More than Meets the Eye: lady boys in Thailand

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 feminine.
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 performance.
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 short hair.
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 community.
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 short hair.
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' dorms together.
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 society.
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 than blamed.
"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 transvestites."
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 Pipat.
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 surgeries.
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.
Even 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.
The 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 for nothing."

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

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 topic."
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 issue."



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