respect, happiness, and success.  But no matter how hard I tried, I always came up short and ended up hating myself for it.  Several times, I remember thinking that it would be easier if I just wasn't around anymore.  Thankfully, I never let those thoughts materialize into action, but I have certainly engaged in my fair share of self-destructive behaviors over the years (still do).


Regardless of whether or not it comes naturally to you, normative masculinity is utterly exhausting to achieve and/or maintain (at least in the U.S.).  Just to be clear, normative does not mean the same thing as normal.  Normative refers to the social construction of what is desirable or preferred in a given context; whereas, normal refers to a statistical majority.  It is quite normal for male-assigned people to possess feminine traits.  In several places, however, it is not normative for them to express said traits.


In many ancient cultures, people were encouraged to embrace both the masculine and feminine parts of their being.  This was thought to bring about a wholeness in the person, because the two aspects are balancing and complementary (yin/yang).  In fact, many shaman and healers were the people who were able to embody equal parts Divine Feminine and Divine Masculine.  And then colonialism happened and ruined the party...


Western constructs of fixed, binary gender were forced upon most indigenous communities.  Masculinity became synonymous with men (and therefore, superior), and femininity belonged solely to women (inferior).  As a part of the Heterosexual Project™, men and women became “opposite sexes”—different species, really—and any type of gender diversity was hidden, criminalized, pathologized, and/or erased completely.  Instead of seeking wholeness from within, people were encouraged to find their "other half" in another person.  And we all know how well that turned out...


When it came time to decide on a country for Peace Corps, there was no question that Thailand was the place for me.  I had been fascinated with Thai culture since I started studying anthropology about ten years ago.  To this day, I am still amazed that they managed to avoid being colonized, whilst the rest of Southeast Asia was being divvied up by western powers.  One of the things they managed to retain was their gender diversity, something Thailand has become known for across the globe.  I wondered how this aspect of Thai culture would shape my experience, and, specifically, how I would be received by my eventual community.


During Pre-Service Training, we were stationed in Suphanburi, a province in central Thailand.  While the training focused on "traditional Thai culture," we were able to witness the "emergent Thai culture" out on the streets, in bars, restaurants, and shopping malls.  Albeit within a binary framework, there seemed to be a great deal of gender subversion going on.  I think what stood out to me most was the comfortability with which men expressed their femininity.  Then, of course, there was the prevalence of kathoey and toms, which many westerners mistake for transgender women and men.


You see, gender and sexuality in the West are rooted in self-identification, and the two categories are often treated as separate and distinct.  Even within the two constructs, there are several other sub-categories that can be isolated from each other.  However, in many eastern contexts, like Thailand, gender and sexuality are rooted in behavior/presentation and are inextricably intertwined.  For example, a kathoey is someone who was assigned male at birth but takes on a female role in society, which includes adopting a feminine gender presentation and desiring sexual penetration by a masculine, male-assigned person. 


Sound complex?  Well, it is.  Gender and sexuality is complex AF!  By trying to simplify it, the people in power have sought to erase some of the most creative and exciting parts about being human.  What would a world rooted in gender and sexual autonomy look like?  I would certainly like to find out!  In the meantime, I will continue to write about it in this blog...


When I eventually got to my site in Ubon Ratchathani, a province in the Northeast (Isaan) region, my community embraced me with open arms.  From day one, they have celebrated my femininity and queerness in the most unexpected ways.  This really took me by surprise, given the nature of my work as a youth development volunteer.  They might not understand the nuances of my gender and sexuality, but they don't judge me for it and they certainly don't think it precludes me from working with youth.  In many ways, I feel more accepted and included here than in my own country of origin.  I think a lot of it has to do with collectivism and Buddhism, amongst other things. 


My counterpart still doesn't understand what the words genderqueer, polyamorous, or pansexual mean, but I don't mind.  When she's talking about someone in the LGBTQ+ family, she'll say "different like you."  It never comes off as condescending or othering.  In fact, I find it rather endearing.  My mama always said, "It's cool to be different."  Now, I find myself in a place that couldn't agree more.


Happy Pride Month, y'all!!!


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