Volleyball? It's an LGBT thing..

Win evokes memories of pioneering 'Satree Lek'

I could hear my neighbour scream hysterically when our women's volleyball team beat Japan to be crowned Asian Champions last Saturday. It was simply the best game in the tournament, and these long-legged ladies made the nation and their fans _ a lot of them gay _ proud, especially me.

The Thai women’s volleyball team has become a national sensation.

Volleyball is somehow one of the most popular sports among gay people. I don't want to stereotype, but for me, my favourite aspect is when a player gets into a pose before serving the ball.

Unfortunately I'm shortsighted, which is a bit of a hindrance if you want to take the sport seriously. So I joined in the spectating part _ and watching

a volleyball match is pure, intense fun. With volleyball making headlines everywhere this week, it brought back memories of one of the most groundbreaking Thai gay films, The Iron Ladies, or Satree Lek, released in 2000.

It is considered the first film to portray gender diversity in a positive and understanding way and remains one of the best-known Thai films internationally. When it came out 13 years ago, it was screened at many film festivals around the globe, many of them LGBT-orientated, and it also played a part in debunking the idea that Thai cinema is all about "gays and ghosts" _ a gross generalisation.

Directed by Yongyoot Thongkongtoon, The Iron Ladies is based on the true story of a volleyball team from Lampang that comprised gay and transgender members, and only one heterosexual player, that won the Thai Volleyball National Championship in 1996. The title of the film is rendered from the team's moniker, "Satree Lek", which was promoted heavily in the national media.

In the film, we are introduced to each member of the team _ from an open transvestite to a cabaret showgirl, an out gay military man and a closeted Thai-Chinese gay, and a straight team captain who is a key character, representing the many people who aren't happy to be around gays until he gets to know his teammates better and learns how they struggle to fight for their dreams. And then there is the coach who is responsible for the success of the team and is also a lesbian.

The film is written as a comedy, so there are a lot of exaggerated scenes, and most of the cast are straight men, so their acting is rather awkward, not to say somewhat artificial.

However, it was the first film that tackled the gender issue from a different perspective, where gay characters were the centre of the story which allowed them a strong voice. But perhaps most importantly, it is based on a true story.

Watching it again 13 years later, it was pleasing to realise understanding of gender diversity has progressed immensely. Since 2000, there's been a number of beautiful and sincere LGBT-themed films produced in Thailand (though still many others that continue to exploit gay antics as cheap humour), and openly gay and transgender figures today are much more visible and admired than before.

It may not be the same in the sports world, but there was the exceptional case of Parinya Charoenpol, or Nong Tum _ a transgender Thai boxer whose extraordinary story was made into the wonderful 2004 film Beautiful Boxer, another well-travelled movie and a hit at many festivals around the world.

Parinya is one of our first gay sports celebrities, and people learned to like her not just because of her sexuality or the "eccentric" look of a boxer with red lips and painted fingernails but because of her skill and ferocity as a fighter.

Shortly after the Thai volleyball victory on Saturday, pictures of one of the players with a good-looking man made the news, with some questioning their relationship. People even questioned the sexual identity of the volleyball player, whether she is a lesbian or not. Of course, there are many people who believe that a sporty woman with a short hair must be lesbian.

The question I would like to ask these people is: Will you like them any less if they are gay? And can athletes be openly gay and be accepted for who they are?

It's tough, I guess, in a male-dominated world such as sport for players to come out. Look at the American basketball player Jason Collins, who in April made history and publicly said he was gay. One Baptist preacher in the US actually said this angered his Christian God, who a month later expressed his wrath in the form of the deadly Oklahoma tornado that killed 25 people. (Yes, this is a true story, you can Google it.)

But Collins' bravery made a huge difference and inspired so many young LGBT athletes.

Closer to home, look no further than Satree Lek. They work hard, play by the rules and win. They even have to work harder in their field because many people don't see them as equals.

This volleyball team inspired people to learn the meaning of friendship and accepting our differences, and led to one of most memorable films in Thai cinema.

Share your views and news about queer culture and gender diversity issues at yanaponm@gmail.com.

About the author

Writer: Yanapon Musiket
Position: Life Writer