Museum Siam is currently hosting a gender diversity exhibition named ‘Gender Illumination’. As well as celebrating diversity and inclusivity, the organisers also intend to educate people on the meaning of ‘non-binary’ and raise awareness of related issues.
“Everyone is human all the same. And we hope for people to see the human inside each person, without gender to dictate our perception of them“, Museum Siam’s senior knowledge management officer Chonchanok Phonsing told Bangkok Post.
Gender Illumination was unveiled on May 17th, which is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. On May 20th, I went to check it out.
LGBTQ Rights in Thailand
Thailand is often considered to be a haven for the LGBTQ community, where gender diversity is openly displayed, accepted and even celebrated. In reality, it’s much more complicated than that.
Same-sex marriage is illegal, trans people are forbidden from legally changing their genders on ID cards and other documents, and contrary to popular belief, discrimination is still rife. Gender Illumination guides you through the nuances and contradictions of it all, and invites you to explore your own ideas about gender and sexuality.
What’s on Display
To enter Gender Illumination, you first have to walk through a ‘gender maze’, in which words are plastered on the walls in Thai and English. It includes words like ‘camp’, ‘spinster’, ‘cougar’, ‘Don Juan’, and many more, each of which carries a connotation of a specific gender.
When you enter the building, you’re immediately met with an explanation of terms relating to gender and sexuality. Gender identity, gender expression and assigned sex are broken down by a visual representation called ‘the gender doll’.
The next exhibit directs you to explore the topic of genderless bathrooms. Guests are invited to sit on a toilet, which is placed in front of a TV screen showing a speech by a monk Phra Shine Waradhammo. He’s a self-proclaimed neo-Buddhist who campaigns for awareness of gender diversity, writing about it in newspapers and in his own blog. In the video, he says that Buddhism in Thailand doesn’t provide recognition for those who aren’t straight and cis-gender. He also explains that there is a saying in Thai that if you were born gay, transgender or lesbian, that you must have broken one of the five precepts in a previous life. Despite this, his short video provides a hopeful message of inclusivity.
As you walk through, you’re then given a history of the representation of different genders and sexualities in Thailand. This starts with artifacts from the Ayutthaya period and moves onto modern day, giving examples of LGBTQ magazines and movies.
The Thai movies highlighted here include It Gets Better, a touching movie about how the stories of three members of the LGBTQ community intertwine; The Blue Hour, a ‘supernatural love story’ about two teenage boys; and Insects in the Backyard, a movie about a transvestite parent, which was previously banned in Thailand for being ‘immoral and pornographic’.
In a box on the wall, there’s a penis-shaped lipstick. It belongs to Kath Khangpiboon, a trans woman who was rejected for a position as a lecturer at Thammasat university despite passing all of the required examinations. The university argued that the rejection was not because she was trans, but because she had previously posted a photo of the lipstick on her Instagram.
One corner is dedicated to the history of gay pride parades and End Violence Against LGBT Day in Thailand. It describes how in 2009, a gay parade in Chiang Mai was shut down by a group of around 200 protesters. Participants were verbally and physically attacked, and protesters blocked the entrance to the premises for more than four hours. Despite this, police refused to intervene.
Stories of Rejection, Acceptance and the Journey Between the Two
The next part of the exhibition was my favorite. It’s a collection of personal items from members of the Thai LGBTQ community, along with small explanations of what they mean to them.
Personal and public acceptance was displayed through items like trophies from drag competitions, touching letters and voice recordings from loving parents, and a skirt that one trans man never had to wear to work because his boss allowed him to wear trousers.
One of the items that stood out to me most was a shirt embroidered with the name ‘Pinit’. This was the symbol of how one trans woman remembers her male identity, and the transition she made from living as Pinit to Pauline. Here, she pays tribute to Pinit.
There were also several symbols of rejection, both by individuals of stereotypes and gender roles, and by people around them of their true identities.
One person submitted the story of how their mother found out they had spent their savings for a motorcycle on a bra and subsequently chopped the bra in half with a cleaver. One of the most poignant items was an official document refusing the recognition of a same-sex marriage.
At the end, there’s a pop-up closet filled with items for guest to try, including wigs, makeup, packers and various items of clothing.
This isn’t the only way visitors can participate. They can also fill in ‘gender tickets’ with their sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, and pin them on the wall. Before leaving, everyone is encouraged to answer the following questions with a yes or no vote.
- Should we have genderless toilets in our country?
- Should same-sex couples be legally able to marry?
- Should a person be able to choose their own title?
- Would you mind your child being gay?
- Can parents be the same sex?
- Would you vote for a gay politician?
This is how the votes looked when I visited.
Visit Museum Siam
Gender Illumination is running from May 17th until September 30th 2018 at Museum Siam. The museum is open 10am-6pm Tuesday-Sunday, and admission is free. All exhibits are accompanied by descriptions in English as well as Thai.