Thirteen general propositions about TG in Asia

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

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uploaded 2/5/2002 

Proposition one

In some Asian societies TG seems a much more common phenomenon than we in the West usually think it to be. There are estimates of half to one million Indian ‘hejra’, 10,000 Malaysian ‘mak-nyahs’, 10,000 Thai ‘kathoey’. Some of these estimates may be unrealistically low. I have heard the number of Thai kathoey put as high as 300,000. Indeed, in one University in Thailand there is a sorority for ‘kathoey’ that accounts for around 1 in 80 of the male students. In Sohar, a town in Oman; ‘xanith’ account for 1 in 50 of the adult males.

Proposition two

Almost invariably across Asia, as elsewhere outside the West, TG commonly appears to be ‘early onset’, with the following sequence often occurring: ( a ) the individual displays cross-gendered behaviours and interests in early or middle childhood, ( b ) this may be associated with a developing sense of cross-gendered identity, ( c ) in any case his behaviours and interests lead to his being labelled by family and community as belonging to a separate gender-class. For example, Teh’s research with Malaysian maknyahs reveals that around 72% report believing, when small, that they were female, with most playing with female toys, adopting a female role in a range of activities, taking girls as their playmates and eventually cross-dressing for the first time somewhere between 11 and 20 years of age.

A similar thing seems to happen in Thailand. Fiona Kim, Kie Lertsubin, Nuttawut Udomsak and I have recently found (in a sample of 165 kathoey averaging 25 years of age) that 71% report having felt different to other boys by age 10, with 42% already thinking by that age that they had the mind either of a girl or a kathoey (or a related term), and 35% already thinking of themselves as belonging to one of those gender categories.

Proposition three

The TG’s identity (as perceived by self and others) may be as a variant of female, or, more commonly it seems, as a third gender. These different identities are reflected in some of the other names used in Thailand for kathoey: for example ‘sao praphet song’ (‘second kind of woman’) or ‘pet tee sam’ (‘third sex’). Corresponding names are evident in other cultures: for example the Indonesian ‘waria’ (short for ‘wanita-pria’, or ‘woman-man’), the Siberian ‘ne’uchica’ (‘similar to a woman’).

In the recent Thai research which I mentioned under Point 2 we have found that while 46% think of themselves as being a woman, 47% think of themselves as kathoey or one of its related terms. A significant minority seem entirely happy to think of themselves in these terms. While around 70% would prefer to be a woman and indeed be re-born as one, 19% said that they would prefer to be a kathoey (or its related terms), with 12% saying that they would want to be reborn as such.

Proposition four

In some societies crossgendered behaviour, interests and identity tends to be seen as a difference (very often tolerated, often accepted, even sometimes welcomed), and not as a disorder. 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.

Indeed, in some societies it seems widely accepted that there are more than two genders (indeed as many as seven in Chukchi culture). All this means that the medical profession may play little or no role in the TG’s transition. Psychiatry may be entirely irrelevant. Other forces (conformity to tradition, adherence to religious practices, the need to find employment) may play a more important role in the TG’s transition.

Proposition five

The absence of psychiatry, along with the looser control of pharmaceutics in many of these countries, mean that for those TGs who choose to make a medical transition, the only barrier is expense. Thailand is a case in point. One may find as many as 23 hormonal preparations available over the counter in chain drug stores. Ninety five per cent of our kathoey sample had taken hormones, some as early as the age of ten. A somewhat similar thing happens in Malaysia. Teh reports that 63% of his sample were taking hormones.

Thailand also presents a rather special case in that sex reassignment surgery (SRS) is widely available to those who can afford it. While only 22% of our kathoey sample had undergone SRS (one as early as her sixteenth year) another 65% indicated a desire to do so.

Proposition six

A consequence of ‘early onset’ (see Point 2 above) is that in some societies individuals commonly develop cross-gendered identity before developing a sexual preference. As noted earlier, we found in our recent kathoey research that, by age 10, 71% felt different to other males, 42% felt they had the mind of a girl or kathoey (or a related terms), and 35% already thought of themselves as such. By contrast, by age 10 only 7% had experienced any sexual feelings at all, with less than 2% having had any sort of sex with anyone.

Entering their teenage years, and seeing themselves as either female or a third (non-male) gender, the majority develop a sexual preference they see as being consistent with that identity – an exclusive attraction to men, and a preference for the role of insertee. As far as they think in these terms at all in their cultures, they often see that preference as heterosexual. This appears to be true in places as far apart as Oman, Myanmar, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore - and Thailand, where we have found that 91% of our sample reported an exclusive attraction to men, with around 30% seeing such attraction as being heterosexual. The overwhelming preference for male partners is also evident in Teh’s findings for Malaysian maknyahs.

Proposition seven

A corollary is that, in the same societies those men who have sex with a MtF TG view the act as sex with a female-substitute (or at least a non-male) and therefore as a heterosexual act. Thailand is again a case in point. Twenty four per cent of our kathoey regard a man interested in them as probably heterosexual, as against 34% who regard him as probably bisexual, and only 27% as probably homosexual.

