A Punjabi woman asks her community, “How Gay am I?”

By Sunanda Sachatrakul

Sunanda Sachatrakul speaks about her life from the fringes to centre stage

My parents are elderly Punjabis born and raised in Thailand. They grew up in joint families. When they were young, most people didn’t go to college, certainly not most women, as college would not contribute to finding a match or a job in your family business. Their marriages were arranged in their early 20s. My dad and his brothers were each assigned a room in my grandfather’s four-bedroom townhouse, and once married, their wives moved in. When my bhuaji got married, she moved just across the street.

Every Sunday, they all went to the same Mandir. Monday through Saturday, every family worked in neighbouring shop-houses in Chinatown. On some festive evenings, the entire community would attend the same wedding, as we were all related. We didn’t have family trees in Bangkok… we just had a huge family bush. That’s why everyone knows EVERYONE’s business, and if they don’t, they make it their job to know, for us Punjabi-Thais are a hard working bunch!

That’s why when I came out as a lesbian to my parents about five years ago, they asked me to keep it quiet. They still loved me, but they couldn’t imagine facing their relatives, the community, at every corner and every turn and having to be the subject of gossip. They asked me to keep it even from my only brother. That’s how we protect ourselves in an inextricably intertwined community where anything that tips you off as “weird” could stain your family’s reputation for generations.

I, however, studied at an international school where the community is very transient. Every two to three years, I had to make a new best friend because my old best friend moved across the globe. I learned early on that iron-clad bonds can form without a shared passport, shared cuisines, or shared religion. I learned that inviting diversity and different viewpoints into our lives makes for a richer life.

At the same time that I came out as a lesbian, I also ‘came out as a comedian’. Once I opened up to one part of my true self, I could no longer ignore other parts that were concealed by expectations and tradition. So I developed and a performed a short stage show, comprised of absurd queer characters, and spearheaded by my coming out story. I performed it in New York, where I was living, warm receptions on several stages, which gave me the courage to perform it in Bangkok.

So I did. I took a risk in inviting cousins and friends from my community who I knew loved me, but that I hadn’t yet come out to. At the end of the night, I was received with love and praise for the courage it took me to come out to them that way. I had blown off the guise of homogeneity.

The show has come a long way since then, and I’m happy to perform an hour-long version at the Melbourne Fringe Festival at The Butterfly Club from 9 to 15 September.


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