When you take time to get to know a local community the benefits can include a greater understanding of complex cultural contrasts, as Intrepid Express reader Jeremy Wilson discovered in Thailand…
“A short time back, the BBC reported that a rural school in Thailand risked using their campus for a peculiar experiment: they provided an extra washroom on their grounds; one for boys, one for girls, and one for ‘katoeys‘. The headline read “Thai school offers transsexual toilet.”
If encountered by an individual unfamiliar with Thai culture, such an article will automatically elicit some curiosity on the reader’s behalf. There are so many possible questions that an innocent person could potentially pose concerning this unusual topic. Let’s try to illuminate this murky matter.
What exactly is a katoey?
The term katoey often refers to a male-to-female transgender person or a gay effeminate male in Thailand. The common English translation is ‘ladyboy.’ The terms ladyboy, kathoey, and transgender can be used interchangeably.
For some peculiar reason, many ordinary people in the West share a fascination for Thai ladyboys. The revenue generated by tourist ladyboy shows attests to this. It is the sheer number of ladyboys living peacefully in Thailand that compels interest, and their prominence in Thai culture has essentially created a third sex.
Ladyboys? Aren’t they just men who dress as women?
Cross-dressing is definitely part of it, but in Thailand the term ‘ladyboys’ can refer to males who display varying ranges of femininity. Many ladyboys dress as women and undergo feminising medical procedures such as hormone replacement therapy, breast implants, genital reassignment surgery, and Adam’s apple reductions. And others prefer to simply sport male clothing, wear make-up and display their long, black womanly locks. Bottom line: there are many different shades of ladyboys under the Thai sun, and while living or travelling in Thailand, you will happen upon a significant number of them – and you may not even realise it!
Why are there so many ladyboys in Thailand?
Whole books have been dedicated to this question. The practical reason being that the assortment of medical surgery mentioned previously is abundant and cheap in Thailand. Bangkok surgeons are world-renowned for performing sexual operations at bargain-basement rates. Mint, a ladyboy working as a hairdresser in the downtown area of Bangkok, explains in broken English, “(Most) katoeys can have big chest only.”
Breast implants cost close to $1200 Canadian dollars while the complete metamorphosis can cost up to $4000. Still, despite the diversity amongst ladyboys, they are all put under one umbrella. Each woman-hopeful may go to different lengths to become a ‘female’, but Thais still prefer to place them into one large, girlish group.
A more cogent explanation would not omit Thai culture from its perspective. Thai people are generally friendly, easy-going, and quick to smile – nowhere in the world will you see more smiling faces. Being non-confrontational by nature, Thais will deal with most awkward situations with a smile and politely utter “Mai pen lai,” which means ‘no worries’ or ‘never mind that.’
It is also relevant to note that Thai people are deeply religious, and Buddhism plays a significant role in their lives. Buddhism teaches compassion and emphasises the importance of family, friends and social harmony. This laid-back, tolerant lifestyle instills a specific mentality into Thai people, one defined by acceptance.
This fundamental acceptance, guaranteed by religion and supported by a unique collective comity, has empowered transgenders to just be themselves.
So ladyboys do not face any form of discrimination?
Not quite, and it’s important to be fair with this question because many Thai people will use the term ‘katoey‘ in a derogatory manner. The reasons why are not exactly straightforward but worth the attempt to understand.
The demeaning term ascribed to transsexuals, ‘women of the second type’, which is offensive to transsexuals and indeed, women in general, speaks volumes about the existing structure of sexual power in Thailand.
Thai society is dominated by the active sexual male. What merits interest is that male homosexuals, despite their sexual preferences, are nonetheless still viewed as ‘complete men’. These ‘Gay Kings’, in Thai parlance, are never categorised as kathoeys. Since they are actively in control of the sexual relationships they enter into with other men, and they are still capable of exercising that control, they are still considered masculine and enjoy more respect in Thai society.
Kathoeys, on the other hand, are considered passive homosexuals, and are viewed with some disdain because people believe they are hiding their true gender; their masculine nature. Due to their effeminate tendencies, kathoeys are often the objects of verbal abuse. Granted, that as a whole, Thai society seems to have a greater tolerance of homosexuality than in the West, but this does not translate into absolute equality.
Why does the author of this article seem to know so much about ladyboys?
I don’t know that much, but I would have never chosen such a topic if I hadn’t lived in Bangkok for four years. I was amazed that ladyboys lived so openly in Thai society. Young boys with feminine tendencies were not ostracised at school, but instead, were included in all typical childish raillery. This topic beckons Western society to the mirror, and there is a wealth of information on the internet to explore so that we can better see our own reflection. However, the ‘hands-on, hands-off approach’ worked best for me: being there to observe without having to personally verify the unverifiable.”