The Kathoeys in Thailand

By Jeoffre Duplessis, Xavier University

Third genders, hermaphrodites, intersexuality and transgender are groups that have been part of societies since the beginning of time. Many communities accept the third sex, from Thailand, Samoa to American Indians and the Philippines. However different societies treat these groups of people from culture to culture. In Thailand, there is a culture where young men exploit their own sexual orientation. These men are known to be a part of the kathoey culture in Thailand. The term “Kathoey” refers to a male to female transgender person in Thailand. Though in fact they are men, they have feminine qualities untypical of a man, not only in appearance or manner. Other societies such as the Western culture call these men effeminate. They are also called “lady-boys” or “sago”, in the Thailand society which means a second kind of women. “For those who are who embark on the road to becoming ‘lady-boys’ are not only accepted by their peers – they are seen by aspiring younger boys as heroines and role models” (Totman). Though they are men, Kathoey men are not equivalent to the modern “trans-woman”, which is referred to a person who is biologically born as a male but feels that this is not a complete description of himself so he would identify himself as a woman. The Thai culture suggests that the person is male appearing in a female identity and is accepted as the third gender; individuals that are neither men nor women.

The Kathoey culture believes that the state of being neither male nor female may be understood in relation to the individual’s own gender role, gender identity, or their sexual orientation. To different cultures, a third sex gender may represent an intermediate state between men and women, the state of being both genders, and the state of being neither (neuter). They have the ability to swap genders and are categorized altogether as an independent of the third gender. They also usually propose a new role for the study of alternative sex and gender systems in cultural society, as a means of critiquing thinking that privileges standard male and female gender distinctions and reject the natural basis of other forms of sexuality.

A possible explanation for the high number of Kathoey men is that open homosexuality is a much less visible phenomenon in the Thai culture. Though becoming a Kathoey man is sometime the solution for a number of male homosexuals in Thailand. After they become a Kathoey man they have no interest in a female companion. They usually seek male sexual partners who identify themselves as heterosexual. This is usually common since they have become feminine and chosen a complete different image of them self. Their interest of the heterosexual men is that heterosexuality attracts people from the opposite sex, but they are some Kathoey men who still have male genitals. Although the idea of the interest in heterosexual men is that it refers to an individual sense of personal and social identity based on those attractions, and expressed behavior.

Most Kathoey men at an early age were cross dressers. They are not to be confused with homosexuality or the idea of being a transsexual. Cross dressers are people with apparent gender identification with one sex, and who has been birth designated as belonging to one sex, but who wears the clothing of the opposite sex. The reason why people cross dress because dressing this way is connected them to the person they want to be. Though Cross-dressers may not want to be identified with, or want to be the opposite gender, nor adopt the behaviors or practices of the opposite gender.

“Intersex” is a term used for any form of congenital (inborn) mixed sex anatomy. This means that a person with this condition has body parts associated with males and females, or has body parts that appear ambiguous. Such as a male who has a penis that is surgically reformed in a representation of a vagina. Intersexuality is imaged as males whose genitals have a resemblance between a penis and a clitoris or a divided scrotum. Throughout their teenage years, Kathoey men are allowed to have medical procedures such as hormone replacement, genital reassignment, Adam’s apple reductions, and breast implants. Some will need hair removal and vocal feminization. Others wear makeup and address themselves with feminine titles such as Mrs., or Ms., while others dress as men.

Kathoey men are identified at a young age, or some are even considered to be born that way. “About five percent of the boys at a Thailand school were openly dressing and expressing themselves as girls” (Totman). Other societies such as the American society would call these human beings transsexuals or even gay, because of the similar meaning to “fairy” or “drag-queens” in the American culture, but the Kathoey lifestyle is more visible and accepted in Thailand. It was obvious that we, as a culture, have a hard time trying to understand the difference between a drag queen, transsexual, and a transgender, yet we find it very easy to know the difference between the American baseball league and the National baseball league.” (RuPaul). Though Kathoey men are described as intersexual beings (existing between sexes), some still have male genitals, because most of them consider that their genitalia is not relevant to how they interact with most people. Usually it is clear that Kathoey men are being associated with other transgender societies such as transvestites who play a strong and exclusive feminine role, but it is that Kathoey women who are homosexuals or bisexual that play a sexual role.

Gender identity and transgender identity are different concepts of sexual orientation. Transgender people have more or less the same variety of sexual orientation as of people with gender identity. Despite this distinction, throughout the gay, heterosexual, and bisexual subculture was often the only place where gender-variant people were socially accepted in the gender role of a society. They felt they belonged to their own society separating themselves for others especially when the idea of the transition between the sexes. The acceptance of the transition has caught the attention of the wider world, and the gay community in Western societies, though they did not generally distinguish between sex and gender identity.

