Country Report: Thailand

Sam Winter, Division of Learning, Development and Diversity, Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong

Copyright Sam Winter to whom requests for reproduction and dissemination falling under copyright laws must be made

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first uploaded 2/5/2002, minor modification on 21/8/2002

( a ) Terms for TG

The term transgender is seldom used in Thailand. Instead, ‘kathoey’, a word originally used to denote hermaphrodites (Jackson, 1998), is nowadays often used to describe the transgender male. The label is somewhat nebulous, and is sometimes extended to cover male homosexuals (Jackson, 1998; Taywaditep et al., 1997). Thais (including kathoey themselves) sometimes employ more specific labels exclusive to male transgender. These include ‘kathoey phom yao’ (‘long-haired kathoey’), ‘kathoey tee sai suer pha phuying’ (‘kathoey dressing as a woman’), ‘pumia’ / ‘pumae’ (‘male-female’), ‘pet tee sam’ (‘third sex’), ‘phuying praphet song’ (‘second kind of woman’), ‘sao praphet song’ (‘second kind of girl’), ‘nang fa jam leng’ (‘transformed goddess’), ‘nong-toei’ (‘younger brother kathoey’), ‘ork-sao’ (‘outwardly a woman’), ‘sao-dao-thiam’ (‘artificial woman’), ‘tut’ (as in ‘tootsie’), or the informal English terms ‘ladyboy’ and ‘ladyman’. All of these terms make reference either to a clear female gender identity, or to one that is decidedly non-male.

( b ) Prevalence of TG

It has been reported that there are now some 10,000 kathoey living in Thailand (Ehrlich, 1996). This figure is almost certainly an underestimate. I have heard informal estimates as high as 300,000. Turning first to the more extreme end of the gender-transition continuum, there are an indeterminate number of government and private hospitals which offer sex re-assignment surgery. The three most active surgeons in this field have together performed around 2000 operations (Fiona Kim, 2001, personal communication). At the other end of the continuum, Matzner (1999) reports that one provincial Thai university of 15000 students boasts a ‘sorority’ for over 100 MtF students (most at an early stage in transition). This represents around one in 150 students overall, and a rather larger proportion of the males!

Even if the estimate of 10,000 is an accurate one, this figure would represent an incidence substantially above that estimated for transgender in many other parts of the world (for example American Psychiatric Association, 1994; Kesteren et al, 1996; Francoeur, 1997).

( c) Identity

Individuals vary of course. However, most kathoey present outwardly as entirely female – in terms of hair (often long), dress, cosmetics, manner, gait, gestures, voice, stereotyped personality traits (Winter and Udomsak, 2002) and interests (including vocational). When they speak they employ a female tone and vocabulary, employing word-forms normally restricted to females. A very large number of them take hormones, sometimes from as early as 10 years of age. Many of those who are able to afford cosmetic surgery do so. A rather smaller number undergo sex reassignment surgery.

This outward presentation as female reflects their sense of identity. Our own most recent research on 165 kathoey (mean age 25 years) reveals that, by age 10, 71% felt different to other boys, 42% thought they had the mind either of a girl or a kathoey (or a related term), and 35% already thought of themselves as belonging to one of those gender categories. Around 70% of our sample said they would ideally want to be a woman and indeed be re-born as one. The vast majority saw themselves living as women or kathoey for the rest of their lives. In short our kathoey typically developed their transgendered feelings early in life, saw their feelings as long term, and desired to be re-born female.

However, a minority of kathoey seem comfortable thinking of themselves as kathoey (or one of its synonyms). Around 19% said that they would prefer to be a kathoey (or its related terms), and 12% said that they would want to be reborn as such.

The kathoey has attained a prominence in Thai society that is probably unknown for TGs elsewhere. In Bangkok and other urban centres they go about their business – shopping, meeting friends, going to the cinema, eating and drinking in cafes, using public transport, visiting the temple – without passers-by raising so much as an eyebrow. One may be served by them at a café, market stall, or boutique. One may see them in (female) university uniform.

Each year there are several ‘kathoey’ beauty contests throughout Thailand, in some cases drawing hundreds of entrants. The two best-known (Miss Tiffany and Miss Alcazar) are televised and/or recorded for later sale in mainstream record and video stores. These beauty contests are so much a part of Thai culture that some Buddhist temples (e.g. Wat Sangkratchai, Wat Maipatpheelen, both in Bangkok) are known to stage kathoey beauty contests to raise money for temple works etc. Kathoey beauty contests are also a very important part of some up-country fairs.

