KATOEYS: THEIR LIVES, WORK, HOW THEY ARE VIEWED AND THOSE THAT UNDERGO SEX-CHANGE OPERATIONS

KATOEYS AND THEIR ATTRACTION TO MEN

In “Thai Transgenders in Focus: Demographics, Transitions and Identities,” Sam Winter of the University of Hong Kong: “The vast majority of our sample (nearly 98 percent) were exclusively attracted to men, either straight or male-identifying gays. Only one reported being attracted to women, with another reporting an attraction to other transgendered females. Our sample reported the onset of feelings of sexual attraction at a mean age of 14.0 years (S.D. 31 months). Interestingly, for most this was after they had begun to develop feelings of cross-gendered identity. For 76 percent of our sample, a sense of having a non-male mind preceded the onset of sexuality. The two developmental milestones were separated by around 3 years. For 68 percent of our sample, a sense of actually not being male preceded the onset of sexuality. The developmental lag here was around 2 years. [Source: Thai Transgenders in Focus: Demographics, Transitions and Identities, Sam Winter, University of Hong Kong, 2002]

“The vast majority of our sample were attracted to men, in most cases to those they saw as heterosexual. This finding, very much consistent with one’s informal observations in Thailand, is quite at variance with much of the Western research in which transgendered people commonly report being attracted to persons of the same gender identity as themselves. [Ibid]

According to “Transgender Country Report: Thailand”: The consequence is that, when a kathoey does form a sexual relationship with a man, she and her partner are likely to see it as a heterosexual one. This is because she has already for years viewed herself as not belonging to the male gender, and he for his part will typically view her likewise. In our recent research around 30 percent of our kathoey seemed to see their own attraction to men in this way. Be this as it may, the kathoey’s male legal status makes it legally impossible for her and her partner to marry. [Source: Transgender Country Report: Thailand, Sam Winter, University of Hong Kong]

According to Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand : Many kathoey have healthy long-term relationships with men, although Jackson has noted the stereotype of kathoey providing financial support to young men with whom they are in a romantic relationship. This “kept boy” tradition is an interesting reverse of the minor wife tradition in straight men. Stereotype notwithstanding, the image of kathoey as a resourceful member of the community and a benefactor of young men is remarkably more positive than the Western images that most cross-gendered individuals are street transsexuals who live marginalized lives in the underworld of drugs and prostitution. In Thailand, kathoey find each other or married women for social support and, despite a degree of discrimination from the new gay-identified men, they are well accepted into the contemporary gay scenes. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand (Muang Thai) by Kittiwut Jod Taywaditep, M.D., M.A., Eli Coleman, Ph.D. and Pacharin Dumronggittigule, M.Sc., late 1990s; www2.hu-berlin.de/sexology/IES/thailand

Book: Thai Tranny Tales by Half-Lady Lisa includes a tale called “Half-Lady Soldier,” about the tricks transgender people use to get out of their military service and the dilemmas that have once they are in,

Also See Separate Article: TRANSVESTITES, KATOEYS AND LADYBOYS: THEIR NUMBERS, IDENTITY AND WHY THERE ARE SO MANY IN THAILAND

Katoeys, Education and Work

Sam Winter wrote in “Transgender Country Report: Thailand”: Some well-known singers / actresses / models (‘Jeun Jeun’, ‘Mahm’ Lakhonik, ‘Ma’ Onnapa) are kathoey. I know of a successful dentist, as well as someone in the senior management of a hotel who is kathoey. These success stories are exceptions. In practice, many, including university students (and even graduates) have difficulty getting suitable jobs. While few employers might admit to prejudice against kathoey, many find it hard to justify employing them in preference to other candidates who, they may feel, do not run the same risk of upsetting the sensibilities of customers or fellow employees. And then there is the government. In moves which tell much of the Thai government’s disapproval of the social prominence of the kathoey – domestic and international - the authorities have recently put barriers in the way of aspiring kathoey teachers and tour guides. [Source: Transgender Country Report: Thailand, Sam Winter, University of Hong Kong]

