‘Being a lesbian is tiring,” said Chantalak Raksayoo, ”but one should take pride in one’s self. And I’m proud of who I am.”
Chantalak, 36, is the founder of Sapaan, an alternative media source for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT). When her organisation joined the National Book Fair recently, their booth was searched and three books were banned for portraying ”sexually explicit” love scenes between lesbian lovers.
The books are romantic short stories about same-sex relationships, and the passages they contain involving sexual acts are only a small part of the narratives. This is the case in seized novel She 3. When the books were confiscated, Chantalak could do nothing but watch. ”But I wouldn’t let that happen again,” she said firmly.
Never, she stressed, would she accept the authority’s judgement and stop publishing gay and lesbian novels.
”Our books are not underground works of pornography but romantic novels. Lesbian or gay books are not only just about sex, but about love, relationships and lifestyle. The authorities should be more open-minded,” she said.
Chantalak is a lesbian activist who believes in the power of media to create public awareness on gay and lesbian rights and, more importantly, to help gays and lesbians feel confident about themselves and to realise their rights to live their lives as equals in society.
”You must know yourself _ what you are, who you are and what you want in life,” said Chantalak. ”It’s even more shameful if you don’t know, understand and accept yourself, and you are intolerant and refuse to accept those different from you.”
Brought up by her mother and grandmother in the small town in Phetchabun Province, Chantalak lived a normal life and had a typical carefree childhood _ going to school, doing homework and reading books. Though finishing only high school, Chantalak said she has learned a lot about history and current social issues by herself, through reading. After becoming aware of the situations affecting people in society, she wondered what she could do to change them.
”I’m an only child and I didn’t hang out with friends much. So I spent most of my childhood reading. The most amazing thing in my life is that I can read. Just by reading, you can see changes in society. It made me wonder why people had to kill each other during the 14 October 1973 uprising, and why other bloodshed has occurred. I wanted to do something to improve the situation.”
However, when it came to sexual orientation and gender identity issues, young Chantalak felt like she was a big fish in a small pond, not knowing what was happening outside her little world.
” I never knew that a girl can fall in love with another girl,” she recalled. ”I used to see that one woman in my village lived with another woman but I didn’t understand why they both were female but they stayed together as a family and took good care of each other. I didn’t understand that they were in a relationship. I didn’t realise that same-sex relationships existed.”
Her life took an unexpected turn when she finished high school, began working as a writer and entered into an unexpected relationship with a female friend. In 1996, when Thailand’s first lesbian organisation Anjaree launched its debut newsletter called Anjareesan, Chantalak decided to come out and joined the Anjaree group.
”I never knew that I could really love women. When it happened to me, however, it felt so right. I wanted to share experiences and thoughts with other lesbians, and I wanted to know how other lesbians live their lives, so I joined the group. And since then, my life has totally changed. I gradually became accustomed to seeing things in a different light. I took up group activities to extend my knowledge of gay and lesbian issues and built bridges of friendship with other gay and lesbian people,” she said.
Being with Anjaree helped Chantalak see many severe challenges and problems lesbians face in society, she said.
”Some tomboys have been raped. Some parents have locked their lesbian daughters in a room and let other men rape their own children as they believe the act could change their daughters into ‘real’ women. There was also a case where we sent a newsletter to a teacher in a rural area. The envelope was opened by the wrong person, and everybody in town learned of the teacher’s hidden sexuality. She was forced to resign from the school and tried to live her life as a so-called ‘normal’ woman, attempting marriage and a family with a man she didn’t love. It was a sad but true story,” said Chantalak.
In today’s world, though gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have become more visible, they are still labelled as confused and maladjusted in society, she said.
”Many LGBT people still feel alienated. They have to have great confidence in their ability and efforts to be accepted by other people. There are still many people who view homosexuals as sex-obsessed freaks and queers. Many also think that same-sex relationships are unstable. But perhaps it’s the society itself that creates relationship instability,” she said.
”Imagine if a lesbian couple is deeply in love but those around them continually shower them with comments that ‘same-sex relationships are unstable.’ How could this ‘special’ relationship possibly manage to survive?”
Attitudes, however, can change. What’s required is increased information and education, said Chantalak. When Anjaree temporarily stopped publishing Anjareesan, Chantalak then started Sapaan in 2003, in an effort to promote positive LGBT issues.
”While some lesbians lead troubled lives, mine is quite smooth. I don’t have to hide my sexual identity. So I thought I was ready to to promote LGBT rights,” she said. ”And I strongly believe that information is an agent of democratic change. I wish to tell ‘positive’ stories about LGBT people whose lives are normally judged negatively by other people, but actually are meaningful and filled with hope.”
Sapaan has also served as an LGBT consultancy and advocacy group.
Among those who sought help was 23-year-old transgendered Samart Meecharoen, or Namwan, whose SorDor 43 conscription certificate has the words ”Permanent Mental Disorder” printed on it. Although Namwan’s case is awaiting a court ruling, the campaigns by Sapaan and other advocacy groups for LGBT rights, such as Fa Si Roong (the Rainbow Sky Association of Thailand), have succeeded in convincing the military not to label transgendered and transsexual people as suffering from mental disorders in the future.
Chantawak’s works have not gone unnoticed. She was honoured with the ”Female Human Rights Defender Award” in 2007 by the National Human Rights Commission.
To highlight that the opportunity to choose gender and sexuality is a basic human right, Sapaan recently organised a seminar on ”The Yogyakarta Principles”, which denounce discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity as well as promote the need to recognise the rights of transgendered individuals.
”These principles might not be able to change society, but they can be a tool to educate the public about how to help ensure the rights and security of LGBT people. It also ensures that the rights and obligations of stable same-sex couples are the same as those for opposite-sex couples,” she said.
”This means equal inheritance rights, the right to name a partner as the beneficiary when buying life insurance, the right to make medical decisions for a partner if he or she is injured, and the right to get married and start a family with the one you love.
”I believe that committed same-sex relationships deserve the same protection and benefits as those which opposite-sex couples receive. Though there seems to be a long way to go, I still hope for the best,” she said.
”We all need to be educated about these issues. What’s more important is that each individual _ especially women _ should be aware of their rights and needs. I want to see women being able to fully rely on themselves and to forge a new notion of warmth and family love in their own way. Each individual should be afforded an equal opportunity to shape their own happy and accepted life,” she said.
For Chantalak, family is not limited to ”dual” parenthood in the conventional sense, but it can extend to single parenthood or same-sex parenthood. ”Family is not just about a father, mother and children relationship. Parents can be mother and mother, father and father, or friend and friend. It’s better to emphasize the quality of the parent rather than their sexual identity,” she said.
Chantalak suggested that schools should create programmes to prevent students intimidating other students on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and teach an understanding of sexual and gender diversity.
”So that children won’t be scared and confused. If they are informed and learn to accept that homosexuality exists, when they grow up they won’t push homosexual people away and understand themselves better. It is also important that any parent _ no matter what their child’s sexual preference is _ understands how important it is to accept people for who they are, and what they are.
”We must realise that it’s not wrong to have same-sex relationships. But it’s not a good idea to be so obsessed about love and relationships either. Whether you are hetero or homosexual, you’re better off living a balanced and fulfilling life and contributing to society to make it a better place to live in.”
Outlook >> Thursday June 26, 2008Share