Thursday, July 19, 2007

Camp Cabaret

The Star Club,
Chaweng, Ko Samui, Thailand

Last night I visited the famous Star Club, home of Ko Samui ’s most famous kathoey or 'ladyboy' drag cabaret.

Some ladyboys dress as women and undertake hormone therapy or reassignment surgery, hence the impressively pneumatic bosoms of some of the Star Club artistes. Indeed, some of the girls were drop dead gorgeous.

Critics argue that drag queens project a limiting and distorted image of gay culture, with undercurrents of thinly-veiled misogyny. On the other hand it could be said that drag is merely a fun presentation of a particular side of human nature, or even a form of social commentary as ladyboys express themselves in their own unique way.

As a teenager I can remember being outraged that British drag icons and gay comedians could not comfortably reveal their sexuality lest their showbiz careers be ruined. Gays could only exist in the public consciousness as figures of fun, their status as comics diffusing any sexual threat they might pose to the public's ossified collective consciousness.

Although sexual politics have come a long way since my teens, I detected that uncomfortable feeling at the Star Club. It was clear that some customers were not entirely at ease in the presence of these Thai princesses.

That's too bad, because the artistes and staff of
the Star Club are hugely welcoming and present an entertaining (if slightly overlong) show.

Almost inevitably the proceedings began with ABBA - a high energy house version of Dancing Queen. This was followed by predictable gay anthems by Gloria Gaynor and Tina Turner but also some surprising choices like the hip-hop/pop of Bubba Sparxx. Along the way there were plenty of laughs as the performers interacted with the crowd.

It's not exactly a consciousness-raising show, but there's some food for thought. Families are welcomed to The Star Club, and some open-minded parents had brought along their youngsters. From their gaping mouths it was clear that these kids could hardly believe what they were seeing, and I heard two German parents patiently explaining the basics of transexualism to their goggle-eyed teenage son.

For my own part, as I enjoyed the performances of these lovely ladies, I wondered about the stories behind the scenes; the soul-searching, the quest for identity, the heartache hidden beneath the makeup and smiles.

As in Stephan Elliott‘s camp classic The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the Star Club p
resents social outcasts expressing themselves in an unlikely setting, and behind all the camp bravado, disco music and glitter there perhaps lies the pain of the outsider.

There are probably more than 20,000 kathoey living in Thailand, highly visible and widely accepted due to the high value placed on tolerance in the prevalent Buddhist culture. But it's not uncommon for Thai families to disown gay/transgender family members.

Because of that, it’s even more important for these transgender performers that the Star Club exist, not as a gay ghetto where a subculture can be marginalized, but as an island of ecstasy, a haven where some kind of authenticity can be experienced. In the interests of self-expression and human decency, that should be a cause for celebration for performer and audience member alike.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

so wonderful to read your words. thanks for sharing.