“In the face of such difficulties how do kathoey support themselves (or, for some, their parents or siblings)? They occasionally manage to enter stereotypically female occupations (e.g. as shop assistants, stall holders, beauticians and hairdressers, waitresses etc.) or open small businesses (a flower shop, a market stall etc). Some become dancers in kathoey cabaret shows (sumptuous - and generally family-oriented - costume and dance shows for tourists or local audiences). Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket, Ko Samui, Pattaya all boast several. Even sleepy Hua Hin has one. [Ibid]

In “Thai Transgenders in Focus: Demographics, Transitions and Identities, Sam Winter wrote: The vast majority of our sample had completed secondary education. Many had gone on to college or university, with around 53 percent already graduating. An additional 13 percent were studying at a vocational college or university at the time of our study, though they had not yet graduated. Three out of four participants reported that they were employed. Many were actress-dancers in cabarets popular with tourist groups. Other employment included make-up, costume design and wardrobe work associated with the cabarets, as well as work in beauty salons. Several reported working as dancer-hostesses and prostitutes. Small numbers reported work in restaurants and cafes, at travel and tour agencies, and in offices and general sales. One owned her own small restaurant. Another reported work as a teacher. Among the others, most reported being students. Some reported studying and working in parallel. [Source: Thai Transgenders in Focus: Demographics, Transitions and Identities, Sam Winter, University of Hong Kong]

Katoeys as Media Entertainment Figures

In “The kathoey as a product, Prempreeda Pramoj Na Ayuttaya of the University of Chiangmai wrote: “These days, Thai kathoeys have become a main topic in television, newspapers, and even the everyday conversation between friends. We can see kathoeys in films, game shows (as participants or hosts), talk shows, newspapers, and magasines. In the past, there have been controversies about the discrimination of kathoeys - such as their proposed ban in television, prohibition from studying at university or even from having health insurance. [Source: The kathoey as a product, Prempreeda Pramoj Na Ayuttaya, University of Chiangmai, Chiangmai, Thailand, February 2, 2002, transgenderasia.org

“Some people are open-minded, but others are not. For example, there was once a controversy about kathoey university students who dress in women's uniforms. Even though kathoeys may be intelligent, talented, and be good students, they are still held in lower regard than other students who do not care much about their study. Many kathoey students dress in women's uniforms until they graduate (sometimes with first-class honours degrees). But then they have to contend with the societal pressure for conformity once they leave university. When the story of kathoeys dressing in women's uniforms became well-known, there was much discussion. At the same time, one Thai kathoey won the internationally reknowned transgender beauty contest 'Miss Queen Universe'. She was surprised that overnight she became so well-regarded and accepted as a part of her country of which she had been waiting for more than 20 years of her life. [Ibid]

“Since a few years ago, kathoeys began to have chances playing roles in television and films. And this year, we have been learning about kathoey life in different careers including the one we can see in our daily life - or the one in which it would not have been previously possible for kathoeys to 'come out'... Even though kathoeys are not new, their story remains always sensational. For example, in one televised film, the actor, who was physically unlikely to be a kathoey, played the role of a sweet, high-class woman. Why did not this movie find some real, beautiful, talented kathoeys who can play this role so that the audience can obtain a better understanding about the other side of kathoey life. which is not just a freak show? What is more, the real kathoey remains only allowed to play supporting roles. [Ibid]

“This film is similar to another before it which also portrayed real and unreal 'men-women'. Kathoeys exist only when they do not interfere with the real relations between men and women. Thus, it is apparent that kathoey existence is created or made by some 'other' but themselves. It is questionable whether kathoeys really co-exist with other genders in society. Nonetheless, one can be grateful that kathoeys have a chance to do such roles than other even less pleasant roles. But it would be better to have diversity in films which allows kathoeys to demonstrate their natural talent better than a freak show.” [Ibid]