Kathoey have been a regular feature of TV shows for years, albeit often as comic figures. Indeed the Thai Government at times seems a little uncomfortable with the high cultural profile occupied by kathoey. It recently advised television stations to curb appearances of kathoey – real or acted - on shows.

( d ) Religious and cultural context

In Thailand, as in other South-East Asian societies, non-normative gender and sexual categories form part of the indigenous cultural tradition (ten Brummelhuis, 1999). The prevalent belief until the beginning of the last century was that there were three original sexes (Jackson, 1995; Matzner, web resource); the third being the male-female.

There is a strong tradition of transgendered shamanism in Thai culture. The tradition survives in some rural areas, perhaps offering a valued place in society for the rural kathoey.

Arguably, additional themes of gender blending arise from Buddhist teachings on transience and incarnation. Buddhism teaches that all things lack permanence, even to the extent that there is no soul (Rahula, 1967; Neumaier-Dargyay, 1997). What is reborn is not a soul as such, but rather the result of one’s lives, current and previous (Neumaier-Dargyay, 1997). From life to life one’s elements may be incarnated as male or female (Taywaditep et al. 1997), or ‘kathoey’ (Bunmi, 1986). Indeed, certain Buddhist writings suggest that all of us have been kathoey in earlier lives.

There is an overarching view in Thailand that maleness is defined not only in terms of what anatomy you have, but in terms of what you do with that anatomy. This is echoed in some Buddhist scriptures. For example Jackson (1996;1998) notes that the Buddhist Vinaya text (a code of conduct for monks) identified four main sex/gender categories – males, females, ‘ubhatobyanjanaka’ (hermaphrodites) and ‘pandaka’ (‘inadequate’ males, i.e. those displaying a variety of other non-normative anatomies or sexual preference).

To the extent that maleness is defined at least partly in terms of sexual role, kathoey have lost much of their claim to maleness simply by adopting a passive sexual role. However, this idea, that gender is rooted in the role one plays in sex, has waned somewhat in recent years, effectively leading to a ‘masculinisation’ of much of the gay community.

While many Thais see TG as a non-normative pattern of behaviour that deviates from the ideal, they also see it as quite natural. The kathoey’s condition is often viewed as her fate; a karmic consequence (punishment in this life) for a sexual misdemeanour in a previous life (Jackson, 1995; 1998; Bunmi, 1986). Accordingly, TG is not generally seen as a disorder as it is in the West.

As one might expect from this, there is an overall relative acceptance of TG in contemporary Thai society. Our own Thai research is interesting on this point; our kathoey said 40% of their fathers were encouraging or accepting when they first made it known that they were kathoey, and 66% of their mothers.

It is important to note that such acceptance is not universal. It varies according to persons concerned – with some indication that females may be less accepting of kathoey than males (at least at the level of university students). It also varies according to the behaviour of the kathoey concerned (she is expected to be conform closely to female stereotype), as well as her appearance and her abilities. It also depends on the nature of the relationship between the two parties (relative, friend, employee etc. Matzner (2001) goes into more detail on this.

The relativism of acceptance leaves room for quite a lot of prejudice, discrimination and intolerance, detailed in later sections of this report.

( e ) Freedom to conduct oneself openly in a cross-gender role

There are few formal restrictions on the freedom of kathoey to pursue a cross-gendered life. They are able to go about their daily activities in a normal way, drawing little if any comment from those they meet. My own experience is that most Thais behave in an entirely warm and courteous manner when dealing with them in shops, cafes, in taxis, and so on. Indeed, this is generally the Thai way with all persons.

However, problems arise in more formal situations; for example in schools and universities, and in interviews with potential employers. In all these situations the question of legal gender status assumes importance. The rest of this report focuses on those difficulties.

Let me say right now that I believe that the difficulties to be outlined below, some connected with very practical matters of survival, prompt some kathoey finally to revert to male identity and behaviour. Around 6% of our recent kathoey sample anticipated that they would be living as men when they were aged 50. However, we should note, like ten Brummelhuis (1999), that very little is known about what happens to kathoey as they grow older.

