Life histories of transpeople in Asia

Phi, Thailand

uploaded 2/5/2002

Phi is a Fourth Year Mathematics Major at the University of Chiangrai in Northern Thailand. This is her story as told to Andrew Matzner. Andrew writes: 'Between September and December 2000 I solicited written life-narratives from sao praphet sawng who were students at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand. Currently, my partner, LeeRay Costa, and I are working on a book based on these narratives, tentatively entitled, A Manís Body, A Womanís Soul: Life-Stories From Thailandís Transgendered Youth.' The narrative which appears below is taken from this book.

Copyright Andrew Matzner, to whom requests for reproduction and dissemination falling under copyright laws must be made

Generally, being a man is something which is a part of a person since birth. But for me, I don't really remember if I have ever felt like I was a man.

My father's work took him to different provinces, and I didn't have the chance to spend time with him. Every day I saw only my mother. I spent all my time with my mother and was close to her - whatever she was doing, I was with her. Whenever I had problems I'd go to my mother and we would talk together like two girls. I did have a younger brother, who was close to my father. You could say that he was my father's child, while I was my mother's. But I guess it was good luck that my younger brother wasn't like me because then my parents would have had two daughters!

I remember that as a child I was very close to a female cousin who was a little older than I was; sometimes I'd sleep over her house or we'd play house together. Occasionally my cousin would dress me up as a girl. It was a lot of fun, and we spent a lot of time together playing. On the days I didn't see my cousin, I'd play with the kids who lived near my house. It happened that there were a lot of girls who lived in my neighborhood, and we'd play shop with each other. Sometimes my nieces and I would play together and dress up in our mother's clothing and have beauty contests. It was a lot of fun.

Both my father and mother spent their days at work, so I had freedom to play as I wanted. I remember once I put on my mother's skirt when she had already left for work. But she unexpectedly came home and found me. My mother was angry and scolded me, but decided not to hit me so I felt very lucky. I think my father and mother thought that the way I was acting was just something that kids did so they didn't take it seriously. When I was small, I wasn't yet feeling that I wanted to be a woman.

Then I began grade school. I was very well-mannered [riap roi]. Sometimes the teachers and my classmates wondered why I was such a riap roi student. In my first year at school, I was made fun of by the other boys. They would mock me by calling me "faggot" [tut]. When they did that I would get angry and run after them. Once when I was chasing them I fell and hurt myself; I still have the scar from the cut I got.

When I was this age my father wondered why I wasn't interested in boysí sports, like soccer. Instead, I liked volleyball. My father insisted very firmly and emphatically to my teacher that he should make me play soccer, even though I didn't want to play at all. They forced me to practice, but because I wasn't any good, nothing came of it.

I remember once I saw some girls playing with dolls made out of paper. I wanted dolls like that, but I knew I couldn't ask my mother for money to buy them in case she asked me what I wanted the money for. So I made some paper dolls by myself. However, I had to play with them at school since if I took them home, my mother would surely have yelled at me. So I had fun at school; I liked to go to school because that was my chance to be with my friends and play with my paper dolls. But at home I had to act like a "man."

I began to see clear changes in my body in the sixth grade. And it was around then that, for the first time, I began to feel that I wanted to be a woman, and that I was attracted to some of my male classmates. I was also secretly interested in beauty and fashion. But because of my parents, I had to keep all of my feelings hidden inside. Then I started junior high school. There was a girl who had a secret crush on me. I found out, but wasn't sure how to act. I had never thought that I'd be in a situation in which I would be involved with a girl. But we started talking, and soon became good friends. However, her friends knew that I wouldn't be her boyfriend. One of them sent me a New Year's postcard, like she had a crush on me; sending it to me was a way to make fun of me. I didn't know how to react when I got it so I just threw it away. But it made me cry. The students who were around me when this happened were surprised at my reaction. I didn't say anything. But of course the reason why I was so upset was because I knew that I didn't like women. My classmates accepted me for the most part, but I think they thought I was a bit too well-mannered. My parents never gave me any problems, probably because I was a good student, and had never gotten into any kind of trouble.

At the beginning of my junior year in high school my grades were quite good. I was happy, and so were my parents. I changed schools at this point. When I first started at my new school, many girls were attracted to me because I am good looking. They liked to come up to me and make conversation. I enjoyed talking to them and didn't really think anything of it. This went on until the students started to realize that they had never seen me flirt or have a girlfriend. I remember being asked, "Don't you like women?" I wasn't prepared for this kind of question, and answered that I hadn't thought about dating yet.

In high school all of my friends were women because I felt comfortable hanging out with them. I didn't have any male friends. My father was worried about this and asked me why I didn't have any male friends. My excuse was that the guys at school were doing drugs and smoking cigarettes, and I didn't want to be around people like that. I think my dad saw that by being friends with women I was staying out of trouble. But my dad also wondered why I never went out with friends at night. Of course, all my friends were women and they would never go out late at night - they were always at home, so that's where I would be as well. But my father did not give up; he kept badgering me with questions about my behavior.

