As I sat
outside a coffee shop in Chiang Mai, I paid close attention to every
woman as she walked by.
Not enough makeup. Hair too plain.
Clothes too ordinary.
I was waiting to meet Neung, a 21 year old
French major at Chiang Mai University. All I knew about her was she
had won various beauty pageants, and she could speak English well
enough for me to interview.
Neung is a kathoey or 'Lady Boy' as
she prefers to be called. The word kathoey refers to a biological
male who exhibits transgendered behaviour, everything from
effeminacy to complete sex reassignment.
Neung describes herself
as a woman born in a man's body, and has been taking estrogen pills
and injections since secondary school to make her body more
Having lived in Thailand for the past six months I
thought I had developed an eye for distinguishing lady boys from
'real women'. After all, they are seemingly everywhere; sitting in
the university cafeteria dressed in their uniforms, working in
almost all the beauty salons, trying on skirts at the mall, and
performing in drag on stage at virtually every community
So when a group of three girls approached me and
the middle one asked "Are you Nichole?" I assumed my interview
subject had finally arrived. "Neung?" I asked.
The girl's face
turned red and she exclaimed...."NO!!! You think I'm a boy? This is
Neung," she pointed to the considerably taller, but equally
feminine girl to her right.
"Sawasdee ka," greeted Neung using the feminine form of
hello which she has used since primary school.
In Thailand using
the feminine form of the language is one of the only ways a young
lady boy can express herself. There is a strict dress code for
school children: girls wear skirts and keep their hair either chin
length or back in braids, boys must wear tailored shorts and keep
When Neung was a little boy her mom would get upset
when she found her trying on her clothes or playing with makeup. She
would say "boys don't do that," and encourage her to play sports
requiring a lot of physical effort.
But some families are very
supportive of their lady boy sons. When I travelled with a friend to
her rural village for New Year we watched her 13 year old lady boy
cousin performing a sexy dance routine in front of the entire
I watched as he prepared with four other girls (and
one other lady boy) for their four minutes in the spotlight. Makeup,
skirt, pantyhose, sequined top, and a fake pony tail pinned to his
I watched his mother help him attach a peacock
feather to his hairstyle, and I noticed that when they
there is a difference between
tolerance and acceptance
performed, he and the other
lady boy received the most flowers and applause from the audience
(comprised mainly of rice and vegetable farmers). My friend told me
her uncle is also a lady boy and he used to do her makeup for her
when she was a young girl.
Neung said her school had about 50
students per class, and there could be anywhere from five to 20 lady
boys in any given class. This figure guaranteed that there was
always a place where she felt she belonged. It didn't matter if not
everyone accepted them - they had each other.
Neung said she and
her friends started dressing like women at about the age of 13. They
grew up performing with each other and competing against each other
at Lady Boy Beauty Pageants. She has remained close friends with a
few and when they went away to university they moved into the boys'
The fact that Neung can stay in the male dorms
without a problem, or that she can dress like a woman without
harassment, suggests Thailand is a very accepting and liberal
However, "there is a difference between tolerance and
acceptance," says Kulavir Pipat, Masters student of Gender and
Buddhism at Chiang Mai University. She says Buddhism (the religion
of 94.6 per cent of Thai people) and Thai culture contribute to the
surface level acceptance.
"In Buddhism we believe in the law of
karma. If someone did something wrong (sexual transgression) in the
past life they might be reincarnated as a transvestite or
transgendered person." The kathoey should therefore be pitied rather
"We are also a non-confrontational culture. We have
a very common saying 'Mai pen rai' (no worries) for almost every
situation. When someone steps on your toe you just say "mai pen rai"
and it seems like everything is easy going in Thai society. We try
to avoid confrontation, but the problems still exist. So even though
violence against kathoey or public ridicule might be uncommon,
discrimination may be expressed in a subtle or indirect way."
One of these ways is employment. The majority of
Thai people are accepting and even supportive of lady boys as long
as they are in a field considered suitable such as theatre, make-up
artistry, or hair dressing. But there is a much different reality
when lady boys want to go into 'respectable' professions such as
being a doctor or a teacher.
In 1996 the Rajabhat Teachers
Institute in Thailand announced that homosexual students would be
banned from enrolling in courses leading to degrees in kindergarten
and primary school teaching.
"We believe teachers will be a model
for students. So if we've got a bad model the students will be bad,"
says Pipat. "People think if students are educated by transvestites
then they will imitate their behaviour and become
There was a backlash from the homosexual
community and the ban was determined to be discriminatory and was
revoked. However, "many still believe this, including most of the
country's lawmakers, who are mainly heterosexual men," says
In Thailand it is relatively easy for a man to make the
physical transformation to a woman. Estrogen hormones are available
without prescriptions, the male physique is more slender than in the
West, and there are many surgeons who perform sex reassignment
In the four years Neung has attended university she
has grown her hair long, received permission to wear the female
uniform (skirt and blouse), and had a breast implantation. She is
now saving money to have a complete sex change operation.
though she will graduate with a university degree it will be
difficult for her to find a well paying job in her field. The
operation is expensive and the only way she can save the money is to
work as a performer in Chiang Mai's Simon Cabaret.
is well known for its beautiful lady boy performers and is said to
rival shows in Las Vegas. Although Neung thinks it is fun, she does
not want to do this forever.
"I want to use the knowledge I got
at university," said says, "I didn't study hard and earn good grades
The majority of Thai people
are accepting and even supportive of lady boys as long as they are
in a field considered suitable such as theatre, make-up artistry, or
After the operation, even if she manages
to find a career, AND get support from her family, AND find a man
who "accepts (her) for who (she) is", she still won't legally be
considered a woman.
In Thailand gender is a legal status assigned
at birth and it cannot be changed. So even if Neung is a complete
woman in mind and body, her ID card will still say mister. Gay
marriage is illegal in Thailand so she will never legally be able to
marry her boyfriend.
This also creates a problem for kathoey
who travel because their passports may cause confusion. They may
also be refused employment when they show identification stating
they are male.
And this isn't likely to change anytime soon.
Pipat says the future of transvestites and transsexuals in Thailand
is related to government policy, "Thai people feel awkward talking
about sex and gender in public, so the government just ignores the
She says the last time a cabinet minister brought up the
issue of gay marriage the Prime Minister dismissed the idea as "too
progressive for Thai society." Pipat's opinion echoes many other
homosexual rights activists in Thailand.
"If things are going to
change we need to band together and provide a strong front to put
pressure on the government to pay attention to this