By Olivia Boney, University of Southern Mississippi
Sexuality is one of the biggest topics that have had the most effect on individuals, societies and cultures. In America, male or female identify gender while “gay” or “straight” are the terms that have mostly defined sexual identity. Transgender is defined as the state of one’s gender identity not matching one’s “assigned” gender and is widely considered “abnormal” throughout the world. In Thailand the term “transgender” refers to a third sex, which is very widely misunderstood.
Traditional Thai culture, like Native American, recognizes three genders; male, female, and transvestite/transsexual/hermaphrodite (“kathoey”). Kathoey is the word used in Thailand to refer to a male-to-female transgender person or an effeminate gay male. They are also sometimes referred to as ladyboys, or sao which translates to “a second kind of woman”, or phet thee sam which translates to “third sex”. Kathoey, as a word, suggests that the person is male as opposed to suggesting a female sex identity, thus suggesting a third gender. Many kathoeys are cross-dressing males who sometimes undergo medical procedures such as hormone replacement therapy, breast implants, genital reassignment surgery, or Adam’s apples reductions, while others may simply wear makeup or use feminine names and personal reference but dress as men. Most kathoey make no attempt to conceal who or what they are. Despite their gender presentation, their sexual orientation is towards men who are not considered to be “gay”.
Thai society believes that a future kathoey is pre-determined at birth. If a young boy is particularly graceful or delicate, the possibility that he may be a kathoey will be openly discussed in his family. The family feels no shame or hostility toward the child as a result. Because of this openness, hormones (available without prescription) and medical procedures are available to them during their teenage years. The physical nature of a kathoey lends to his visual credibility as a woman and that may be what encourages Thai kathoey to display themselves so openly.
Thailand is an overwhelmingly Buddhist population and it is believed that their level of acceptance is directly related to the prominent Buddhist culture. Buddhism considers tolerance one of its highest values and actually attributes an individual role and unique suffering to each of the three genders. The concept of Karma (the effects of all deeds actively create past, present, and future experiences) conveys the Buddhist belief that everyone has the possibility of experiencing masculine and feminine forms (or a combination of the two) in different lifetimes. As a result of this belief, they believe that kathoeys deserve pity rather than blame. The Thai traditionally practice a logic of invisibility, allowing any kind of behavior to exist if it does not injure or offend anyone. Interestingly enough, there is no specific term referring to homosexuals who do not dress and behave as kathoeys. Western masculine homosexual men call themselves gay, not kathoey, meaning that western classification and terminology has made homosexuality visible, and therefore it is condemned.
As in most of the world cultures, the male is dominant in Thai society. As a result, even though a Thai father may not feel shame for his son to be a kathoey, there is still an air of disappointment in some. Gender prejudice shows itself in many forms, from education to religion. Thai Kathoey women are met with less social impediments than Western transgenders and typically work in traditionally female occupations, such as beauty salons or as hairstylists, and also work in entertainment as dancers or in cabaret shows and as prostitutes. However, they still suffer legal obstacles such as not being allowed to change their legal sex, and having to stay in all-male prisons when incarcerated. Discrimination in employment and lending is widespread. There have been instances in sports where kathoeys were on championship teams yet barred from joining national teams preventing them from competing internationally. Obviously not all kathoey necessarily work as prostitutes or are sexually promiscuous. Yet, however sympathetic or understanding, Thai society appears to view transvestites as an inferior sub-class. This societal classification seems to confirm the Thai tendency to demean the value of women in the existing structure of sexual power in Thailand.
As recently as 2006, there have been pro-active actions such as schools allocating a separate restroom for kathoeys, or allowing them to wear feminine hairdos although requiring them to wear male clothing. Kathoeys are actively supporting a new constitution which would have a third sex added to passports and other official documents as well as current legislative efforts to allow kathoeys who have undergone genital reassignment surgery to change their legal sex. Attesting to the Thai culture’s open acceptance of Kathoeys as opposed to Western countries, there are several popular Thai models, movie stars, etc. who are kathoeys, and you can often find print photos of the winners of female and kathoey beauty contests side by side in Thai publications. There are kathoeys in most villages, and kathoey beauty contests are commonly held as part of local fairs and are certainly not restricted only to urban areas. The acceptance of kathoeys by Thai society combined with their apparent success in achieving the visual goal of appearing as a woman may explain the vast difference of public opinion of kathoeys in Thailand versus transvestites in Western cultures. This could very well be the difference between men who choose to dress as women versus men who are more physically and psychologically inclined to be female. It is also likely many kathoeys are genuine transsexuals, or people born with female psyches in male bodies.
A small number of kathoey become fully accepted and nationally acclaimed in the higher levels of society as singers, actresses and even businesswomen. They seem to be admired for their courage and accomplishments as people who “come out of the closet” and make a success of the way they are. In Thailand this admiration is both more genuine and more widespread than in the West where “political correctness” carries such weight. As opposed to Western cultures, there is no need to “come out of the closet” in Thailand. Cross-dressing doesn’t have to be saved for weekends or special types of gatherings because of the status that has been given kathoey as a gender and not necessarily a sexual orientation. Not only do they adopt their “sex” by their dress but even in speech patterns referring to themselves using the feminine participle ka instead of the usual male krap.
What might be found interesting, is that in Thailand it is not so much homosexuality itself which is looked down on, but men showing feminine traits. By classifying kathoey as a third gender, they are considered to be female and thought only to act as the passive party, therefore, not placing negative connotations on the masculinity of “males”. It may even be suggested that being kathoey is the only way for a “less masculine” male to be accepted in a Thai society which condemns homosexuality. It appears this allows the Thai “male” to dominate the “female” keeping in line with the sense that in Thailand dominant male sexuality is implicitly regarded as being more valid than female sexuality.
As interesting as the Thai gender Kathoey appears to be, it can be equally disturbing. What if a young male in Thailand exudes what is considered to be feminine traits such as a small build, shorter stature, and softer mannerisms? In a culture that seems to have widely accepted the kathoey distinction, does his family determine his sexuality and then groom him for his future as a kathoey as opposed to his personal discovery of his own sexual identity? Does he have any real choices in his future sexual identity or is it pre-determined for him? I didn’t necessarily find the answers to these questions but do find them quite unsettling.