Research and discussion paper

Counting kathoey.

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

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

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uploaded 17/6/2002, updated 27/8/2002

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 (web resource) 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).

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 (SRS).

How can one count how many kathoey there are in Thailand? First one would have to define who one wants to count. If one is interested only in those who have had SRS then one might go to the surgeons and ask for the figures. But this method may not be so easy; first, it is difficult to ascertain how many surgeons are doing this operation; second, one suspects that not all may keep full records going back to the time that they started; third, some previously active surgeons may no longer be active in the field; and fourth, an increasing number of operations now appear to be done on foreign patients rather than Thais. Most importantly, there is the problem that this method would only give figures for the extreme end of the transgender spectrum; those who undergo SRS. Many never do, nor want to, and yet live their lives in a cross-gender identity.

An alternative method, one which is refreshingly simple but which I admit has all sorts of problems attached to it, is to adopt an approach rather like I imagine the botanist might who is interested in studying a somewhat rare species of flower on an island. First he would ensure that he can recognise the species. Second, he would go out to likely locations and count how many he can find. Third, he would try to extrapolate to a figure for the entire island.

It is this approach that we are currently taking in a research project in Thailand. We are selecting community locations at which people congregate, identifying a particular spot, and then observing and counting passers-by, making a note of each kathoey who also passes.

The approach, which we might 'tongue-in-cheek' call ‘looking and counting’ rests on a number of assumptions. First, that the locations chosen, and times selected for observation, are representative ones at which an individual kathoey is no more and no less likely to be present than any other person. Second (since we are trying to estimate the numbers of kathoey in Thailand), that the locations are representative for the country as a whole. Third, and very importantly, that the observer is indeed able to read (identify) a kathoey in a passer-by encounter. The observer should make as few false positives and false negatives as possible, but has to do so basing his or her judgment on the target’s facial appearance, body shape, manner, gait and dress, without any opportunity to observe other important cues such as voice.

One way to try to test whether such a method is possible is to check the observer’s ability against an expert’s. Who might such an expert be? Probably the most expert in reading other kathoey are kathoey themselves. Many of them pride themselves on their ability to read others, often giving a respectful nod or 'wai' (Thai palms-together greeting) to another in a public place, even though they may not ever have met before. 

Consequently, I and independent transgender observers have conducted trial observations in middle income shopping centres in Thailand. We observed all persons passing a designated point (usually a door leading in and out of the centre).During these periods we independently observed 2237 persons pass through the door, counting the ‘definite’ and the possible ‘kathoey’ who passed by. Any individual who passed through the door more than once during the hour was counted more than once. I identified ten passers-by as ‘definite’ kathoey, while my assistants identified twelve to be. This was a high level of agreement. Incidentally, a  much lower level of agreement occurred for ‘possible’ kathoey. While I identified fourteen  to be, my assistants observed none. Clearly then, if one takes a kathoey’s figures as the criterion by which my own observations are to be judged, then my ‘possible’ observations revealed far too many false positives. On the other hand, my ‘definite’ sightings were quite accurate, perhaps even on the conservative side.

Armed with this information, I am now collecting incidence data in different locations, on week days and weekends during the months of June and August 2002, and at various times of the afternoon, in Bangkok and Chiangmai, the two major urban centres in Thailand. So far the data is as follows:

Location                                           Duration   Passers-by  Kathoey   

Siam Centre, Bangkok                       3.5 hrs       4632            12

Mah Boom Kong Centre, Bangkok    1.0 hrs         930              0      

Discovery Centre, Bangkok                3.25 hrs     6910            25 

Gat Suan Gaew Centre, Chiangmai      2.25 hrs     1890             5   

The data represent a total of 10.00 hours and 14362 people in the nation's two largest urban centres. I should stress that all these shopping centres are middle-income locations popular with persons of both sexes (by that I mean male and female) and all ages. 

Bangkok is a city with a population of around of 5,647,799 (1998) (Chulalongkorn University Population Information Center). If our observed incidence of kathoey in Bangkok is representative of Thailand’s capital, then we may estimate that there are nearly 17000 kathoey in the city. 

If our combined figures for Bangkok and Chiangmai are representative of Thailand in general  (1998 population 61,466,178) then we have a national incidence of around 3 in every thousand people (say 6 in every thousand males), extrapolating at nearly 180,000 kathoey nationwide.

I do not want to claim too much for this method, or for the numbers it has yielded so far. The figures we are getting may be too high. After all, kathoey may be prevalent in the cities of Thailand than in the countryside. They may indeed spend more time in shopping centres than ordinary males and females do. On the other hand, we are being very strict in ignoring any 'possibles' or 'probables', counting instead only those who are judged to be certain transgenders, this on the basis of the limited time for observation (a maximum of a few seconds each individual) and the few cues available. In our view there are likely to be false negatives in this study, and very unlikely to be any false positives.

The research is continuing, and we accept that it is important that we select a wider variety of locations and collect more data, not only in Bangkok but also elsewhere in Thailand; certainly in urban areas and possibly in rural ones too. Perhaps too there is a need for triangulation with other methods. For the present this simple study, still in its early stages, represents the only one I know that has attempted to arrive at some sort of empirically derived estimate of male transgender in Thailand. For that reason only, I thought it worth reporting, even at this early stage..

We will update you as the research progresses and we collect a larger (and, one hopes, more representative) corpus of data.


American Psychiatric Association (1994) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4th Ed. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Ehrlich, R. (1996). Thailand’s secret sex. Elle Magazine UK, June: 42-48.

Francoeur, R. (1997). (Ed.). International encyclopedia of sexuality. New York, NY: Continuum.

Kesteren, P.J. van, Gooren, L.J. and Megens, J.A. (1996). An epidemiological and demographic study of transsexuals in the Netherlands. Arch. Sex Behav. 25: 589-600.

Matzner, A. (web resource) Roses of the North: the katoey of Chiang Mai University     link to resource

Population Information Center of Chulalongkorn University.     link to resource

Winter,S. and Udomsak, N. (2002). Male, Female and Transgender : Stereotypes and Self in Thailand. International Journal of Transgenderism, 6,1.    link to resource