Don’t call me a lesbian: Tom-dee culture in Thailand

Don’t call me a lesbian: Tom-dee culture in Thailand

Decoding Bangkok’s multi-moniker girl-girl pair-ups
Tom-dee culture in Thailand
Sujintorn Buawan, left, and Sudtida Vitoonkaewsiri are one of many tom-dee couples in Bangkok.

Arm in arm, two girls shuffle through the Siam Square shopping plaza, checking out a row of stalls selling lipstick and neon sunglasses.

Leading the way is Sudtida Vitoonkaewsiri, femme and perky, dyed locks curling at her bare shoulders. Dutifully carrying her purse is Sujintorn Buawan, broad-shouldered, boyish bangs swept to the side.

Similar girl-girl couplings can be found all over the city. But please, don’t call them lesbians. They prefer less general monikers, more specifically 'toms' for tomboys and 'dees' for ladies.

“A tom? You foreigners might call her a ‘lesbian’,” says Sudtida, while sweetly caressing Sujintorn’s palm. “But it’s different here. A tom is a woman who behaves like a man. They’re exactly like boys, only their bodies aren’t the same.”

To be a 'tom' is to adopt the male gender role completely: wearing jeans and T-shirts, binding breasts to their chest and refusing, even in the bedroom, to disrobe and shatter the illusion of maleness. To be 'dee' is to girl-it-out to the max: lipstick, sparkly handbags and heels.

A tom is like a guy -- but way better, say dees. Toms take them shopping, carry their bags and, in the bedroom, focus exclusively on pleasuring their dee. Returning an intimate touch to the tom is forbidden.

'The Tom will always win'

If you try to touch a tom in the bedroom, and she slaps your hand away, don’t be offended.— Cee Webster

"In the last few years, I’ve seen a big increase in tom-dee couples,” says Darunee Bunma, 29, manager of the E-Fun: Extreme Fun for Ladies nightclub. A warning stenciled onto the door reads: “STRICTLY FOR LADIES ONLY!” The occasional male patron is quarantined on the patio.

“Toms really tend to their dees,” says Darunee. “They’re not adulterous. If you compare a tom with a boy, the tom will always win.”

Darunee’s girlfriend, a nightclub hostess, is a glossy-lipped, curled-lash portrait of femininity. A self-proclaimed dee since middle school, Nantawan Tathong says her parents have grown to accept her relationship with Darunee.

“Some girls are dees for fashion,” she says. “I’m the real thing.”

Returning the favor in bed

Thailand’s unflinching acceptance of same-sex couples is hugely appealing to lesbians outside the country, says Caitlyn “Cee” Webster, who relocated to Bangkok from New York nearly four years ago. But the tom-dee hierarchy is suffocating, she says.

Webster, the 30-year-old proprietor of Bangkoklesbian.com, refuses to identify herself as a tom or dee. And when she tells Thai lesbians she’s neither, and that she’s attracted to all types of women, the reaction can range from confusion to disgust.

But Webster believes many women feel stifled by these unyielding categories. In whispers, toms have confessed to her that they sometimes allow their dees to return the favor in bed.

BangkokLesbian.com, which Webster created more than two years ago, has become a forum for lesbians in Bangkok who don’t play by the tom-dee rules. Of the 1,100 members, about half are Thai. Webster suspects she’s inadvertently provided a release valve for Thai women with a freer vision of lesbian couplings.

Despite her convictions, Webster concedes that lesbians might find it easier to just a pick a tom or dee label and have a good time.

“Just be prepared,” she warns. “If you try to touch a tom in the bedroom, and she slaps your hand away, don’t be offended.”

Patrick Winn is Thailand correspondent for Global Post, as well as a contributor to Japan's NHK World and the Los Angeles Times.
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