What must be the world's first and only magazine for 'Tomboy' lesbians hit the newsstands in Thailand in December. Fashions and lifestyle. There's no activist agenda beyond treating 'Toms' (and their feminine girlfriends, the 'Dees') as legitimate parts of Thai society.
Tom is such a well-known term in Thailand that the title - @Tom Act - Tomboy Lifestyle Magazine - immediately tells casual shoppers the magazine's orientation. There are no provocative pictures. No nudity. Nothing to anger the Ministry of Culture, which protects Thai morals by censoring magazines, television and movies.
I looked for at least a picture of a lesbian kiss. Cuddling yes. Kissing no. I checked the first four issues in detail and found two kisses, one from a controversial Egyptian movie and one from a photography exhibition. Both could be defended as news coverage, not images generated for the magazine alone. Neither image had any nudity. Interviews with happy couples may have a dozen pictures, but none show kissing.
The magazine is regular format size - same dimensions as Time or Newsweek - but with better quality paper. Each issue has around 120 pages. Paper and printing standards are high. It's in the Thai language, with bits of English for article titles and advertisements.
There are lots of Thai language magazines for sale each month. @Tom Act shows much less flesh than the high style women's lifestyle magazines. At the same time it differs from the lively teen magazines that focus on boyfriends and celebrities. It's aimed at a high-end market. The price, 97 Thai Baht, or a bit over three US dollars, is substantial. That's four times the price of the teen magazines, and the same as the glossy women's magazines that run to 450 pages (crammed with luxury advertising).
Interviews have identified the two editors as a straight woman and a gay man. The publisher, who does not give interviews, is a Tom lesbian, who pushed the idea of the magazine. She has wanted to do this for ten years.
One editor said of the publisher, "She wanted this magazine to be like a friend to young tomboys, with pages filled with inspiring stories and casual information about their lifestyle."
Will the magazine survive? There has never before been a gay, lesbian or transgender Thai magazine aimed at a mainstream market. Even today there is no gay or LGBT print magazine with general distribution in Thailand or anywhere else in Southeast Asia, South Asia or East Asia. Taiwan's His magazine tried to make it in a mainstream way, but disappeared. Buddy magazine in Korea was on newsstands for a while, but now only exists on the web. The thick small format gay magazines in Japan seem limited to gay outlets. A few soft-core gay magazines with sexy pictures turn up in Thailand, Hong Kong, China and Taiwan, but are usually hard to find. The net may be flourishing, but print media is not.
The number of advertisements in @Tom Act is limited. Advertisers are wary. Normally, magazines live on advertising revenue much more than sales income. Gay publishing in the West struggled for at least thirty years before advertisers flocked in. Absolute Vodka was an early entry into gay aimed advertising, buying up the back cover of Advocate magazine for years.
Fifty thousand copies of the first number of @Tom Act were published. Seventy percent sold. The magazine now has 3,000 subscribers. Many Toms and Dees probably prefer not buying it publicly.
Each issue starts with three or four pages on local social events, fashion shows and product promotions, with photos. These pages copy closely the style of trendy social sections in other magazines.
Then two pages titled "Around the World," featuring short news items. A pet shop owner in Sweden refused to sell a dog to a lesbian, so she sued and the court awarded her some money. Fifty-six percent of Americans now think homosexuals cannot change, up from 45% in an earlier survey. A fashion show for women in Afghanistan has caused controversy, for the women's faces were not covered. An Australian lesbian is now an elected member of the national Senate.
Then 16 lifestyle pages - new gadgets, hairstyles, fashion, movies, books. The first issue had a page of shoes for Toms and a page of shoes for Dees. A few years ago a designer showed a collection of Tom fashions, but her efforts faded away. Now the Tom look may be back as a fashion niche.
Each issue has at least one interview. The first was with the Tomish manager of Zeta, a woman only bar in an upscale entertainment area. The second issue interviewed a Tomboy who competed on Academy Fantasia, a Thai 'American Idol' type cable TV program. The third had interviews with twelve women about how they coped with turning points in their lives. Half were lesbian, half straight. The fourth featured a Tom running her own business, a bakery, in Siam Square. Clearly the magazine likes to show positive role models for Toms.
Then there are a set of columns. One, "World of Deviate," is written by an anthropologist under a pen name. Another, "Laugh of Live," is written by the "Princess of Tofu." Another "My Space" by a singer from the pop group China Doll. The mother of a Tom writes "Funny Thinking." Another column is "Only the Lonely," linked to a TV program.
There are no columns on current LGBT activism or Thai politics. For Valentine's Day, issue # 2 did list the countries that had same-sex marriage or registered partnership laws, and talked about the issue in Thailand. Issue #4 gave three pages to the story of an activist lesbian group in Beijing getting an international award from Mama Cash, a foundation that gives grants to lesbian organisations. Otherwise the magazine is about fashion, entertainment and lifestyle - not activism.
Each issue has had a new episode in the life of "A Heartbroken Tom in England." The poor Tom turned up to study in England only to find her Dee, already there, had dumped her. She is heartbroken, but stays on and writes about her life and visits to various parts of the UK.
There is a lot more. Sections on travel, sports, cooking, art, charity, health, your monthly horoscope, stories on celebrities. Issue # 1 ended with a full page picture of Virginia Wolff and the quotation: "It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple: one must be a woman manly, or a man womanly."
It's not always easy to find @Tom Act. It's on the stands in the B2S chain, which has outlets in big shopping centers. It does not show up in the best selling outlets - the hundred or so Book Smile stores, the ubiquitous 7-11s, or the Faster Book stands at Skytrain stations. Kinokuniya Books will handle Gay Times from the UK and Advocate from the US, but not, it seems, the local Tom magazine.
The only other LGBT publications in Thailand these days are the small format give-away English language magazines for gay tourists, the gay maps and a few marginal gay magazines with partial male nudity. You really have to look for this last category. Distribution is so limited, they cannot be making money.
The main gay magazine these days is probably Volume - a thick, glossy women's lifestyle magazine. It loves to do camera shoots of hot men. The hunky star of the gay movie Bangkok Love Story made the cover (paired with a woman). Inside a dozen pages had him posing alone in swimwear. A sister magazine, Image, in its April number, has three sexy photo spreads just of guys, totaling 35 pages, one entitled "Delicious."
No Toms yet in Image or Volume. No competition for @Tom Act.
Thanks to Prempreeda Pramoj Na Ayutthaya for translation assistance. Douglas Sanders is a retired Canadian law professor, now living in Bangkok. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.