Research and discussion paper

Transgressing the Gender Boundary

Wong Ying Wuen, post-graduate student at the National University of Singapore, Department of Southeast Asian Studies

Copyright Wong Ying Wuen, to whom requests for reproduction and dissemination falling under copyright laws must be made

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uploaded 7/4/03


            Gender issues have increasingly become important with feminist works and scholarship, examining gender relations. Studies in transsexuality and homosexuality are increasingly prominent. The attempt to situate such studies in traditional studies of gender relations has prompted a closer look at the problems with the conventional Western approach, especially in non-Western societies.

            Southeast Asia remains a site of fascination for outside scholars. This paper will attempt to highlight the difficulties in applying a Western model in a non-Western society and the inadequacy of the “border metaphor” in explaining the transsexual culture in Southeast Asia. The dominance of Western discourses overlooks the transsexual self-identity and results in an understanding of Southeast Asia on a very surface and superficial level. It is only when such restrictions are recognized that a deeper and more accurate reading of Southeast Asian societies can be made.

 The border metaphor

            The concept of borders and boundaries has been increasingly used in anthropological studies today to explain social relationships, events and even state politics. “Boundaries” were of interest because it meant that certain “traits” of a group of people can be “closed off” from others and some traits transcend boundaries and are communicated from one group to another.[i] Also, the study of relations across cultural boundaries meant that social relations between different groups of people can be explained using “differences”. Such differences are highlighted and drawn upon to explain different behavioural norms between groups of people, their self-identification and to distinguish between groups of people with seemingly “marked boundaries’.

            For anthropologist Frederik Barth,[ii] “ethnic groups are socially constructed, made up of individuals who strategically manipulate their cultural identity by emphasizing or underplaying it according to context.” People may cross boundaries or stress certain traits to reaffirm their boundaries or simply maintain regular relations across them, should they find it advantageous to do so.[iii] People in different groups can stress certain “traits” to emphasize their differences or similarities to other groups, according to the situation. Such traits are based on “self-ascription and ascription from others”.[iv] For example, a Thai may draw upon his cultural symbols, such as the Thai language, Buddhism and the monarchy in identifying himself as Thai. But such self-ascription is only effective when others ascribe such symbols to Thai culture. In other words, what is Thai is what is seen as Thai by other people. People can also cross boundaries and/or maintain relations across these boundaries depending on the need to do so. Therefore, boundaries and borders exist in relation to each other and no cultural group can exist independently on its own. A social group can only be distinguished when it is seen in comparative terms to another group. Boundaries can be cultural and symbolic, but can also be a representation of power, status and even politics. Local conflicts in Southeast Asia more often than not escalate into a question of ethnicity and even nationality, where kinship, religion, socio-economic interests, class issues and gender relations are drawn upon. It is with this concept of borders and boundaries that we turn to look at gender relations in Southeast Asia – the transsexual culture.

 The Gender Boundary in Southeast Asia

            The notion of gender relations has mostly been seen in a bipolar approach, dominated by Western academic discourses.[v] This approach, according to Kesler and McKenna (1978)[vi], privileges sexuality above all other criteria in the concept of gender. Such would include one’s biological sex (i.e. possession of either the male or female genitalia) and one’s sexual orientation.[vii] This means that gender would effectively be seen in a bipolar way, with two oppositional sexes, the male and the female. However, this approach is insufficient and problematic in explaining gender variation, even in Western studies itself, as pointed out by scholars such as Anne Bolin (1988) and Dallas Denny (1994).  The complexities brought about by the increasingly prominent areas of gay and transsexual studies have rendered the bipolar approach ineffective as we can no longer explain sexual inclination using gender definitions.[viii] The concept of gender is much more complicated in Southeast Asia, with the complexities from social relationships, status, history and even religion. For example, it is often said that women in Southeast Asia has always enjoyed a higher social standing because of their roles in household management and their involvement in local trading activities. This means that it is difficult to establish very clear-cut distinctions between the polarity of male and female using gender roles. Both men and women often share these “traits”. Should trade and management of household finances be considered traits in exemplifying masculinity or femininity? Biological sex seems to be the easiest basis to solve this dilemma, but as I shall discuss later, this border metaphor is inadequate. Gender, in this sense, becomes a social product, not a biological one.

