- Kathoey: a transgender person or an effeminate gay male in Thailand. The term is believed to be of Khmer origin.
- Sao praphet song: a second kind of woman.
- Phet thi sam: the third gender.
- Ladyboy: the English equivalent of kathoey.
Kathoey culture has fascinated me since I arrived in the Kingdom of Thailand nearly two years ago. They are everywhere, these exotic creatures, running wild in the Land of Smiles. Some are pre-op; some are post-op; some are semi-op. There are fully transgendered kathoeys (male-to-female) and some who are female from the waist up and male from the waist down. I’m not so concerned about anatomy. What fascinates me is their flamboyance, their femininity and the way this Thai Buddhist nation generally accepts them for who they are.
Sexual reassignment surgery in Thailand is highly sophisticated and it is not uncommon to be in the presence of kathoeys without knowing it. Kathoeys are often mistaken as born-women which can make it interesting for straight men seeking Thai girlfriends. Unlike Western culture, Thai Buddhist society – for the most part – accepts that kathoeys are a part of Thai culture – that they were always here and will always be here. The Buddhist mentality embraces the “to each their own” attitude.
Some Thais believe that being kathoey is the karmic result of transgressions from a former life, believing that kathoeys deserve pity rather than blame. That is not to say that kathoeys do no suffer discrimination and unfair treatment. But I’ve never seen or heard of a single case of gay bashing. Thai Buddhists place great emphasis on saving face and consider confrontation and violence to be the reaction of weak-minded individuals. Kathoeys face legal impediments as they are not legally able to change their gender under Thai law at this time, which poses problems with identification, passports and visas, as well as employment. That being said, kathoeys are most accepted in Thailand over all other Southeast Asian nations.
I highly recommend hearing what kathoeys have to say about themselves and their sub-culture. Here are some excerpts from the book, Ladyboys, The Secret World of Thailand’s Third Gender by Susan Aldous and Pornchai Sereemongkopol.
The term ladyboy and kathoey can include a woman with a penis, a surgically constructed vagina, breast or bottom implants, a shaved Adam’s apple, and numerous other kinds of cosmetic surgery. In Thailand, kathoey is the commonly used umbrella term that gathers male-to-female transgender people, as well as effeminate men, under its cover. Kathoeys are biological men who have been born with distinctly female hearts and minds. – Authors
We service all kinds of men, but the white farangs are the most popular. It’s not that we find them especially attractive, they’re just so generous with money. They also tend to be more fun-loving and treat us with respect, something we’re not used to receiving from the locals. Thai men regard their women as inferior, both culturally and religiously. Ladyboys suffer an even lower status. Thai men expect us to please and serve them – in other words, we do all the work in bed. They wouldn’t think of trying to give us pleasure. Besides, they’re very stingy with money. No one would choose to solicit a Thai unless she were truly desperate.
The ladyboys who have had full sex change think of themselves as real women. They no longer feel the need to socialize with the likes of me but I don’t acknowledge their superiority. I don’t think rearranging your penis into a vagina makes you a higher being. It doesn’t make you happier either.
While I don’t feel the need to have the sex change myself, I understand the ambition of those who do. They say kathoeys have three times the sex drive of anyone else, man or woman. We can be fiercely competitive creatures. The urge to be more feminine than a biological woman is strong.
When I’m really down, I think to myself, why do I have to “smoke” men just to have rice on my plate? Life is uncertain, especially for a kathoey, and I know I can’t be a prostitute forever. I need a more practical, more honest way of living.
Kathoeys are like trees that grow wild. Their growth is a lifelong process of self-observation and exploration, and their final shape is unpredictable. I still have a picture of myself dressed as a male waiter, and whenever I look at him I know that I have been true to myself. I don’t know what else lies in store for me, but I’m proud of this: I’m my own gardener, watering, pruning and shaping my own tree – my own life. How could I ask for anything more? – Mali, Go-Go Dancer
In my opinion, gay and kathoey are the same in the sense that they are both attracted to men. What differentiates us is how we dress and present ourselves in public which, to me, is superficial and therefore of little importance. I find labeling ridiculous, but if I had to choose between gay and kathoey, I would choose kathoey.
Behind the curtains too, each of us has a valuable story to share, of transformation and overcoming obstacles.
It is already hard enough for foreigners to tell the difference between Thai women and Thai ladyboys with the naked eye, but it has become even more difficult now that there are back-alley document forgers giving ladyboys female ID cards. Ladyboy prostitutes use these fake ID cards to convince their customers that they were born female. It may be hard to swallow, but it’s probable that many foreigners who have been in Thai red-light districts have unwittingly slept with ladyboy prostitutes.