In Thailand kathoey remain legally male, even after sex re-assignment. Their identification cards and passports show them to be male. This leads to all sorts of unfortunate consequences. In school many kathoey will be required to dress as a male and respond to their male name. At university kathoey may be allowed to dress in female uniform for lectures and tutorials, but may be required to dress as male or cut hair for special events (e.g. graduation awards, official visits etc.). In relationships, a kathoey finds that she cannot legally marry a man, though it will almost certainly be a man with whom she enters a relationship. In employment, kathoey commonly experience prejudice and discrimination when trying to get jobs; some employers (large and small) are quite clearly uncomfortable with the prospect of having a kathoey on staff. Finally, kathoey may have difficulty travelling abroad, risking refusal of entry and intrusive questioning and inspection at immigration points in other countries.

As a side note, I have even heard isolated reports of harassment and violence towards kathoey, including cases in which the perpetrators were police.

I now return to the issue of employment.

( f ) Freedom to pursue careers in a cross gender role

Some well-known singers / actresses / models (‘Jeun Jeun’, ‘Mahm’ Lakhonik, ‘Ma’ Onnapa) are kathoey. I know of a successful dentist, as well as someone in the senior management of a hotel who is kathoey. These success stories are exceptions. In practice, many, including university students (and even graduates) have difficulty getting suitable jobs. While few employers might admit to prejudice against kathoey, many find it hard to justify employing them in preference to other candidates who, they may feel, do not run the same risk of upsetting the sensibilities of customers or fellow employees. And then there is the government. In moves which tell much of the Thai government’s disapproval of the social prominence of the kathoey – domestic and international - the authorities have recently put barriers in the way of aspiring kathoey teachers and tour guides.

In the face of such difficulties how do kathoey support themselves (or, for some, their parents or siblings)? They occasionally manage to enter stereotypically female occupations (e.g. as shop assistants, stall holders, beauticians and hairdressers, waitresses etc.) or open small businesses (a flower shop, a market stall etc). Some become dancers in kathoey cabaret shows (sumptuous - and generally family-oriented - costume and dance shows for tourists or local audiences). Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket, Ko Samui, Pattaya all boast several. Even sleepy Hua Hin has one.

However, many kathoey find themselves edged by circumstance into bar work and prostitution, working in the business for months or years. Note however, that sex-work does not carry the same social and moral stigma in Thailand that it does in some other societies (Taywaditep et al., 1997; Peracca et al., 1998). We should also note that, while many kathoey may be shunted unwillingly into this world simply so that they can eat, for some it has the attraction of offering much higher earnings than would otherwise be available (and therefore a route to a better standard of living, including any surgery they desire). Such work may also very effectively re-affirm their view of themselves as female.

( g ) Freedom to form relationships according to gender identity and sexual preference

As indicated earlier, most kathoey perceive themselves as female, with a few seeing themselves as kathoey (and comfortable doing so). Other Thais seem to see them in the same ways - either as female or as a third gender. However, some regard them as a male-variant.

The vast majority of kathoey (over 90% of our recent sample) express a sexual preference for men, consistent with their gender identity. We should note that, for most of them, gender identity is already well-formed by the time they develop a sexual preference. In our own recent research we found that, while 35% of our kathoey thought of themselves as female (or third-gendered) by age ten, only 7% had experienced any sexual feelings at all by that age.

The consequence is that, when a kathoey does form a sexual relationship with a man, she and her partner are likely to see it as a heterosexual one. This is because she has already for years viewed herself as not belonging to the male gender, and he for his part will typically view her likewise. In our recent research around 30% of our kathoey seemed to see their own attraction to men in this way. Be this as it may, the kathoey’s male legal status makes it legally impossible for her and her partner to marry.

( h ) Access to medical services

Kathoey have easy access to hormones and surgery. Local chain drug stores can carry as many as 23 hormonal preparations, all available (without a doctor’s note) over the shop counter. Ninety five per cent of our recent kathoey sample (mean age 25 years) had taken hormones, some as early as the age of ten.

A large number of Thai surgeons perform a wide range of cosmetic surgeries, including eyes, cheeks, foreheads, nose, mouth, chin, ‘adam’s apple’, breasts and hips. While there is a market for these sort of services among genetic females, it is likely that kathoey form a major part of this market.

There are a large number of Thai surgeons performing an operation of exclusive interest to kathoey – sex reassignment surgery. Around 22% of our kathoey sample (mean age 25 years) had undergone SRS (one as early as her sixteenth year). Another 65% indicated a desire to do so.

Incidentally, some of these doctors draw clients from the developed West who are attracted to the high standards of work in Thailand, the low costs (even with travel and hotel fees included), and the absence of barriers imposed by the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care (notably the requirement for the real life test, psychiatric assessment and counselling).


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