Katoeys in Phuket

According to Know Phuket: Katoeys have become something of a tourist attraction. In Bangla Road, you can see them at the entrance to Soi Crocodile, which is often referred to as Soi Katoey. Many tourists come to drink at one of the surrounding beer bars while watching the katoeys dance on the tables. You can take a photo with the katoeys but remember to pay them a tip - they are notoriously spiteful if they feel cheated. There are also a couple of katoey bars and a katoey cabaret at the back of Soi Crocodile. Another place to see katoeys is Simon Cabaret at the south end of Patong on the road to Karon. It is a simple but well-done cabaret show with katoeys dressed in spectacular costumes and miming to a range of songs. You will be amazed at just how convincing some of them are. [Source: Know Phuket website Know Phuket, April 15, 2007]

“At Soi Katoey in Bangla, there are always a few dancing at the front of the soi. There is another katoey bar at the back and Moulin Rouge ladyboy show...There are a few katoeys freelancing at various locations, mostly along the beachfronts where they annoy passing drunks. But really, they are not there in very high numbers.” Including the cabaret dancers, who are really just entertainers, “we have a very generous guesstimate of 300 katoeys active in the sex industry. I actually think that is probably extremely generous.... So I am saying somewhere between 100-300 katoeys working in Phuket's sex industry...Not the 5,000 reported in the press.”

Katoeys as Sex Workers

According to Transgender Country Report: Thailand: “Many kathoey find themselves edged by circumstance into bar work and prostitution, working in the business for months or years. Note however, that sex-work does not carry the same social and moral stigma in Thailand that it does in some other societies. We should also note that, while many kathoey may be shunted unwillingly into this world simply so that they can eat, for some it has the attraction of offering much higher earnings than would otherwise be available (and therefore a route to a better standard of living, including any surgery they desire). Such work may also very effectively re-affirm their view of themselves as female. [Source: Transgender Country Report: Thailand, Sam Winter, University of Hong Kong]

On the katoeys in Phuket, Know Phuket wrote: “So what about the demand for Katoeys? Are there really lots of men looking for their services? Since their most common approach seems to be trying to fool very drunk men, I would guess that their services are not massively in demand. I have met a few men who have had sexual encounters with katoeys. Most of them claim it was a drunken mistake. One longtime Italian resident of Patong told me about his liaison with a katoey. He is a colourful, old character and tells a good story. His katoey had done the full gender altering surgery and he had no idea that she was a ladyboy. "You cannot tell the difference" he told me. "Not until you get down to it". Even though he realised he was with a katoey he decided to continue the act through to its end.[Source: Know Phuket website Know Phuket, April 15, 2007]

“I did meet one guy who happily proclaimed he had just been 'blown off' by two katoeys in his hotel room. He was rather proud of himself and certainly not claiming it was a mistake. You do meet some funny characters in Patong. I guess there is some genuine demand for katoeys. Although they are active in the gay area, I do not think it is a gay thing. Although they are made-up as women, I do not think it is a straight thing. But there is a hard-to-define group of men who do find katoeys attractive. Certainly, there is a lot of curiosity about them. [Source: Thai Transgenders in Focus: Demographics, Transitions and Identities, Sam Winter, University of Hong Kong, 2002]

And then there is the “artificial kathoey.” Transgender Asia reported: “It has been suggested that some apparently transgendered females in Thailand are not truly transgendered; rather they undergo a gender change to gain entry into lucrative sex work. Our experience, formed through several years of talking with transgenders in Thailand, is that such ‘kathoey thiam’ (‘artificial kathoey ) are difficult to find. It is even difficult to find anyone who can point one out.”