Kathoey men choose their gender role wisely. Even though some may still have male or female genitals, they have a choice for which gender to represent. Although their culture represents the third gender, they still have choices about what gender to display around certain societies. In order for a Kathoey to have an occupation in any society, they must have an occupation that will fit their gender role. Most occupations that are held by the Kathoey man in the Thai society are modeling, beauty contest, and acting. Other occupations are exotic dancers, prostitutes and entertainers in cabaret shows. These occupations in Thailand are highly appreciated, though Kathoey men working in regular occupations are however not uncommon. Even though they are women, some still choose to do carpentry work, fishing, and hunters. Other societies may say that these occupations that are listed seem to be masculine. They Kathoey men are an arguable representation to how societies think how gender should play its role.

As the Kathoey culture is visible and accepted by the Thais, the idea of transgender and transsexuals are not accepted in the Western countries and societies. Many Kathoey men face social impediments or they must meet a certain bar that they reach to be accepted by the Thai culture. The ideas of a male-to-female transition maybe a struggle for some in other cultures, as families especially their fathers are disappointed if their son decides to become a Kathoey woman. Just like in any other culture when a father finds out that his son is a homosexual or happens to be a transsexual. Or the awkward moment when a gay person or a transsexual is comfortable telling others about the lifestyle they have chosen. “ The means of critiquing thinking that privileges standard male/female gender distinctions and rejects the natural basis of other forms of sexuality” (Herdt). However Kathoey men are very comfortable with their sexuality, but they have multiple decisions depending on what gender role they represent and should attain.

Works Cited

    • Totman, Richard. The Third Sex: Kathoey-Thailand’s Ladyboys. London: Souvenir P, 2003. 25 Apr. 2008.
    • RuPaul. Interview with Oprah Winfrey. CBS. Chicago.
    • Herdt, Gilbert. Third Sex, Third Gender. New York City: Zone Books, 1994. 28 Apr. 2008.

5 thoughts on “The Kathoeys in Thailand

  1. the last paragraph are your opinions and stereotypes. not all fathers think it is terrible that their son is gay. it is not always awkward for a gay person to be comfortable sharing their lifestyle.

    also you contradict yourself in the second to last paragraph when you express that the kathoey are men, and then they are women, and then they are men again. if i read your article correctly, they are neither, or they are third sex. i guess i am confused if they identify as a man or a woman since you say that they don’t identify and then you refer to them as kathoey men or kathoey women.

  2. I read this explanation in hopes of being able to help our new Thai exchange student understand me as a male-to-female transsexual using the example of the kathoey people. After reading this article, I feel that “kathoey” is not an adequate description, as it seems that they see themselves as men who express themselves as women – almost like full-time cross-dressers. That is not what I am: I am a woman who must drive a male-like body, not a man with a “feminine-side.” (In fact, to be thought of as the latter seems insulting to me.)

    I wonder if there is some naming distinction to modify “kathoey” that would come closer to describing me?

    Here is a way of explaining this that I’m considering (maybe too much for such a student, but I have in mind fellow Christians who may have problems with the way I express who I am):

    “When I was born, the doctors did their best with what knowledge they had, and they called me male.

    Parts of my body are male; parts of my body are female. The rest of my body lies in the overlap between the sexes.

    My sense of myself as a person, is that I am a woman

    It was many years before it was safe to be myself, to be who I am.

    In that time, I took on the roles of husband and father.

    I continue these roles out of love for my family and my commitment to them and God.

    For them, for as long as they need this, I will not legally become a woman, nor change my body as much as I could to be female.

    Instead, I live as a transgender person, and to the casual observer, I already appear and seem to them to be the woman I am inside.”

  3. I’ve been thinking about my self-description again after what I expressed above. After chatting with a sister, it became apparent that I could be misleading one into thinking that I’m interesexed (in the classic sense of the word), when I may only be neurologically-intersexed. What I wrote was true, but also a bit misleading.

    So, I’ve come-up with something else. It’s framed explicitly, in the way that I was thinking internally about this: as a conversation with a hostile conservative Christian.

    I started with only the first couple of questions…really, my self-description, but then other question in the scenario ‘arose’ and I answered them too.

    What are you?
    I am a person, a human being, a child of God.

    Are you a man or woman?
    I wear a body that most closely resembles a male: my sex.
    Who I am most closely resembles a female: my gender.
    I live as a transgender woman, a sister, a husband and a father.

    Are you gay?
    I am asexual, otherwise the question is meaningless to me.

    Why are you this way?
    I have some theories; only God knows for sure.

    God doesn’t like this.
    God and I walk together in this.

    But you are sinning.
    God’s Spirit has not convicted me of sin in this matter.

    But you are cross-dressing.
    I dress to my gender.

    What about your wife?
    God’s grace is sufficient for her also.
    Our love for each other transcends our bodies and gender expression.

    You are being selfish.
    I am being myself as authentically as I can: this is neither selfish, nor selfless.

    You are deceiving yourself and others.
    I am what I am by God’s grace.

    Your lifestyle is an abomination to God.
    My “lifestyle” is to breathe, pray and be.
    There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus.
    Please refer further concerns to Him.

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