- First Queer Voices from Thailand: Uncle Go's Advice Columns for Gays, Lesbians, and Kathoeys by Peter A. Jackson
One of the leading authorities in Thai queer studies, Peter A. Jackson, has written extensively on the subject for thirty years. Queer Bangkok: 21st Century Markets, Media, and Rights (2011), which he edited, won the prestigious Ruth Benedict Book Prize awarded by the American Anthropological Association for Queer Anthropology. Compared to Queer Bangkok, which is current and looks towards the future, First Queer Voices from Thailand analyses selected correspondence that was published in Uncle Go's advice columns to present the nascent queer consciousness of Thai people in the late 1970s and 1980s. This book is the culmination and revision of two previous editions—Male Homosexuality in Thailand (1989) and Dear Uncle Go: Male Homosexuality in Thailand (1995)—that expand the book's coverage to include not only letters from Thai [End Page 224] gay men but also those from lesbians and transgender women. As Thailand is set to be the first Southeast Asian country to legalize same-sex civil partnerships, First Queer Voices provides valuable insights to the foundational workings of Thai queer culture.
The book is divided into three parts focusing on kathoeys (male-to-female transgender women), gays, and lesbians, respectively. The first part—which includes a new chapter not found in the previous two editions—discusses the origin of Uncle Go's columns, from his first interviews with kathoeys and how they were represented in Thai magazines. Here and elsewhere in the book, Jackson provides a nuanced and complex analysis that calls Uncle Go out for his heterosexist perspective, which, Jackson argues, was prevalent among Thai society then. At the same time, he praises the agony uncle for advocating queer rights in Thailand. The paradox of Uncle Go—a heterosexual man giving advice to the LGBTQ community, and who is both a conservative proponent for dominant Thai values and a liberal supporter of LGBTQ rights—requires the reader to reconcile and accept that seemingly different sociocultural and political positions can coexist.
The insider-outsider status of Uncle Go mirrors Jackson's own position, for he is cautious of viewing Thai society for what it is and what it is not through a non-Western lens. To a large extent, he is successful. However, at times his circumspection may have worked against him, as he neglects the global influences on Thailand. In the first part of the book, he argues that while Thais might have interacted with Western communities that advocated sexual rights, "Thais themselves mediated this interaction" (p. 21). In the same vein, he writes that "kathoey culture appears as a distinctly local development" (p. 21). To treat any development of culture in isolation is to ignore the global influences of the increasingly connected world. The careful anthropological observations in the book may also appear dated, as Jackson himself admits in the introduction (p. xviii). At times, Jackson's analysis of the magazines neglects to situate the texts in their historical context. From 1962 to 1976—a period that roughly coincides with the publications that were analysed by [End Page 225] Jackson—seventy thousand American servicemen visited Bangkok on three- or seven-day leisure trips from the Vietnam War. Could this influx of sex tourism by these servicemen during the war have had an impact on Thailand as it did in Singapore, where a market was created to meet the sexual demands of the American soldiers at Bugis Street (see Heng 2008)?
The second part of the book, in which Jackson revises the previous editions, is the strongest and most lucid. He explains with surgical precision the predicaments faced by Thai gay men, but also the sociocultural space that was given to them. Many concepts that he elucidates—such as familial obligations and patron-client relationships—can be extended to many Asian societies; the brilliance of his book lies in the resonance that many gay Asians feel in relation to culture...