Thailand's Film Ban Offends Transgender People

In Thailand, the recent banning of a low-budget art film has angered some transgender people, who feel the action discriminates against them. They say that despite foreign stereotypes about a relaxed attitude towards gender and sexuality in Thailand, society there isn't as tolerant of transgender people as many think.

A promotional poster for the banned Thai film "Insects in the Backyard" shows  director and actor Tanwarin Sukkhapisit in the role of Tanya, a transgender single parent of two. i i

A promotional poster for the banned Thai film Insects in the Backyard shows director and actor Tanwarin Sukkhapisit in the role of Tanya, a transgender single parent of two. Courtesy of Tanwarin Sukkhapisit hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Tanwarin Sukkhapisit
A promotional poster for the banned Thai film "Insects in the Backyard" shows  director and actor Tanwarin Sukkhapisit in the role of Tanya, a transgender single parent of two.

A promotional poster for the banned Thai film Insects in the Backyard shows director and actor Tanwarin Sukkhapisit in the role of Tanya, a transgender single parent of two.

Courtesy of Tanwarin Sukkhapisit

In the film, called Insects in the Backyard, actor-director Tanwarin Sukkahpisit plays Tanya, a single parent who idolizes Audrey Hepburn and dresses like her, too. It makes Tanya's relationship with her kids, Johnny and Jenny, tense. One day Johnny comes downstairs and is startled to find Tanya with a male friend.

"You're kissing my father," Johnny observes.

"Johnny?!" says Tanya, giving her son a mortified look.

"Is this what a father does?" Johnny asks.

In an interview at a Bangkok cafe, Tanwarin says the dysfunctional family in the movie was partly inspired by a comment from a young nephew.

"One day after he had a shower, I gave him a shirt, he looked at me and said, 'I'm not going to wear a fag's clothes,'" she says. "I was hurt because I raised him. I realized that this was just my nephew. What if he had been my son?"

In the film, Johnny and Jenny drift away from Tanya, into prostitution and a demimonde of ambiguous gender identities and sexual orientations.

Tanwarin and her characters seem imprisoned by rigid gender roles and oppressed by conservative social mores and politics. The filmmaker says she's deeply hurt and offended by the banning of her movie.

"Every time I see these censors," she says, "they ask me why I don't make movies with happy endings. At first I was sad about how I was treated. Now I'm sad about the way these censors think, and sorry for people in this country who let the censors think for them."

Tanwarin complains that the film should have been given an adults-only rating instead of being banned altogether. Furthermore, she argues that Thai people accept films only as entertainment, not as social commentary.

Raksarn Wiwatsinudom disagrees. A film scholar at Chulalongkorn University, he's a member of a Ministry of Culture censorship committee that banned the film. He says the film was banned mostly because of one scene, which contains male nudity and a pornographic video playing on a television.

"Tanwarin knows which scenes are the most provocative," he says. "She knows that the committee members said that this particular scene is against the law. They told her that if this scene is cut, everything will be OK, even though what she's trying to portray is dangerous to the Thai society."

Professor Raksarn argues that parts of the movie's plot line — particularly the fact that Johnny and Jenny engage in prostitution of their own free will instead of being forced into it — send a harmful message to society. He says that art must be beautiful, not ugly — and he says Insects in the Backyard is ugly.

Jenny, estranged daughter of a transgender single father in the film "Insects in the Backyard," services her first  female client after drifting into prostitution. i i

Jenny, Tanya's estranged daughter, drifts into prostitution — part of a plot that has earned censors' disapproval. Courtesy of Tanwarin Sukkhapisit hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Tanwarin Sukkhapisit
Jenny, estranged daughter of a transgender single father in the film "Insects in the Backyard," services her first  female client after drifting into prostitution.

Jenny, Tanya's estranged daughter, drifts into prostitution — part of a plot that has earned censors' disapproval.

Courtesy of Tanwarin Sukkhapisit

"Tanwarin says she wants to portray social problems," Raksarn scoffs. "But she's not doing that. She's just projecting her own subconscious fantasies onto the screen."

Jetsada Taesombat, an activist with a civic group called the Thai Transgender Alliance, says transgender people are up in arms over the banned film.

She notes that transgender citizens are already discriminated against by the medical profession, which sees them as mentally ill, and by the Buddhist religious establishment, which sees transgender identity as karmic retribution for deeds in past lives. Jetsada says these old attitudes must go.

"If you ask many Thai people if they accept the existence of transgender people, many will say yes," she observes. "But if you ask them if they could accept their children becoming transgender, of course the answer is no. The closer transgender people get to you, the more rejection or negative reaction they encounter."

The exception, she notes, is when there is money to be made, such as in transgender cabaret shows or beauty pageants, which often cater to foreign tourists.

In director Tanwarin's view, Thai society treats transgender people as an unsightly species — like insects, whose existence is acknowledged as long as it's confined to the backyard. Tanwarin says the banning of her film validates the assertion.

"Therefore, I'd have to say thank you to the censors for banning my movie," she says with a smile. "If this movie is an exhibition or a show, it is a successful one. If not for the censors, my point wouldn't be this clear."

Tanwarin's film is not all angst and sordidness. In one scene, Tanya, Johnny and Jenny see a radiant apparition of Sarah, the children's deceased mother and Tanya's onetime wife. It may be a vision from the past, but it's comforting to the characters just the same.

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