I once made this remark to a friend as we were taking in the sights in Pattaya: “I’ve never seen so many beautiful women in such concentration in all my life”. I’ll never forget my friend George’s response: “The most beautiful woman on the street is probably not a woman”. I was fairly new to this country and had little inkling that when there was talk of the “sex industry” in Thailand, they were talking about two types of genders: heterosexual (straight) women and “ladyboys” (men with female characteristics).
To set the record straight, “ladyboys” don’t like the use of that word, but it’s what English-speaking people (men) use to describe males with distinctly female characteristics, including breasts, long hair, make-up, dress, all the things that scream: sexy woman.
“Ladyboys” prefer the word “kathoey”, a Thai term that refers to a transexual woman. Or a man presenting as a woman.
Thailand has a long history of tolerance of people who are different. According to some sources, the first appearance of a “kathoey” in Buddhist writings dates back to the 14th century. There is no evidence of persecution of men who were genuinely different from the typical male in appearance or behavior.
The belief that explains tolerance of kathoeys in Thai culture is based on the Buddhist notion of karma. Karma refers to action driven by intention which leads to future consequences, and in this case, future means the next life.
Buddhists believe that kathoeys become so as a result of “sins” committed in their past lives. Christianity, Islam and other religions frown upon, prohibit and punish homosexuality. Buddhism, the dominant belief in Thailand, is far more forgiving. Kathoey are considered the “third sex” and became so, according to Buddhist scripture, not out of choice, but because of past transgressions. Therefore, they should be pitied because it was not their conscious will to become who they are, but became so due to karma, a part of the cycle of rebirth.
Buddhist teachers will say that by doing good in this life, you are not only atoning for past transgressions but also contributing to a better present and future life.
I could go deeper into the four noble truths and the three levels of karma, but this is not the place to go there. This topic is complicated enough for a country boy from Canada.
Let us come to present-day, secular Thailand. Although Thailand is 90% Buddhist, a culture of materialism and status-seeking prevails, along with the glorification of fashion and beauty.
How different is that from Western societies who claim nominal Christianity but are wedded to materialism? What may be different in Thailand is that underneath the apparent worldliness of its culture, traditional values endure.
The idea of becoming a kathoey as a means of atoning for past sins, however, does not seem to be part of mainstream culture. I’ve asked a handful of Thai people about this topic, and only a scant few vaguely recall hearing about the concept and told me that most people would have no clue as to what this idea means.
The bottom line is that kathoey are simply a fact of life; they are tolerated with a shrug (as if to say, “so what”) and definitely not judged as immoral.
That’s because, unlike Christian-based societies, in Buddhist Thailand, values and standards are different. Elders are revered. Youth still show loyalty to family. The woman is still the boss at home. And kindness is perhaps the greatest virtue.
Unconventional sexual orientation has always been a source of great curiosity. The difference here in Thailand is that men presenting themselves as flamboyantly sexy females is right out in the open, celebrated and promoted unlike any other country on earth.
These “ladies” stack up to the most beautiful showgirls in Las Vegas, and yet, they are men. That’s what the draw is. The magnetic pull on men who are gender-curious/fluid or bi-sexual is mighty powerful. It shows up in the millions of men who are typically drawn to Pattaya every year, one of the best-known “everything goes” cities in the world.
The reality, however, is far different than what you see on the stage or on the street.
Let’s start with the incidence of Kathoey in the Thai population. One of the quirks in research is the degree of openness to answering questions as to sex, gender and preferences.
People often tell you what they think you want to hear or they are afraid that they will reveal things that could harm them. So you have to find a way to get at the truth, primarily by building trust, usually on a one-to-one basis. I would bet that the best way to get at the truth is to have a “neutral” kathoey be the interviewer, assuming the right training.
In a paper that focused on the evolution of sex reassignment surgery in Thailand, the authors estimated the lowest prevalence of “transexuals” at 210,000. That’s .3% of the population of 70 million people, the highest percentage of any country studied .
The authors’ comment was: “Since it is possible to observe and find transexual people in any public place such as schools, universities, and any working place, a much higher incidence of transsexualism is expected, compared to the data reported in world literature”. (Italics are mine.)
Bottom line: kathoey, ladyboys, transexuals are very much a part of everyday Thai culture, being far more prevalent than in any other country on the face of the earth.
Let’s go a little deeper into the world of the kathoey.
They work everywhere: as store clerks, drivers, hotel staff, waitresses, masseuses, beauty clinic and beauty salon staff, bank tellers, cooks, small shop owners and you get the picture. Some are more open about their sexuality and others are more discreet. The public health care system doesn’t seem to care for them properly, so they seek private care wherever possible.
And of course, a very select few get to be showgirls and some choose to become bar girls in the sex trade.
My research shows that by the age of 15 or so, most boys know where they are heading sexually, and those destined to become kathoey start with hormonal treatment at that age. Treatment comes in the form of female contraceptive pills taken daily or as an injection every 1-2 weeks.
Very few can afford an endocrinologist and most simply buy the hormones at the pharmacy, as the majority of the meds are available without prescription.
An older kathoey mentor may take a young kathoey under his wing, teaching him about hormones, clothes, make-up, and beauty contests should the young one be so inclined. The mentor will also advise the newcomer on how to present himself to potential employers and what the path to sexual re-assignment surgery entails.
A man truly committed to a transition to female will undergo sex reassignment surgery in his twenties and at this age, he has been receiving hormonal treatment for at least 5 years.
Kathoey will sell whatever they can, save wherever possible to do one or both of these things: a boob job, also known in polite society as breast augmentation, and SRS – sex reassignment surgery. They are perfectly serious about wanting to become a “complete” woman, including the construction of a vagina as part of SRS.
What they cannot escape is the male designation on their Thai national identity card which most Thais carry on their person at all times. When in doubt, the card tells the truth about that person’s sex.
The vast majority of sex reassignment surgery patients now come from abroad, Thailand having earned the reputation as the #1 destination for medical tourism and for sex reassignment surgery.
Clinics in Thailand boast about their Western-trained surgeons, state-of-the art equipment, and costs that run 75% less than in the rest of the world. Even so, surgeries for a breast implant and sexual reassignment are prohibitively expensive for most kathoey. If a ladyboy sex worker is successful and earns several times the average, it brings surgery for a breast implant or sexual re-assignment that much closer. The cost for sex reassignment surgery in Thailand, however, is $9,000 USD or, in Thai currency, about 400,000 baht. That’s why the first, and perhaps the only, surgery that is close to affordable is a breast implant which can be had for 160,000 baht, or under $5,000 USD.
Thailand is indeed amazing. It offers a haven for sexually-different people who would otherwise be locked out of the mainstream a chance for a decent and unafraid life, despite past discrimination against them.
It has successfully turned the “ladyboy” phenomenon into a prime destination known the world over, and it has made a huge contribution to the economy.
It has provided kathoey with a chance to make a good living and provide for their families.
So, as you sit back and enjoy the show, whether it’s in a night club, a cabaret, or in bar on the street, remember there is always more than meets the eye. Behind each beautiful creature, there is a human story worth telling.
Credit Bruno Pattaya One Correspondent