            The gender boundary becomes even more blurred when we look at the homosexual and transsexual subcultures in Southeast Asia. These people who “cross gender boundaries” can be males, females, homosexuals, heterosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals.[ix] There is, in fact, a large spectrum of individuals in this subculture, ranging from homosexuals to cross-dressers to transgenders who undergo full sexual reassignment surgery to transgenders who want to live the life of the opposite sex without going for surgery. This means that the border metaphor (in which the sexes are divided into two distinct groups according to behavioural norms, gender roles, biological sex and sexual orientation) is inadequate is explaining the status of these people, who are seemingly transgressing gender boundaries (but at the same time, the transgression is not totalitarian). As Alan Bell and Martin Weinberg (1978) pointed out, the possible permutations on gender orientation and definition are innumerable so that it is often not possible to understand gender categories and relations without understanding the fuzziness of these categories. It is this “in-between-ness” and “fusion” of categories that we seek to understand and situate in Southeast Asian studies.

 The transsexual in Southeast Asia

            The kathoey in Thailand, bakla in the Philippines, acault in Myanmar and banci in Indonesia are words that come up frequently in Southeast Asian discourses. Common translations of the terms would be “transvestite”, “transsexual” or “transgender”.[x] It is important to note that in Southeast Asian languages, the domains of biological sex, culturally ascribed gender and individual sexuality are not distinguished semantically. For example, in the Thai language, all three concepts are denoted by the word ‘phet”, which means sex/gender and this is compounded with other words such as chaay and ying, male and female respectively. Thus, phet chaay can be translated into male or masculine and the same goes for the term phet ying. As such, it is very difficult to make a clear-cut distinction between these three concepts.[xi] Transgenders or transsexuals are often an intermediate between males and females, sometimes doing as little or as much as they wish to their bodies,[xii] thus comprising a “third sex” category in Southeast Asian histories.

 The inadequacy of the border metaphor

The border metaphor highlights the binary oppositional differences between males and females and this approach is dominated by Western discourse, which focuses heavily on biological sexuality. Transsexuality was measured on the degree of “deviance” from the prototypical male or female models. But this approach is inadequate, simply because not only are the “masculine and feminine traits” between being a man or a woman difficult to define, this so-called “deviance” deviates in itself! There is great variation even within the transsexual/transgender community. These people move between the appearances of male and female very fluidly and sometimes stay in the “territory in-between”.

            Based on my fieldwork on transsexual performers (kathoey) in Phuket, Thailand, I have found that there are many individuals who cross-dress, for different reasons and there are many kathoey (transsexual males) who are comfortable with having both penises and breasts.  These people are therefore, satisfied to be in the “territory in-between” and see no need to transgress the gender boundary to become “totally women”. Gender can no longer be strictly defined in terms of possessing biological genitalia and the situational flexibility of gender and sexuality must be recognized. There has been a gradual increase in the number of people who have come to recognize themselves as constituting a separate “third gender” – the transsexual.

 The Third Sex / Gender

            With the availability of transsexual surgery, electrolysis for removal of facial hair and hormonal treatment after 1952, many transsexuals turned to surgical solutions in crossing the gender boundary. But now, there is a gradual increase in the number of people who have come out to recognize and see themselves, not as crossing boundaries but as transsexuals or transgender. Looking at the transgender person as trying to cross boundaries in order to “fit” into images of women meant looking at transsexuals as men who were trying to pass off as a non-transsexual women, a daunting task, which more often than not encompasses social shame in the failure to do so.[xiii] Rather than attempting to cross the gender boundary and passing off as a non-transsexual man or woman, many transsexuals are increasingly seeing themselves as a transgender individual, in a third gender category altogether. Some Western scholars such as Marjory Garber (1992) have advocated the need to escape from the bipolar notions of gender and use a “third category” to describe these new possibilities of gender identification. Transgenderism describes more than crossings between poles of masculinity and femininity. It means transgressing gender norms that are socially-defined. Gender definitions with clear boundaries are also not feasible.

            For example, the kathoey in Thai society seems to be a transgender category rather an a variant of male or female. The kathoey form a third gender that cannot be fitted into either ends of the bipolar model. The meanings of the term kathoey is confusing, even when used by the kathoey themselves.[xiv] The wide-ranging kathoey behaviour from the drag queens or transvestites ( who are mostly cross-dressers) to effeminate male transsexuals, otherwise known as “phuu ying praphet song” ( or “the second kind of women”), exemplifies the variation within the transsexual/transgender subculture such that no clear cut boundaries can be established. The existence of terms such as kathoey and bakla in the local language means that these people were considered a third gender historically.

