Why Toms and Dees?
On more than one occasion I’ve heard from one of the men or teenaged males who corner for my fights that I will be fighting, “a tomboy.” This information is always delivered with a smirk or mocking gesture or laughter as if it’s a joke that I’m in on. The word “tomboy” for me holds a western connotation of a girl who likes to play with boys, masculine toys, play rough and usually dress in pants and a T-shirt. It’s not a suggestive of a sexual orientation where I come from and, generally, it’s either something you grow out of or a self-proclamation or justification for a woman being interested in sports. A woman doing Muay Thai is, on some level, easily assumed to have qualities that fall in line with my western conception of a “tomboy.”
But I wondered why this was so funny and, indeed, the fashions of my opponents were quite obviously the basis for the label. These women all have very short hair, cut in what is a fashionable style for young Thai men (which is actually a little long, given that a military crew cut is the basic haircut for school age boys) and probably wear long jeans as their basic wardrobe. The joke, I reckon, is that they are trying to look like men, which I also assume is a step beyond the more acceptable gender-role transgression of women competing in Muay Thai. Practice and fight Muay Thai with a ponytail and it’s one thing, but do so with a short haircut and masculine swagger and it’s another thing entirely.
What is that other thing? I went about looking into this term “tomboy” in Thailand and came across a coupling of words Toms and Dees. The term Tom does indeed come from the English word “tomboy” and is a self-identified and styled masculine woman, where as Dee comes from the second syllable of the English word for “lady” and refers to the partner of a Tom – kind of like a butch lesbian with a “lipstick” lesbian of the 90’s. But it’s not that simple. It never is. So I’m investigating the complex and fascinating roles and social concepts of Toms and Dees in order to understand better what it is that warrants this smirk or making fun of the fact that I’m fighting a masculine woman in the ring. What the hell is that about?
Toms and Dees: Transgender identity and female same-sex relationships in Thailand, Sinnott, Megan J., 2004
Reading Notes from Chapters 1 and 2
Sinnott’s introduction begins with the account of a lecture given by a visiting American professor of psychology, presented at Thammasat University in Bangkok, 1995. The lecture was on current psychological approaches to homosexuality and was translated from the English to Thai by an in-house professional translator. Because the Thai language at that time (and still at this time, really) had no word for “lesbian” the word was translated into Thai as “man” (phu-chai) in the context of explaining that some women will have sexual relations with other women but not identify themselves as “lesbians” (“men”). There were some murmurs in the audience and the speaker and translator had a brief discussion regarding the fact that the word and concept “lesbian” had no direct equivalent in Thai.
This is interesting on a number of levels. The first of which is that it is absolutely conceivable that a word like “lesbian” would be a culturally specific term oriented within western frameworks of personal and social identity. On the other hand, it is also difficult to consider that there was not even a phrase or grouping of words to explain the concept of lesbianism to a group of adults who are not cut off from the western world and who, in all likelihood of human sexuality as a whole, know of something that is akin to lesbianism. (Specifically lesbianism, as apart from “gay” or homosexual as terms.)
Sinnott goes on to give examples from interviews she conducted with what the west would identify as lesbian women, who in Thai are called Toms and Dees. Toms are masculine women who dress and conduct themselves in male fashions and may or may not use the masculine first-person pronoun phom to refer to themselves, while still (generally) identifying themselves as women. Toms are attracted to Dees, who fashion themselves in a “femme” style and, interestingly, only seem to be defined by their relationships with Toms. While the relationships between Toms and Dees include a sexual component, neither party openly emphasizes sexual conduct or sexuality as the main or defining component of the relationship. Indeed, Dees often go on to have heterosexual relationships and marriages after their (it is assumed) youthful relationships with a Tom.
Neither Toms nor Dees identify with the word or Thai concept of lesbianism, and indeed both seem to find it distasteful and sexually deviant or voracious. In the interviews Sinnott chooses to quote, a Tom makes it clear that “lesbian” is about sex (and this Tom believes a lesbian would sleep with both a Tom and a man – which Dees most often do, although not at the same time, in separate monogamous relationships), whereas the relationship between Tom and Dee is “about feelings.”
Indeed, Sinnott is careful to include descriptions from interviews in which both Toms and Dees cite tenderness and care for the Dee‘s needs and emotions as primary in relationships between these women. Toms dress and may act like men (drinking and smoking), but they do not take on the patriarchical mantle of a male/female relationship as described by these women in Thailand. That said, “a Tom is a Tom by virtue of her self-assumed masculinity, and sexual attraction to women is a natural extension of being masculine.” (p. 2) The Dee, however, is identified only by her sexual relationship with a Tom, which strikes a feminist reader as being yet again the same as the patriarchy of female sexuality being only the canvas which receives male sexuality and not an identity on its own.
What is also striking is that the masculine female coupled with the feminine female sits nicely within the heterosexual understanding of sexuality as gender roles. Think of every ignorant parody of some slack-jawed yokel (or bigoted Uncle Johnny) looking at a gay couple, scratching his head and asking “which one’s the man?” But Toms, while some might use the masculine first-person pronoun, generally still identify with being women. They’re playing the role of man the way men play the role of man, by taking on masculine qualities, traits and duties. Dees do not see Toms as men any more than Toms see Toms as men, but the gender roles are maintained. In a way, this is a modern Thai understanding of sexuality, where “sexual orientation” so far as an identity is concerned is not applicable, but sexuality through gender is understood. As such, it is difficult for the relationships between Toms and Dees to last because the gender-specific obligations and expectations for women and men in terms of caring for the family are clearly defined. Women (which both Toms and Dees see themselves to be) are responsible for supporting the family, especially if they are the youngest sibling, and often the way to do this is through marriage.
[photo credit at top: cropped, tom and dee by Adrian]
[update 2/1/2015: a Coconut’s mini, 15 minute documentary on Toms]
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