Male Homosexuality in 21st-Century Thailand

Male Homosexuality in 21st-Century Thailand

A Longitudinal Study of Young, Rural, Same-Sex-Attracted Men Coming of Age

By Jan W. de Lind van Wijngaarden

Anthem Studies in Sexuality, Gender and Culture

This book explores the experiences, meanings and identities of young same-sex attracted men in rural Thailand. It is based on a study of 25 young rural Thai men who were each interviewed three times within a two-year period while they were aged 18–20, uncovering significant fluidity, variety and change. 

Hardback, 218 Pages


February 2021

£80.00, $125.00

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About This Book

This book presents the very first analysis of male homosexuality in modern rural Thailand that is based on sociological/anthropological research directly with 25 young same-sex attracted men. It explores changes in the way men view and describe their sexuality over time by interviewing them three times over a period of around 18 months. The men are followed during an important transition in their lives: the end of their high school years and the end (in most cases) of their life as a child with parents or extended family at a rural home. Nearly all decided to move to a city to continue their education or to find work. Some also had stints with sex work in one of Thailand’s well-known centers for prostitution. For nearly all men, this transition brought them into contact with new ideas about gender and sexuality, and many experienced an abrupt increase in their opportunities to have sex, leading to a readjustment of their moral universes. The young men in the study were still in the process of figuring out who they were/wanted to be, and many contradictions emerged in their narratives over the period of data collection. These contradictions, and the way they were resolved, presented an opportunity to critically explore the way the social structures in which these young men operate influence the way they think and explain their own sexual/gendered selves, and how changes in these social structures affect their sense of self.

A number of explanatory ‘lenses’ are used in the different book chapters that zoom in on different structuring/explanatory frameworks for making sense of gender and sexuality in Thai cultural contexts, as used and applied by the study participants. The first is Buddhism. Buddhist beliefs and traditional ideas about karma, fate, hierarchy, family, masculinity and femininity played important roles in the young men’s childhood understandings about homosexuality and same-sex relations–  especially in terms of their cause and morality. The second lens for understanding male homosexuality in Thailand is gender, where men are divided into feminine-oriented bottoms and masculine-oriented tops. A third lens is modernity/the desire to develop and grow, closely linked to Thailand’s globalizing economy and the increasing role of the Internet and social media. The Internet functioned as an important ‘playground’, a platform for trying-out different presentations of the self via Facebook and chat applications – and in many men this resulted in a rejection of their previous self-presentation as effeminate, which they gradually started to associate with being backwards, rural and ‘traditional’. The fourth lens is related to economy. Many of the young men in the study searched for romantic relationships based on complementarity and were looking for boyfriends who had something they did not have—money, a better position in society, or ‘wisdom’/the ability to guide. Most of the more effeminate men saw their sexuality as valuable, and several of the study participants described in this book – especially those coming from poor families – engaged in sex work and used their youth and beauty to find a wealthy long-term partner, in the hope of lifting their families out of poverty, towards a more prosperous future. The fifth lens is nationalism, or more specifically the concept of ‘being a good Thai’; gradually the young men learned that the Thai sense of self and the importance of performing one’s role as a ‘good’ son in public can be used as a strategy to cover-up private behaviors and desires. The sixth and final lens is family. Being ‘good’, respecting elders and elder siblings, financially supporting (grand-)parents, having good manners, meaning ‘acting appropriately in time and space’, gave the young men a way to retain the respect and support of elders and seniors, and determined how they dealt with (non-)disclosure of their sexuality to their families and others and explained their ability and desire to remain part of the mainstream of society. In the final chapter, a discussion about three critical concerns pertaining the health and wellbeing of same-sex attracted Thai men are discussed in the light of this proposed model: the ongoing HIV epidemic, mental health and LGBTI rights. 

Overall, this book presents significant new insights about the Thai sex/gender system, particularly on how it is affected by processes of globalization and the ascent of the Internet and mobile phones as tools for dating and romance.


“Research and scholarship on human sexuality have increased dramatically in the last 50 years in an era of rapid globalisation and changed with the development of critical sexuality studies as a field. Jan W. de Lind van Wijngaarden’s pathbreaking, in-depth study of male homosexuality among young men in modern Thailand as they move into young adulthood is a significant new contribution to our understanding of human sexuality. A must read.” —Gary W. Dowsett, PhD, FASSA, Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

“These fascinating stories of personhood, self-presentation, and transformation among Thai youth truly challenge us to reexamine the boundaries of concepts like homosexuality, transgenderism, identity, and love in the context of Thailand.” —Timo Ojanen, Foreign Expert, Faculty of Learning Sciences and Education, Thammasat University, Thailand

Although foreign gender scholars and sex tourists appreciate Thailand’s trinary gender system of male, female, and kathoey (feminized men), some locals do squeeze the latter into the masculine/feminine binary construct. Customarily, though, sexual relationships should still be hetero-gendered—a Thai same-sex couple usually comprises a masculine and feminine partner. Wijngaarden (independent public health scholar) finds, however, that thanks to the proliferation of internet dating and available pornography, Western understandings of homosexual identity and practice now overlay the traditional system: young feminine men who first identified as kathoey have come to embrace more prestigious masculine identities, i.e., "both" (sexually versatile). The author interviewed 25 rural 18- to 20-year-olds (most had already left home) over a two-year period to track changes in their self-understandings and practices. His findings include that personhood remains embedded within a context of family, Buddhist belief, relational etiquette, harmonious hierarchy, and preservation of honor, continuing to shape young men's behavior. Less insistence on a "true" internal self and acceptance that one's public and private personae may diverge and shift according to context distinguish Thai homosexuality from current Western understandings. Wijngaarden describes Thai gay communities as "flimsy," with implications for HIV awareness campaigns, which he suggests should concentrate their efforts in rural secondary schools and on the internet. — L. Lindstrom, University of Tulsa

Author Information

Dr. Jan W. de Lind van Wijngaarden has spent his professional life exploring, studying and advising on sexuality, gender and HIV vulnerability in Asia. He is academically trained in both public health (PhD, MPH) and social science (MA) and has several peer-reviewed publications in both fields. He has lived in Thailand for over 25 years.


Anthem Studies in Sexuality, Gender and Culture

Table of Contents

Preface; 1. Introduction; 2. Introducing the Research Participants; 3. Understanding Thai Personhood; 4. Homosexuality: A Matter of Karma?; 5. In the Beginning … Exploring Early Awareness of Being Different; 6. The Important Role of Gender in Understanding Homosexuality in Thailand; 7. ‘All in the Family’: Tactics for Living and Growing Up in a Heteronormative World; 8. How Dating Friends Plays a Role in Destabilizing Gender-Based Notions of Homosexuality; 9. The Role of the Internet in Learning about and Experimenting with New Sexual Identities; 10. ‘No Money, No Honey’: Love and Sex in Pursuit of a Better Life; 11. Conclusions and Implications for HIV Service Provision and Sexuality Education; Appendix: Glossary of Thai Terms Used in this Book; References; Index.


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