            Local myths of origins support this.  The myth of Northern Thais document:

 The great mother created three beings, the first man, the first woman and the first kathoey, where the kathoey was to have a special role and had to accept the marriage between the man and the woman so that creation can continue. The kathoey accepted this and the Lanna people came into being. The kathoey here us an ambiguous figure who was neither male nor female, constituting the third gender group – the transsexual.[xv]

 Even then, this third gender category cannot be said to be clearly marked, having discussed about the variation present. This “in-between-ness” of two gender categories and its fuzziness must be recognized, whether in terms of a third gender category or an “overlap” of both males and females categories. By considering this, we are not caught up in a whirlwind attempt to locate transsexuality within the complexities involved in the transgression or crossing of gender boundaries, giving due recognition to the more integrated and historically apparent transsexual identity.


            The concepts of borders and boundaries have to be rethought and reassessed in Southeast Asian contexts, where the transsexual culture eludes the binary notions of gender relations, so often found in Western discourses and studies. Also, the border metaphor and the theory of transgression of gender boundaries are insufficient to describe the transsexual culture and identity in Southeast Asia. Transgenderism should not be seen as a mere “deviance” from the bipolar model nor an attempted transgression of male/female boundaries. Instead, it should be seen as a “third gender” that encompasses the “in-between-ness” of both masculinity and femininity.

            Very often, transsexual performers whom I met in Phuket, Thailand, have expressed their satisfaction in changing only certain parts of the body ( most often, the breasts). Some kathoey performers are perfectly fine with having both penises and breasts, as long as they are seen as women, have heterosexual relationships with men and behave as a women. They see no need to transgress the gender boundary to become a “total” woman at all. What is seen here is actually the confident acceptance of their unique identity as kathoey. And indeed, they are proud to be seen as one.[xvi]


[i] Hastings Donnan & Thomas M Wilson, Borders: Frontiers of Identity, Nation and State, ( Oxford, New York, 1999), p. 20.

[ii] In his book published in 1969, “Ethnic groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Cultural Difference”.

[iii] Hastings Donnan & Thomas M Wilson, Borders: Frontiers of Identity, Nation and State, ( Oxford, New York, 1999), p. 21

[iv] Ibid., p.21

[v] The use of the word West or Western here is not absolute. I recognize that in fact, the term “West” is more complicated than presented here and this term is used in a general way. I do not wish to nor is it in my capacity to discuss about the complexity of Western discourses or the intricacies of the term “West. It is in my knowledge that the “West” does not speak with in “one uniform voice”, and there have been scholars, such as Marjory Garber, who advocates a third transsexual gender category, and Judith Butler who has argued that the gender categories of male and female are socially, and not biologically constructed. The term “West” here is to used to denote Eurocentric model and concepts of gender and should not be seen in absolute terms.

[vi] In their book, “Gender: An ethnomethodological approach”, (New York, John Miley, 1978)

[vii] Penny Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand, ( Berg, New York, 2000), p.212

[viii] Anne Bolin, “ Transforming Transvestism and Transsexualism: Polarity, Politics and Gender” in Gender Blending, Bonnie Bullough, Vern L. Bullough & James Elias eds., (Prometheus Books, New York, 1997), pp. 25-26

[ix] Bonnie Bullough, Vern L. Bullough & James Elias eds., “Introduction”, in Gender Blending, (Prometheus Books, New York, 1997), pp.18-19

[x] Han Ten Brummelhuis, “Transformation of Transgender: The Case of the Thai kathoey”, in Lady Boys, Tom Boys, Rent Boys: Male and Female Homosexuality in Contemporary Thailand, Peter Jackson & Gerald Sullivan eds., (Harrington Park Press, New York, 1999), p.124

[xi] Peter A Jackson, “Kathoey > < Gay > < Man: The Historical Emergence of Gay Male Identity in Thailand” in Sites of Desire, Economies of Pleasure, Manderson Lenore & Jolly Margaret eds., ( U of Chicago Press, US, 1997), pp.167-168

[xii] Dallas Denny, “Transgender: Some historical, cross-cultural and contemporary modes and methods of coping and treatment”, in Gender Blending, Bonnie Bullough, Vern L. Bullough & James Elias eds., (Prometheus Books, New York, 1997), pp. 33-35

[xiii] Walter O Bockting, “Transgender Coming Out: Implications for the Clinical Management of Gender Dysphoria”, in Gender Blending, Bonnie Bullough, Vern L. Bullough & James Elias eds., (Prometheus Books, New York, 1997), pp. 48-50

[xiv] (Author’s fieldnotes, December 2001)

[xv] Chris Beyrer, “Other genders: katoeys, waria, hinjras, toms and dees”, in War in the Blood: Sex, Politics and Aids in Southeast Asia, (White Lotus, Bangkok, 1998), p.164

[xvi] This is based on my observations during my fieldwork among kathoey performers in Phuket, Thailand, over a period of 4 weeks. (author’s fieldnotes, December 2001)