Katoey Everyday Life

In “Thai Transgenders in Focus: Demographics, Transitions and Identities,” Sam Winter of the University of Hong Kong wrote: In Bangkok and other urban centres katoeys “go about their business – shopping, meeting friends, going to the cinema, eating and drinking in cafes, using public transport, visiting the temple – without passers-by raising so much as an eyebrow. One may be served by them at a café, market stall, or boutique. One may see them in (female) university uniform.” [Source: Thai Transgenders in Focus: Demographics, Transitions and Identities, Sam Winter, University of Hong Kong, 2002]

“Many are now living quite independently. Over half reside outside their family home, residing alone or with boyfriend or friends. Of these they had on average left home in their nineteenth year. Anecdotal reports from our participants suggest that many , whether living with family or not, were helping support family members. [Ibid]

“There are few formal restrictions on the freedom of kathoey to pursue a cross-gendered life. They are able to go about their daily activities in a normal way, drawing little if any comment from those they meet. My own experience is that most Thais behave in an entirely warm and courteous manner when dealing with them in shops, cafes, in taxis, and so on. Indeed, this is generally the Thai way with all persons. However, problems arise in more formal situations; for example in schools and universities, and in interviews with potential employers. In all these situations the question of legal gender status assumes importance. The rest of this report focuses on those difficulties. [Ibid]

“Let me say right now that I believe that the difficulties...some connected with very practical matters of survival, prompt some kathoey finally to revert to male identity and behaviour. Around 6 percent of our recent kathoey sample anticipated that they would be living as men when they were aged 50. However, we should note..that very little is known about what happens to kathoey as they grow older. As a side note, I have even heard isolated reports of harassment and violence towards kathoey, including cases in which the perpetrators were police. [Ibid]

How Katoeys Are Treated by Others

Know Phuket reported: “When I first told my friends that I was planning an extended stay in Thailand, it is amazing how many times I heard the same stupid reply - "watch out for them ladyboys!" Again and again, I heard this inane comment until it really started to grate...The funny thing is, once I moved to Thailand, I soon discovered that katoeys...really are everywhere. It is not just a handful of them working the tourist resorts. You will see them working in shops and restaurants. Even if you go out into the country, you will find katoeys. They really are everywhere. [Source: Know Phuket website Know Phuket, April 15, 2007]

“In fact, I had not been here long before I had a personal acquaintance who was a katoey. One of the things I noticed was just how comfortable other Thais were in her company. Heterosexual Thai men were quite happy to give her a compliment such as telling her how beautiful she looked. They all called her 'she' as it is polite and made her happy. Personally, I was initially a little uncomfortable in her presence. I wasn't scared she would jump on me. She was a pleasant and well-balanced person. I was just a little unsure how to deal with her. It was the charming way the other Thais treated her that soon put me at ease. It made me think just how far behind our attitudes still are in the west. [Ibid]

Suttirat Simsiriwong, a campaigner for transgender rights, told the BBC that tolerance is not the same thing as acceptance. Despite their high profile in Thailand, transsexuals complain that they are still stereotyped - they can find work easily enough as entertainers, in the beauty industry, the media, or as prostitutes, but it is much harder to become a transgender lawyer or investment banker. And their biggest complaint is that they cannot change their legal status. Despite a proposal during the drafting of a new constitution last year, to allow them to change the gender on their identity cards, this has not yet been approved. [Source: Jonathan Head, BBC News, July 28, 2008]

Katoeys, Old Age and Medical Treatments

In “Thai Transgenders in Focus: Demographics, Transitions and Identities,” Sam Winter wrote: “Little is known about the middle and later lives of Thai transgendered females. The final chapter of Totman’s (2003) book on kathoey focuses on their old age, and covers just two and a half pages. Our own study sheds little light on these individuals, but does say something about what our participants foresaw for their own later years. The fact that one in five anticipated they would not be living a clearly defined female role in later years, coupled with their higher level of reported depression, suggests that, even in the relatively accepting Thai environment, living a transgendered life is not easy for all. [Source: Thai Transgenders in Focus: Demographics, Transitions and Identities, Sam Winter, University of Hong Kong]

