Although the spirit dance, Fuan Pii, was traditionally reserved for women in the past, the commonly named “third gender” is increasingly engaging as the medium in local spiritual practices. This article focuses on the role of Buddhism and its relations with the third gender and argues that Buddhism contributes to shaping perception towards the third gender as well as constructing a space for self-expression, new identities and social acceptance.
During the ritual of spirit dance, the tradition in Lampang, Thailand
Fuan Pii is practised in rural areas of Chiangmai, Lamphun, Chiangrai and Lampang provinces from early May to June, except during Buddhist Lent from July to October because mediums are required to maintain Buddhism's precepts and requirements, such as making merits or doing religious practices. For centuries, women played the predominant role in Fuan Pii, which reflects the primarily matriarchal society
in Northern Thailand. The role was traditionally hereditary, and the youngest daughter in a family will inherit the spirit lineage
and the medium. This article explores the current generation of Faun Pii practitioners or medium of who the majority are queer, transgender, and gay. Using Michael Sakamoto’s suggestion these most "out" individuals will be referred to as the third gender
because it separates from the gender binary that has only male and female. This has led to a further discussion on how Buddhism shaped the role of the third gender in Northern Thailand and the Spirit dance.
The arrival of Theravada Buddhism in Northern Thailand has created distinctive gender roles between men and women; on the one hand, women are limited to a strict form of religious participation and maintain their domestic spiritual practices; on the other hand, men are allowed to take control of civic, religious duties. "The temple is for men and tent for women
". There seems to be more openness and tolerance towards the third gender because the fundamental principles of Buddhism uphold tolerance for those with differences in thinking, belief, and action. However, Buddhism plays a role in impeding the 'expression' and promoting 'anti-homosexual'
notions towards the third gender persons." The concept of Karma creates the understanding among Thai people that the third gender has misdeeds in past lives. "In this life, they are trapped in the wrong body
and should be pitied but not protected." This concept is firmly deep-rooted in the Thai public mind and resulted in generalising prejudice against third-gender or homosexual people in Thai society.
Furthermore, getting ordained is obligatory for every Buddhist man at least once in their lifetime. It also is understood as a duty to do for their parents. By ordaining, their parents will receive tremendous “Boon” (merits) from helping and supporting their sons into monkhood, and these merits need to be accumulated in order to pave the way to heaven after life. Although there is no consensus regarding the sexual orientation of those willing to be ordained in Buddhism, the third gender is sometimes refused to ordain into monkhood by the monk due to their physical appearances and fear that they might not be able to control their feminine and sexual behaviours
under the monk’s robe. These conditions are intensified by the fact that many parents who do not accept their sons’ sexual orientation or gender identity will force them into monkhood in “the hopes that the monastic life will cure their child
of his immoral sexual tendencies, teach him to control his sexual appetite and reconfirm his masculinity and manhood”.
Consequently, the third gender has been facing social pressures through Buddhism and local beliefs. Many of them seek a safe space where they feel comfortable and can indeed be themselves or do what they want to do; meanwhile, they hopefully want to receive acceptance and respect from society which, in this context, means to be the medium or the spiritual leader in their communities, as further described in the following section.
First comes space and legitimacy. Since the third gender people have been rejected to be ordained, facing religious discrimination, or some of them don’t want to get ordained as monkhood, at the same time, they are expected to be good sons and comply with norms in society. Hence, these people, instead, look for the available social space and legitimacies through practices in upholding their local culture and practice. As Michael G. Peletz
explained, the third gender has maintained positive associations with the sacred and religion
, which tends to be visible in secular spaces. Northern Thai people tend to accept the role of the third gender as mediumship since they are able to satisfy the locals by maintaining their good habits, refraining from committing crimes, helping the community to decorate Paam, conserving the local culture, and upholding ritual practices. Nowadays in Northern Thai society, the third gender has also gained more acceptance as human beings and they can be “out in public” or dress up in female costumes during the possessing period or in their daily lives.
Second, contrary to Buddhism, Animism in Lanna culture does not believe in the law of karma, especially the third gender’s bad karma in their past lives. The third gender has not been prejudiced on their gender identities and sexual preferences. thereby, they are allowed to be a medium for the spirits. Nevertheless, the spirits have only binary gender, either male or female, but the medium is not limited to women possessed by a male spirit. Moreover, Sakamoto said that “women were allowed to take on stereotypically masculine behaviour not considered acceptable in daily life, such as smoking, drinking, and speaking frankly. It has also led to a mixed masculine-feminine identity
for mediums within Faun Pii practice”
Third, the female medium must refrain from receiving the spirits during menstruation. Such belief comes from the local Buddhist perception that menstruation is perceived as polluted and profane. Hence, there is no physical limitation for men or the third gender to be a medium for spirits.
Buddhism, with religious beliefs and ritual practices like Fuan Pii, has significantly impacted on the role of the third gender in Northern Thai society. The spirit dance nowadays has no gender restrictions for those who are the medium, and it merely depends on the spirit to choose a medium. However, there is some guidance that the third gender must comply with social norms, be a good role model in society or behave in good manners, and uphold credibility and faith for the spirit and their families. It also notably shows that the norms in Lanna's society still need to allow the third gender to have more space and legitimacy to live within the society equally as male and female. Finally, the spirit dance offers a broad picture of gender diversity in Northern Thailand and increases more social acceptance at present and in the future.