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Ladyboys: The third gender in Thailand

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Thailand

Joanna Horanin

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Last updated at 02/03/2024, 13:00

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What comes to your mind when you think of Thailand? I know what you will say. You will probably tell me about paradise beaches, palm trees, good food, temples, Buddha statues and scooters. Then, with a bit of irony and humour, you will mention go – go bars and ladyboys. You might even wink at me and say that it’s very hard to distinguish the latter from women, and many men, that come to Thailand for holidays, end their parties in sweet embraces of ladies with very low voices and Adam’s apples.

In Thailand ladyboys are everywhere: in town halls, shops, on the streets, in schools, temples and restaurants. These transgender men have become the country’s trademark that baffles tourists that come here from all around the world. Visitors are so interested in ladyboys that Google search term such as ‘why are there so many ladyboys in Thailand’ is one of the most popular when it comes to Thai culture. And no wonder, Thailand is probably the only country in the world, where ladyboys are so common and where they live as normal members of the society.

But why are there so many of them here? Is the Land of Smiles really so tolerant and open? What is life like for transgender people in a country that still perceives having children as a priority? Do ladyboys fight for their rights in Thailand just as they would in Europe?

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    Ladyboy, kathoey or transvestite?

    ‘Ladyboy’ is a term that is used by tourists for a transgender woman – one that dresses and behaves like a woman. In Europe we call them transvestites or transgender. Thais use another word – ‘kathoey’ – which comes from Khmer language and means a boy that is also a lady – a ladyboy. The word ‘kahtoey’ is also used to distinguish a transgender man from men and women. That’s why most of the Thai society perceives ladyboys as a third gender. Many kathoeys prefer this name as they think ‘ladyboy’ is slightly disrespectful.

    Ladyboy w kabarecie na Koh Tao.
    Ladyboy in a cabaret show on Koh Tao.

    Why are there so many ladyboys in Thailand?

    In my school, where I taught 12-20 year old youngsters, every class had at least one ladyboy. At a stall, where I buy fruit and vegetables, the seller is a beautiful woman, whose hands are a bit too big and voice a bit too low. The receptionist in my building is also a ladyboy. In night clubs, tourist agencies and restaurants – ladyboys are almost everywhere? Where do they come from?

    Once I was told that if a young boy from a very early age plays with dolls and prefers to spend time with girls, his parents start giving him hormones in the age of 7, so he changes into a woman. It was hard for me to believe this and it seemed very wrong. Luckily, as I later found out, the truth is a bit different.

    Very rarely and only in special circumstances, parents interfere in their child’s development in such a way. In other cases, children make a decision to change their gender. This usually happens when they are teenagers. In Thailand hormones can be bought without a prescritpion and they are available in every pharmacy. Many young boys, between 13-15, who discover that they are homosexuals, start taking medication without their parents knowledge. They want to be more feminine, they want men to like them more and they want to be different from the others. Very often they are impressed with ladyboys, who are actresses and singers. With time, they want to change into a woman completely. Some of them prefer to keep the male organs, but still dress up as women. Others put some make up on and wear men’s clothes.

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    Parents normally don’t react when their son starts to behave like a girl. They take it as something natural. In Thailand so called ‘coming out’ is not a big deal. There are no fireworks and no applause. Parents don’t disown their children either (as it happens in the west). Transgender people are accepted and tolerated. Because of that, those of a different sexual orientation can enjoy their freedom of expressing themselves.

    Modern commercialisation of ladyboys made them even more visible. Cabarets, where men, who look like beautiful women, perform on stage, are one of the the attractions in Thailand and can be found in every bigger town and city in the country.

    Ladyboy w kabarecie na Koh Tao.
    Ladyboys are sometimes more beautiful than some women.

    Why are kathoey tolerated in Thai society?

    The explanation can be found in Buddhism – the official religion of Thailand. Despite what many people think, Theravada Buddhism, a form of the religion that is dominant here, is very complicated. Thais not only believe in Buddha and his philosophy, but also in all kinds of gods and ghosts. Afterlife takes a prominent role here. Thais believe that spirits don’t simply reincarnate, but they have to go through heaven or hell first, depending on what life they led in their previous lives. So, a very harsh punishment awaits those that committed a murder or other awful crimes. For smaller offenses, like prostitution or not looking after a pregnant wife, one can be born a boy that later in life wants to become a girl. Thais believe that kathoey are sinners, who want to redeem their sins.

    First Buddhist scriptures also mention 3 genders: a man, a woman and a kathoey. So, religion officially allows for the third gender to exist.

    Because ladyboys are sinners, who must have done something wrong in their previous lives, Thais treat them with pity. According to the local beliefs, being born a kathoey doesn’t forcast a happy life.

    Ladyboy w kabarecie na Koh Tao.
    Ladyboys often perform in cabaret shows, are hairdressers or beauticians.

    Ladyboys in Thai society

    It would seem that ladyboys are welcome in Thai society and there is no place for discrimination, which is so evident in the European countries. Many expats and tourists claim that Thailand is the most open and tolerant country in the world.

    Well, that’s not really the truth.

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    Buddism mentions kathoeys as the third gender, but that doesn’t stop monks from telling ladyboys who they should be. ‘We can’t change them all’ said one monk in the interview for The Telegraph ‘but we can control their behaviour and show them that they were born men and not women’. Some monasteries offer special programmes, where parents can enrol their kids and where the young ones are taught how to be men again.

    Ladyboye w kabarecie na Koh Tao.
    So called ‘ladyboy cabaret’ attract hundreds of tourists.

    Kathoeys are treated as second class citizens in Thailand. They are not bullied, but their role is mainly to entertain others. They can be stylists, make up artists, dancers in one of the cabarets, but getting a well paid job might prove very difficult.

    In Thailand military service is compulsory. Only healthy men can serve in the army. Ladyboys are registered as men and they cannot change their gender. Officially they also need to become soldiers at one point in their lives. The problem occurs when they show up for their military commission in mini skirts and make up. At the moment the law says that in such a case, a man should be classified as mentally disabled and cannot serve his country. This information is added into his documents, which then unables him to find a job. That’s why many kathoeys work as prostitutes and dancers in cabaret shows.

    If a ladyboy manages to find a well paid position in an office, it is usually a low paid one and she will never get a promotion. The only solution here is to reduce make up, cut hair short and wear pants.

    Not long ago the entertainment world in Thailand was shaken when one of the TV stations’ bosses showed up in a programme dressed as a woman. Despite the fact that his sexual orientation was known to many and he had been seen walking in high heels and dresses around Bangkok, his act of making it official by coming to work as a woman, aroused controversies. Until then it he must have gone through the motions. A person of a higher rank cannot be a kathoey.

    Transgender people don’t have it easy in Thailand. As any other Thai, ladyboys suffer in silence and cover their misfortunes and problems with a smile. They turn everything in fun and games as it is hard for them to survive in a society, which tolerates them, but cannot fully accept them. Slowly there are more and more activists in Thailand that fight for the rights for the ladyboys to have better lives. Kathoeys also start to discuss the issues and openly admit that something must change in their country, so they can enjoy the same freedom as any other Thai person. But they have a long way to go and a lot of battles to fight.