According to Transgender Country Report: Thailand: “Kathoey have easy access to hormones and surgery. Local chain drug stores can carry as many as 23 hormonal preparations, all available (without a doctor’s note) over the shop counter. Ninety five per cent of our recent kathoey sample (mean age 25 years) had taken hormones, some as early as the age of ten. A large number of Thai surgeons perform a wide range of cosmetic surgeries, including eyes, cheeks, foreheads, nose, mouth, chin, ‘adam’s apple’, breasts and hips. While there is a market for these sort of services among genetic females, it is likely that kathoey form a major part of this market. [Source: Transgender Country Report: Thailand, Sam Winter, Division of Learning, Development and Diversity, Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong]

There are a large number of Thai surgeons performing an operation of exclusive interest to kathoey – sex reassignment surgery. Around 22 percent of our kathoey sample (mean age 25 years) had undergone SRS (one as early as her sixteenth year). Another 65 percent indicated a desire to do so.

Kathoeys, Kick Boxing, Volleyball and the Military

One of the most well-known boxers is Prinya Kiatbusaba, a transvestite known as Nong (Va Voom) Toom, who wore lipstick, eyeliner and fingernail polish during his matches and kissed his opponent on the lips before matches. In his prefight dance he mimed putting on make-up while he did the splits. Toom later had a sex change operation. Afterwards, he was allowed to continue fighting, as a woman in the men’s division, but was not allowed to wear a sports bra.

Members of Thailand's championship all-transvestite volleyball team complained that were kept off the national men's volleyball team simply because they had breasts and wore make up. The government stepped in and blocked their selection, presumably because they did not think it was good for the country's image.” The Iron Ladies (2000), a stand-up-and-cheer movie about a championship katoey-gay volleyball team and its lesbian coach, is the second-highest-grossing Thai film ever. It is based on a true story.

Janesara Fugal of AFP wrote: “spared from serving their country are transgender 'katoeys', or ladyboys, such as Kridsada Kumsombat. "There are so many people and most of them are men. I'm afraid they might make fun of me," Kridsada said. Previously transsexuals were exempted on the grounds of a "psychological abnormality", but that has now been replaced by a "misshapen chest". "If they said I'm mentally ill it doesn't look good on my record. But this way it's ok. I feel like we have more rights because in the past ladyboys had to be soldiers but now that's changed," Kridsada said. "I'm so relieved and I really want to go home now!" [Source: Janesara Fugal, AFP, April 14, 2011]

School with a Transsexual Toilet

In 2008, Jonathan Head of the BBC reported: Kampang Secondary School— situated in Thailand's impoverished and attended mostly by the children of farmers— is proud of its toilets. Spotless, and surrounded by flowering tropical plants, they have won national awards for cleanliness. But there is something else about them too. Between the girls' toilet and the boys', there is one signposted with a half-man, half-woman figure in blue and red.[Source: Jonathan Head, BBC News, July 28, 2008]

“Outside the transsexual toilet, in front of the mirrors, some decidedly girly-looking teenage boys preen their hair and apply face cream. The headteacher, Sitisak Sumontha, estimates that in any year between 10 percent and 20 percent of his boys consider themselves to be transgender - boys who would rather be girls. "They used to be teased every time they used the boys' toilets," he said, "so they started using the girls' toilets instead. But that made the girls feel uncomfortable. It made these boys unhappy, and started to affect their work."So the school offered to build the transgender boys their own facility, and they welcomed it. [Ibid]

“Triwate Phamanee is a slightly built 13-year-old who is adamant that he will one day change his gender. "We're not boys," he told me, "so we don't want to use the boys' toilet - we want them to know we are transsexuals." Vichai Saengsakul, 15, agrees. "People need to know that being a transsexual is not a joke," he says, "it's the way we want to live our lives. That's why we're grateful for what the school has done." [Ibid]

“The transgender boys in Kampang tend to stick together as a group, practising their somewhat exaggerated feminine mannerisms together and generally camping it up. They still have to wear male uniforms, make-up is not allowed (although some manage to sneak in a touch of lipstick and mascara), and of course sex-change surgery is out of the question at this age - the youngest self-declared transsexual is 12. [Ibid]