Tuktik finds her answer in Buddhism. She believes that anyone who has violated Buddha’s third precept for laymen – someone who has committed bad karma through sexual misconduct in a past life, whether through adultery, giving false hope of romance and breaking another’s heart, or impregnating a woman only to abandon her – is destined to be reborn for the next 700 incarnations as a human being with abnormalities or disabilities.
Thailand is not as accepting of ladyboys as foreigners might think. Ladyboys exist without real legal recognition or rights. The authorities try to limit the presence of kathoeys in the media because they fear that children will imitate us and become deviants by our example. I don’t think being kathoey is imitable, and I don’t think it’s contagious like a disease. Kathoey is just another form of being. I do hope that those who have completed their transformation can one day obtain female titles on their ID cards and passports; more importantly, that rapists will be held fully accountable for their crimes against ladyboys instead of being let off lightly for “physical assaults” – Pui, Cabaret Girl
After the Vietnam War ended, and all of the GIs went home, the European holiday makers took their place.
Overall, I think Thailand is quite accepting of transgender and homosexual people. I think this acceptance is largely due to a combination of surgically enhanced or hormonally induced beauty, higher levels of education and the ladyboy reputation as being emblematic of Thailand.
It’s not that I don’t realize how degrading my way of life is. But just consider for a moment that I had to quit school because of poverty, and the fact that I’m a kathoey – what self-respecting boss in his/her right mind would choose me over other candidates? I couldn’t care less anyway about working in a low-paid job just to save my dignity because dignity doesn’t fill my stomach at the end of the day.
Most of my friends in Pattaya died in their thirties, forties or fifties from HIV, alcoholism or suicide. I guess working as a prostitute comes with a high emotional toll, regardless of who you are. – Lily, Prostitute Granny
In Thai society, a woman wishing to pass for a man is considered understandable – admirable even. But a man playing the part of a woman is considered disgraceful.
Normally kathoeys get breast implants first because the procedure can be reversed if they have second thoughts. But there wasn’t even a trace of doubt in my mind – I had never ben so sure of anything in my life. The worst part of the whole ordeal was having dilators pushed up into my new vagina on a regular basis to reinforce the cavity wall and prevent it from closing up.
I am confident that it is only a matter of time before the Thailand National Legislative Assembly accepts our petition. It seems ridiculous that such legislation has not already been passed considering Thailand is one of the top destinations in the world for foreigner seeking expert sexual reassignment surgery. Whilst on the surface Thailand appears to embrace diversity, deep-rooted prejudices simmer beneath the surface. Kathoeys are considered freaks of nature by many people and are openly mocked. In a perfect world, people would realize that gender and sexual preference are really irrelevant because beneath it all we are just human beings.
I’m not possessive because I don’t feel like I have the right to deny anyone’s basic instincts. I try to be as open-minded and tolerant with other people as I hope they will be with me in return. – Sarah, Entrepreneur
I honestly don’t know what the future holds for me but I’m an eternally optimistic person. There have been no shortage of miracles in my life so far and I have no reason not to believe that an abundance of them still await me. It’s all about taking a leap of faith – it may be scary at the time, but change can be exciting, and for me, the scariest thing of all is standing still. – Nicky, Air Hostess
I was once called a sia chat goet (a wasted incarnation) which is one of the most offensive insults in Thai culture. To me, such a remark shows how much senseless hatred that person has. Heterosexual males don’t have the right to act superior to me and they certain don’t have the right to be so unkind.
Everyone dies eventually so in the end transient titles mean very little. Like Buddha said, nothing lasts forever. Our sense of self isn’t even real. We can’t take anything with us to the hereafter, except for our collection of good and bad doings. I don’t want people to remember me as a transgender who won the right to use the “Ms.” title because it says very little about me as a person. I world prefer people to remember me for my good deeds and what I’ve done to better my own life and that of others. It is more important to me that people judge me by my conduct. – Nong Toom, Beautiful Boxer
Thailand has become more tolerant of my kind of people over the years. The situation now is incomparable to that of the past. A lot of TV personalities are openly gay and kathoey. The public seems to value comments from gay and kathoey commentators when it comes to singing contests, fashion and cookery. I want today’s children to have the freedom to be whoever they want to be. As far as career opportunities go, I think a good chunk of Thai ladyboys become prostitutes because they don’t have many other choices in life. There are not enough rattan baskets in this country to hold all the ladyboy prostitutes. – Auntie Nong, Ageing Dancer