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Ladyboys and Good Sons: Contemporary Mediums and Gender Identity in Northern Thai Trance Dance

Ladyboys and Good Sons: Contemporary Mediums and Gender Identity in Northern Thai Trance Dance

Colloquium with Michael Sakamoto, UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures

Tuesday, November 04, 2008
1:00 PM - 2:30 PM
10383 Bunche Hall
UCLA Campus
Los Angeles, CA 90095

Photo credit: Michael Sakamoto

Lanna (Northern Thai) culture is largely Animist in origin.  Belief systems and rituals that go back many centuries and refer to humans’ relationship with and dependence on spirits of the dead are found in various forms throughout the region.  Chief among these is the Chiang Mai region, including the cities and surrounding areas of Chiang Mai, Lamphun, and Lampang.  Each year in the late Spring and early Summer months leading up to the Buddhist Lent, dozens of trance dance ceremonies take place that pay homage to royal, working class, and hero spirits within family, clan, and social lineages.

Like the majority of Thai culture, Lanna mediumship was traditionally a matriarchal practice, dominated by familial and clan females.  However, with social strictures loosening in the middle to late 20th-century Thailand, fewer females have chosen to fulfill their traditional roles or, consequently, become mediums as well, opting instead for more modern vocational roles.  Additionally, homosexuality, especially among men, has become generally accepted in mainstream Thai society, opening up their involvement in mediumship.  Krathoey, or "ladyboys" as they are generally referred to in English, are gay males of all ages who typically engage in cross-dressing and transvestism. 

The Lanna medium population that participates in annual trance dance ceremonies now contains a high percentage of elderly females and young males, the latter of which are primarily gay.  While being gay is never a simple and easy social issue, despite greater social acceptance, mediums also have a tenuous relationship within their roles with the mainstream Thai population, many of whom consider mediumship as at best, mysterious and odd, and at worst, a deviant and false religion.  Being a male and/or gay medium thus represents a nexus of competing social tensions that are simultaneously resolving themselves via the very nature of their masculine and feminine status.

This paper and audio-visual presentation begins an examination of this nexus and many of the socio-cultural-historical factors that contribute to it through the social-interactive lens of Lanna trance dance rituals, which are generally loud, day-long spectacles that take place in homes and small gathering areas.  The presentation content is largely based on fieldwork and interviews conducted by the author in Summer 2008 in Northern Thailand with generous funding from a University of California Pacific Rim Research Program mini-grant.

Michael Sakamoto is currently an MFA student in dance/choreography in the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures.  He has been performing worldwide since 1992, and has lectured or done guest performances at the California Institute of the Arts, Chiang Mai University (Thailand),  the Los Angeles City Cultural Affairs Department, Arizona State University, UC Irvine, and UC Riverside, among others.

Cost : Free and open to the public.


Sponsor(s): Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Gender Studies