Proposition eight

Indeed, the tradition across some societies is for males to be defined, not on the basis of their anatomy, or the anatomy of their sex partner, but rather on the basis of what they and their partners do with their respective anatomies. Within that belief context, in places like Oman and Thailand adopting the role of insertee in sex is a final confirmation for the TG (and for her community) that she is not a male.

Proposition nine

In many societies TGs are viewed as having special abilities (hairdressing, make-up, singing, dancing) or powers (of blessing, healing, foresight, naming of infants). These become the basis for a small range of socially prescribed roles, within which TGs can live quite openly, but outside of which they may find it hard to stray, particularly in those societies in which I.D. is needed for employment. In some societies prostitution is one of the roles available: for example Oman, Philippines, India, Thailand, Japan and Malaysia. Indeed, Teh found that around half of his Malaysian maknyah sample were sex workers.

Proposition ten

Development (and consequent urbanisation and withering of tradition) is in some cases leading to decay of traditional roles, without any alternatives necessarily being available. In those societies prostitution assumes particular salience. Whereas in traditional rural northern Thailand a kathoey might even now find a valued role as shaman, in the capital it may be difficult even for a kathoey university graduate to get a job outside a bar. Across Asia, apart from those forced into prostitution, some may choose the occupation as a way of earning money for surgery (where it is available), or indeed of confirming their gender identity.

Proposition eleven

For a variety of reasons (among them the practicalities of putting food on the table) an individual’s transgendered role may turn out to be transient, with an eventual reversion to behaviour (and maybe even identity) consistent with biological sex. The Omani xanith may marry, have children, and be regarded ever after as a man. Even in relatively accepting Thailand (described by 39% of our kathoey as encouraging or accepting towards transgender) the kathoey may stop taking hormones, even have breast implants removed, and adopt a man’s lifestyle, and, importantly, get a job that would otherwise be difficult to get. Significantly, 6% of our sample anticipated that they would be living as men when they were aged 50, while 12% of Teh’s Malaysian sample indicated that their lives as maknyahs might not be life-long.

Proposition twelve

In many Asian societies transgender is a theme running through social history, mythology and religion. Thais can refer to a creation mythology telling of three sexes, and tell of a Burmese invader who many believe was a kathoey. Chinese and Japanese draw upon a tradition of boy wives, cross-gender actresses and prostitutes. Koreans can refer to ‘flower boys’. All three nationalities, along with Thais, draw on to a long history of comparative acceptance of sex between biological males. Indians and Turks draw on a history of emasculation for eunuchs. Thais can refer to a vigorous contemporary SRS industry in their own country. Chukchis, as well as Omanis and other Islamic groups, can point to multiple genders as important ideas within their cultural worldviews. Thais, Burmese, Filipinos, Indonesians, various Siberian ethnic groups can refer to traditions of TG priests and shamans.


I hope that the previous 12 statements have portrayed the depth and breadth of transgender in Asian culture past and present. However, one would not want to mislead. While many Asian societies play host to lively TG communities, setting aside a place for them in contemporary cultural life, the picture for many Asian TGs is from rosy. Hence a final statement.

Proposition thirteen

There are wide variations in the degree to which Asian societies accept the TGs in their midst. On one hand there is Thailand, with kathoey (in urban areas at least), going about their everyday business without raising so much as an eyebrow among passers-by, buying the hormonal treatments and surgical procedures they want without any barriers placed in their way either by government or medical establishment. But even here kathoey often complain of discrimination that prevents them getting into jobs for which they are qualified, and which drives them into marginal jobs like sex and bar work.

In other societies life can be much harder. In Turkey and Malaysia TGs are commonly harassed by police and put in jail for no clear reason. Sex reassignment surgery is not available, and it is illegal even to cross-dress. Around 55% of Teh’s Malaysian maknyahs had been caught and charged by police with indecent behaviour (which could involve anything from cross-dressing onwards). For most the experience involved removal to a police station, forced stripping and dressing as a male, and public shaming. A few reported being beaten up (actually, I have heard of similar cases even in generally tolerant Thailand). They are legally male, and are in effect deprived of their rights to marry whom they would wish, and to adopt children. Little wonder that 14% of Teh’s maknyahs reported trying to commit suicide.

Across Asia TGs are forced by tradition, prejudice and legal status (reflected on their I.D. cards) into a that small range of occupations which is considered acceptable for them, and from which they find it hard to escape. For some, as in Malaysia, there is little available except prostitution. In India, where hejra are able to do little other than beg, bless and sell sex, the Aryavani Association struggles to advance their conditions. In 1987 a Malaysian group trying to form a similar association was denied the right to do so by the Registrar of Societies. In Thailand, where the government seeks to prevent TGs working as teachers (and kathoey university graduates may find it hard to find jobs other than in bars), an association of this sort is entirely lacking. Throughout Asia the same issues of legal status that prevent access to work, marriage and family act as a hindrance against travel. When TGs do attempt to do so (often with no choice but to carry a passport showing them to be male) then the reception for them at their destination can be traumatic. In Hong Kong (Asia’s ‘World City’) TGs arriving at the airport have been subjected to humiliating body searches to ensure that their anatomy matches the sex stated in their passport.