Kathoey is an identity for effeminate men and transwomen in Thailand who are, for the most part, socially integrated into Thai society. They are highly visible in the media and part of their country’s tourist image as a Gay-friendly destination. Traditional Thai folkways concerning gender and sexual orientation have merged with international LGBTQ festive culture, and there are drag queen beauty pageants for kathoey.
Before the 1960s, “kathoey” referred to people of any gender variation and non-heterosexual orientation. Intersex people, transpeople, masculine homosexual men, masculine women, and lesbians could be considered kathoey as well as effeminate men. From the 1960s on, a more detailed classification system came into use, often using words taken from English. Homosexual men became known as gay, homosexual women as dai (from dyke), masculine women as tom (from tomboy), and feminine homosexual women as dee (from lady). These identities are no longer considered kathoey, which is the identity of effeminate men who behave and appear as women, regardless of whether they undergo sexual reassignment surgery.
The term “kathoey” has also been given an English synonym: ladyboy, which is also used in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. In the Philippines, ladyboy identity is comparable to bakla or parlorista (a cross-dressing man who works in a beauty parlor). Other Southeast Asian countries have their own identities that approximate kathoey/ladyboy. hijra, ali, or kothi may be used in India, hijra or khusra in Pakistan, hijra in Bangladesh, maknyah in Malaysia, mathis in Nepal, and waria, banci or bencong in Indonesia.
Kathoey in Thai Society
At a young age, perhaps before reaching puberty, some feminine boys realize they are kathoey and start cross-dressing, wearing jewelry and make-up as teenagers, possibly having recourse to hormones to help transform their bodies. As maturity sets in, kathoey who can afford it will also have breast implants, genital reassignment surgery, and reduction of the laryngeal prominence (“Adam’s apple”).
The majority of kathoey are proud of their identity and rarely hide it. Many use it as a professional asset, especially in the entertainment industry. Several popular Thai singers, soap opera stars, and movie stars are kathoey, and there is an all-kathoey pop music group, Venus Flytrap. Many kathoey have a less glamorous lifestyle and may work as cabaret performers, intimate companions, or in sectors regarded as feminine such as fashion, haidressing, or design. Others earn their living as teachers, shop assistants or clerks. Overall, kathoey tend to be well integrated and respected in Thailand, not only in urban areas but also in rural areas.
Kathoey identity in Thai society is not without problems, however. The Thai government does not yet recognize full legal rights for kathoey. Those who undergo sexual reassignment surgery cannot have their chosen gender recorded on their passports, and when jailed, are placed with men. Kathoey may face disapproval from their families and discrimination in the workplace.
Kathoey are now seeking official recognition in Thailand as a legitimate identity. Their gradual success is illustrated by numerous anecdotes often picked up by the media outside of Thailand. Although they may not be admitted to every institution of learning, some colleges are tolerant to the point of providing a third type of toilets (sometimes called “pink lotus,” and may feature a logo that combines a red half-feminine/blue half-masculine figure) for kathoey.
The kathoey experience of tolerance is markedly different from that of transpeople in other countries, who are often victims of significantly more discrimination, prejudice, and hate crimes.
The prevalence of Theravada Buddhism in Thailand is one reason for tolerance. In terms of reincarnation, birth as a kathoey is believed to be the result of bad karma in a previous life, so kathoey cannot be held responsible for their identity, nor should they be ostracized or vilified. According to a creation myth from Northern Thailand, the very first humans were of three sexes: man, woman and neuter. According to another legend, kathoey are the reincarnation of men who have made love to so many women that they now carry in them the spirit of those women. In any case, many Thais believe that kathoey are born that way. Ontologically, this essentialism is in sharp contrast to the social constructionism that underpins most of LGBTQ studies and the “lifestyle choice” model favored by Christian homophobes.
This tolerance can extend to Buddhist orders as well, at least in theory. According to some sources, there is scriptural evidence that the Buddha accepted transpeople into the orders of nuns and monks according to the gender that they presented themselves. An effeminate man was allowed to join the order of nuns, and a masculine woman was allowed to join with the monks. Traditional Theravada Buddhism in Thailand, however, does not recognize full ordination for women, and there is a movement to change that. Since LGBTQ rights tend to follow women’s rights in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, this may also be a chance for transpeople to be ordained as well.
Iron Ladies and Beautiful Boxer
Assumptions concerning effeminacy and weakness in men have been challenged by three movies about kathoey in sports, The Iron Ladies, The Iron Ladies 2, and Beautiful Boxer. The Iron Ladies (Thai: Satree Lek) was released in 2000. It is based on the true story of an all-kathoey volleyball team that won the national championship in 1996. The Iron Ladies 2 was released in 2003. Award-winning Thai film Beautiful Boxer was released in 2003. Based on a true story, the film showed how kathoey Parinya “Nong Toom” Charoenphol set out to master Thai kickboxing in order to earn enough money to pay for gender reassignment surgery.
Kathoey have beauty pageants in Thai villages and cities. Two nationally renowned contests are in Pattaya on the northeast coast: the Miss Alcazar and Miss Tiffany pageants held in the Alcazar and Tiffany cabarets. Thailand is not alone in Southeast Asia in having grand-scale beauty pageants for effeminate men – there is also the Miss Gay Philippines Pageant in Manila.
Kathoey and the tolerant societal attitude towards them contribute to the reputation of Thailand as an exotic utopia that attracts travelers and expatriates alike. Kathoey are now part of the Thai tourist package, which in turn enhances the recognition of the role that kathoey play in Thailand, not only socio-culturally but also economically.
An interview with Peutchgam is on andamanrising.org.
Aldous, Susan and Sereemongkonpol, Pornchai. Ladyboys: The Secret World of Thailand’s Third Gender. Dunboyne, Republic of Ireland: Maverick House, 2008.
Jackson, Peter A. and Sullivan, Gerard (ed). Lady Boys, Tom Boys, Rent Boys: Male and Female Homosexualities in Contemporary Thailand. New York: Haworth, 1999.
Totman, Richard. The Third Sex: Kathoey: Thailand’s Ladyboys, London: Souvenir, 2003.