“But they appear to be treated perfectly normally by other pupils and teachers alike. I asked the headmaster whether they were not too young to be making decisions about their gender. He said that, in his 35 years of working in the Thai education system, he had come across many boys like this, and they never changed. Many go on as adults to have sex-change surgery, while others will live as gay men, he said. The Kampang school's initiative, far from stirring up controversy, has instead prompted a discussion in other schools over whether they should be providing the same facilities. A ratio of 10 percent to 20 percent of boys calling themselves transsexual in a provincial high school does seem very high, but Mr Sitisak assured me that in his experience it was not unusual. [Ibid]

Thai Airline Recruits Transgender Flight Attendants

In 2011, Reuters reported: “A new Thai airline is hiring transsexual ladyboys as flight attendants, aiming at a unique identity to set itself apart from competitors as it sets out for the skies. PC Air, a charter airline set to start operations on Asian routes in April, originally planned only to hire male and female flight attendants. But it changed its mind after receiving more than 100 job applications from transvestites and transsexuals. Four were chosen, along with 19 female and 7 male flight attendants. [Source: Jutarat Skulpichetrat, Reuters, February 10, 2011]

"When I knew that I got this job, I burst into tears because I'm very happy," said 24-year-old Chayathisa Nakmai. "I had sent many applications to different airlines." The airline said that the qualifications for the ladyboy flight attendants were the same as for female flight attendants, with the additional provisos that they be like women in how they walk and talk, and have a feminine voice and the right attitude.

While the airline strives for equality, PC Air president Peter Chan, who chooses the transsexual cabin crew himself, said he needed to spend longer with interviews for such applicants. "For male flight attendants, if I don't want to hire them, it's because of their attitude or their characters, like the way they walk and smile. For female flight attendants, if they have no patience and their character does not qualify, we won't hire them," he added. "For transsexuals, we can't just spend 5 or 10 minutes with them, we have to spend the whole day with them to make sure they have feminine characters."

The airline says it may hire more flight attendants from the "third gender" in the future since the Department of Civil Aviation has no objections. Though excited by the opportunity, the transsexual flight attendants said they were aware they needed to prove themselves. "People will keep their eyes on us... There will be more pressure," said Dissanai Chitpraphachin, 23, who was crowned as Thailand's most beautiful transvestite in 2007. "We have to prepare ourselves more than the women." The airline is initially set to fly to South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and China.

Transgender Politician Wins a Provincial Election

In May 2012, Tossaporn Wongwaikolayoot wrote in The Nation: “Thai political history turned a new page when a transgender candidate won a provincial election. The result became a media phenomenon that drew attention across the country, and spread across the world. News outlets from Japan, Germany, Mexico, USA and the UK all published reports about the landmark result. "Nan people voted for me, showing that Thai people respect human rights," Nok Yonlada - or Kirkkong Suanyos, as she is named on her ID card - the new Nan Provincial Administrative Organisation (PAO) member-elect, said in an enthusiastic interview with The Nation. [Source: Tossaporn Wongwaikolayoot, The Nation, May 30, 2012]

“Nok got 3,808 votes, while her rival, Pawat Sattayawong, followed with 3,659 votes. The unexpected result made her the first transvestite to get elected in Thai political history. However, her political pathway was no bed of roses. She worked very hard, as she is new to politics and ran as an independent against a former municipality member who got support from the chairman of the Nan Provincial Administrative Organisation. So, it's possible that being a fresh face was a reason she was elected, besides her policies.

"My policy was clear that PAO members have legislative power to balance the administrative branch against corruption, while the other candidate's campaign was only to support the administration," Nok said. Nok is also president of the Trans Female Association of Thailand and a well-known activist for transgender and homosexual rights. She became well-known for her work starting the Sister's Hand Project which offers free surgery for Gender Identity Disorder patients. However, being a transvestite became an issue which her rival verbally attacked Nok on, when she stepped up to compete in the poll. But it turned to her advantage, as people disliked the war of words. "I can't deny what I am and I don't feel anything about being attacked. But when the result came, I appreciated the open-mindedness of Nan people," Nok said.

