Gays Arrested in Thailand: Ugly Americans Come in All Shapes

Thailand

During the hustle and bustle of the Thanksgiving holiday, the drama of the GOP’s monstrous tax bills, and Donald Trump's basic confession of guilt in a tweet, a story got largely overlooked in the LGBTQ community but deserves revisting. 

A San Diego gay couple were arrested in Thailand for exposing their butts at a Buddhist temple. Famous for their now-deleted Instagram account, “Traveling Butts,” they would travel all over the world and share photos of their asses hanging out at famous sites. Because they aired out their rolls at a Buddhist temple, they’re potentially facing almost a decade in prison. When my editor asked me what I thought about it — especially since in the official police statement singled them out as being gay — I read more about the incident and came to the conclusion that it probably has little to do with them being gay and more with being “Ugly Americans.”

Before the phrase “Ugly Americans” was the name of a short-lived cartoon on Comedy Central, it was first noted back in 1948 by Cuban photographer Constantino Arias as the title for his photograph of a middle-aged American tourist in his unflattering swimshorts, barefooted, two-fisting booze, and with a Cuban cigar in his mouth, while wearing an anachronistic sombrero. Later the phrase was the title of a book and a movie about the boorish, pretentious, and culturally insensitive behaviors of even nominally well-meaning Americans abroad and is the foundation of the stereotype of the awful American tourist.

We know of the classic stereotypes even we laugh at them — white socks and sandals/sneakers, Hawaiian shirts, loud-talking, especially when trying to get people in other countries to understand English; fat and wearing cargo shorts. Just watch Eurotrip or National Lampoon's European Vacation, and it’s like watching a documentary about American tourist stereotypes. However, there’s often another stereotype about American tourists that manifests itself in uniquely “lefty” ways.

Sure, the stereotype of the fanny pack-wearing, cheeseburger-scarfing, and white socks-wearing American is manifestation  of the more rural, less enlightened, and probably conservative ilk, but there are unique ways coastal folks can be stereotypical. They have a tendency to fetishize the local country; maybe they fawn over handmade Peruvian ponchos, saying they're more genuine than the store-bought ones (guys, it’s likely the same thing). They marvel at how much more sophisticated Parisians are (guys, they thought Jerry Lewis was a genius — and don’t mistake pretension for sophistication). There is the fixation on other religions as being so much more enlightened than evil old Christianity (we don’t mention the ethnic cleansing Buddhists have committed). There is the desire to wash away your Americanness by trying to blend in, use the local lingo, and “immerse yourself in the local culture,” or at least the impression you have of the local culture. Guys, you don’t have to eat questionably hygienic foods in that sketchy café to get the full experience of being from whereever; pretty much everyone eats some kind of pizza these days. And for the love of God, quit pretending to be a damn Canadian because you’re embarrassed. You’re an American. Own it. 

A worse behavior of the lefty American is the fetishizing of what we think other countries are like. A Cuban-American friend of mine who got their degree from the University of Havana and is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America has more than once gotten spun up when he reads articlesby  or encounters American lefties who fetishize Cuba. These folks envision it as some sort of paradise of Marxist idealism, when the country has numerous issues of corruption, poor governance, and a not always progressive past (especially in regard to race and LGBTQ issues). My friend recounts how he and his friends were called gusanos by white American lefties because they’ve had the temerity to question the perfection of Castro’s revolution.

Now, that might be the extreme example of that, but it’s still an example of the mistakes and stereotypes we have of other countries as being better and more liberal than America, but they’re not always more liberal in a lot of ways. For example, American free speech has allowed women to finally take down serial abusers like Louis C.K. and Matt Lauer with just the accusation of the act, but in England the extremely strict libel and slander laws allowed serial child molester Jimmy Savile to escape public accusation without being subject to a lawsuit. While Australia might have banned the majority of firearms after a small number of mass shootings, only recently has it had a public discussion of same-sex marriage. Paris and France might be considered one of the most LGBTQ-friendly places in the world, yet the countrybans insults to the national flag or anthem as well as Holocaust denials and requires use of the French language in media. France also restricts conspicuous religious symbols in schools, meaning hijabs are banned. Only now is Ireland reconsidering its constitutional ban on blasphemy.

Denmark and Sweden, often seen by many in America as egalitarian near-utopias, have some of the highest reported incidence of sexual and physical abuse of women. And in Thailand, where the majority supports same sex-marriage, bans discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, has one of the most visible and accepted transgender populations in the world, there are laws incomprehensible to us about offending their royal family (and apparently their religion). One academic is banned from the internet for his views, a few are in exile, and one man spent two weeks in jail for not turning off a reading light on a flight that annoyed two Thai princesses. One man faces 37 years in prison for insulting the king’s dog. Yes, you heard that right, 37 years in prison for insulting a dog.

Perhaps these two men, after traveling around the world where hanging their asses out near Big Ben, on the Spanish Steps in Rome, a float during Carnivale in Rio, or ton he Champs-Élysées in Paris, thought a seemingly LGBTQ-friendly country like Thailaon nd would certainly be OKwith two men catching a breeze outside of one of its most famous and revered temples, but were caught with their pants down. It’s possible that they made a mistake based upon presumptions of Thailand’s permissiveness in other areas. Maybe they were just being “Ugly Americans.” I certainly don’t think they deserve nearly 10 years in prison for it, but a definite ban from the country for life, a public reputation for being embarrassing tourists, and a wake-up call for the rest of us to rethink how we see other countries are definitely deserved.

AMANDA KERRI is a writer and comedian based in Oklahoma City, and a regular contributor to The Advocate. Follow her on Twitter @amanda_kerri.

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