Buddhist Monkhood and the Construction of Masculinity in Northern Thailand

Michael Chladek, University of Chicago

“My dissertation research focuses on the ways in which Buddhism informs what it means to be a man. Thailand, particularly northern Thailand, has a long tradition of a third gender, kathoey, or male-to-female transgender individuals. In recent decades, the increased usage of English terms such as “gay” or “tomboy” (shortened to “tom” in Thai) have destabilized this trichotomous gender system. As the Thai system does not distinguish between gender and sexuality, terms such as “gay” become coded as genders. The result is an abundance of terms to describe people who fall in between the category of man and woman. Research on gender and Buddhism in Thailand has long focused on the fact that men can ordain as monks but women cannot. Along with this distinction comes certain Buddhist ideals of the roles men and women should have in Thai society. My project aims to build off of this research, looking to see how Thai Buddhism also informs what it means to not be a man or woman but somewhere in between. In recent years, there has been increased concern over excessively effeminate monks and novices and programs have popped up explicitly meant to teach effeminate novices how to properly act like men. How, then, does Buddhist monasticism come to constitute a particular form of masculine identity in Thailand? And how exactly does learning how to be a proper monk relate to learning how to be a proper man? These questions speak to a larger concern about the way in which religion shapes possible gender identities within society and how religious bodily practice and discipline come to construct certain gendered ways of being.”