Towards the end of high school I had a crush on a senior male student. Naturally, I didn't tell anyone about it. I am sure all of my classmates were wondering why I never had a girlfriend, even though I was well-mannered and had the looks which would have made it easy enough. I had to keep all of my feelings inside. I couldn't talk to my parents about this because they were counting on me, as their eldest male child, to be the support for the family. They wouldn't want me to be a kathoey. As a result, I often felt very disheartened. One problem was that I was really interested in pursuing fashion after I graduated from high school. But when I mentioned this to my mother she responded that she would not allow me go to fashion school because she wanted me to study somewhere closer to home. Therefore, this was a dream which I was forced to suppress. For university I had to choose subjects which my parents approved of, so I decided to study to be a teacher. This was a career which my parents agreed to because, as a government employee, not only would my position be secure, but it would also generate respect from others.

I liked university life because I had more freedom than I had at home. At the university I met new friends who were just like me. Before, I had never gone to class with makeup on. But once in university I began to wear light makeup and to pluck my eyebrows. I wanted to look as good as my friends who were women. I also began changing my eyelashes to look more feminine. When my friends saw what I was doing to my face they asked me about it. I asked them if they thought my face looked pretty. I was feeling more open about who I was. This was probably because I was getting more mature, and because my friends accepted me; also, because society in general was getting more open-minded. But when I went home I had to act like a man. I felt frustrated, but didn't want to upset my mother. I've tried to never give my parents any reason to feel bad. Since I began school I've been determined to get good grades in order to satisfy them; I've never gone out and gotten into trouble or caused them any headaches . . . I've tried to make up for the fact that I can't be the man my parents want me to be.

As far as love, the love I have known has been different from the love experienced by other people because my love has always been met with disappointment. I once had a crush on a boy, but he didn't like me back because he was a man - he is supposed to like women. It seems as if this kind of situation is like a rule of nature. But why aren't there any rules regarding love for people like me? Since I love men who are "real" men, it's nearly impossible to be successful in love. But I hope that in the future I will be successful. It has always been painful . . .

The love of sao praphet sawng is different from that of gay people. I have some friends who are gay, and it seems to me that love for them only consists of sex, without sincerity. I don't like this because, for those of us who want to be women, the kind of love we feel is the kind of love a woman feels for a man. That is, a love which must have understanding and caring. Sex is only a part of it. If I love a person, I will love him completely. I will always take care of him. But I know he will turn away from me - he will disregard me - when he compares me with a real woman. I have to be the runner-up. I must try to deal with this situation. But because love is something which is natural, I cannot forbid two people from loving each other, or direct someone's love to me. But I still must try, if I am to make myself happy.

At present I am concentrating on school and graduation because my parents expect that I will become a good teacher - as well as a man. But their expectations are misguided. In Thailand if there is a teacher like me teaching in front of a class, not only will he be ridiculed by his students, but he himself will not be satisfied. This is something which makes me realize how things are not the same for some people in Thai society. Sometimes I doubt that equal rights in Thailand really exist for everyone. It doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman - but those rights don't include people like me. Even though society is becoming more open, all too often Iíve seen the disapproving stares of people when they look at me. Of course, when I see people noticing me, I'd like to think that they were admiring my beauty. But in fact they aren't looking at me in a positive way at all.

At present, the thing I have on my mind is how I can make my parents accept me without causing them pain. If I obey my mother, then I will end up becoming a teacher. But I don't look forward to entering that profession because in order to be a teacher here in Thailand I would have to be a "man" and keep my true character inside. Yet, if I were a teacher my parents would be happy. Why can't my father and mother accept me? Or have chosen some profession for me which I enjoy? A profession in which I'd be able to express myself, how I really feel? I love designing clothing, just like all the other people like me who make up a large part of the Thai fashion world. I think that clothing and beauty go along with being a woman. But this is difficult for me since my mother has forbidden me to pursue this field. Actually, I just recently spoke to my parents about this issue after having not spoken with them about it for a while. But their position is still the same - they do not want me to study fashion. They also don't want me to let other people know that I am a kathoey. I really don't know when my parents are going to learn to accept me as the person I already am.

I am a part of society. This is because Thailand is different from other countries. Acceptance of the "third sex" has really begun to increase. But sometimes it seems as if there isn't any acceptance at all. For example, with working. There isn't much choice of jobs for a kathoey. An important factor is acceptance. Some professions won't allow kathoey to work in them, even though in some instances we might be able to do a better job than real men or women. But we don't even have the opportunity to try. If there really were 100% acceptance in the matter of work, I would probably end up being a really good teacher. I wouldn't have to pretend to be a man, I wouldn't have to suffer that lie. If there were complete acceptance there would be a lot of options for people like me, and that would make us happy. I am not blaming anybody for how I am. It's just that acceptance would be the best thing for us. It would certainly make me feel comfortable and happy. I deserve this because I never did anything to hurt anyone.