Asked if she had concerns about working with the 23 men elected in the other zones in Nan province, she denied it vigorously. "I wouldn't let it enter my mind," she said, adding that she believed she could work with others who didn't vote for her, as she sought office with sincerity. In her campaign projects, Nok focused on flooding problems, local tourism promotion and issues such as the Asean Economic Community, technology and others, but did not touch on homosexual rights, which she has fought for over many years. She said that was not necessary, as she will remain in her position as president of the Trans Female Association.

"Pushing the law for homosexual rights - I can do it in the name of the Trans Female Association. But for my political future, I want to push for laws on human rights, and I may run to be a member of Parliament. "Human rights is not only about homosexuals, but also means patients, the elderly and racism. But all in all, I will decide later after the PAO member term ends," she said.

Nok had a sex change operation to become a woman at the age of 16 and was named Miss Alcazar in 2000. Besides her beauty, Nok has had a successful life. Aged 30, she runs jewellery and satellite-TV businesses and is a PhD candidate in social science at Ramkhamhaeng University. She desires to serve the country and benefit society, adding in a joking tone that she doesn't have a husband and kids to take care of. "Personally, I want to wear a female official uniform, as I am already a woman, inside and outside - but this is not going to be easy, as the law does not guarantee transgender rights yet. "I will have to talk to the administrators before the term starts, as I don't want this to be a big issue on my first day as a PAO member," Nok said.

"Disrespectful" IKEA Angers Thai Transsexuals

In January 2013, Reuters reported: “A Thai man and his girlfriend are shopping at a furniture store. She sees pillows on sale and gets excited, her feminine voice falls suddenly to a deep male-like tone. Shocked and horrified, her boyfriend runs off. The advertisement by IKEA, the world's biggest furniture retailer, has incensed a Thai transgender group which called it "negative and stereotypical" and "a gross violation of human rights" in an open letter to the Swedish retail giant. [Source: Reuters, January 24, 2013]

The 20-second commercial shown on YouTube and on Bangkok's trains in December and January entitled "Luem Aeb" ("Forget to Keep Hidden"), was disrespectful to transsexuals, according to the Thai Transgender Alliance, which demanded an explanation from IKEA. A marketing official at IKEA Thailand, which opened its first store in the country in November 2011, said it had talked with the group in response to its complaint. "IKEA has spoken to the group over the telephone and the conversation went very smoothly. We are now drafting a letter in response," the official said, declining to be identified.

Transsexual Beauty Pageants in Thailand

In October 2006, Pattaya hosted the Miss International Queen contest, a beauty pageant for transsexuals that drew 24 contestants from around the globe and featured contestant decked out in national costumes, evening gowns and bathing suits. The winner, Mexico’s Erica Andrews, won a $10,000 prize and said, “This is the most wonderful feeling.” The runners up were Patricia Montecarlo from the Philippines and Ratravee Jiraprapakul from Thailand.

The “Miss International Queen 2009" pageant in Pattaya was won by 37-year-old Japanese transsexual TV personality Ai Haruna. Haruna beat out 20 other contestants from around the world in the fifth running of the contest held at the cabaret Tiffany’s Show. He won a tiara and $10,000 in prize money. The runner ups were from Thailand and Brazil.

In November 2012, The Nation reported: “Twenty-year old Kevin Balot, a nursing graduate from the Philippines, won the prestigious Miss International Queen, the worldwide pageant of transgenders and transvestites in Pattaya. Kevin was also voted Ms Photogenic according to pageant organisers Tiffany Show and Piton Communications. Jessika Simoes of Brazil won 1st runner-up while Thailand's Panvilas Mongkol was 2nd runner-Up. [Source: Jofelle P. Tesorio, The Nation, November 4, 2012]

“The yearly event held at the resort city of Pattaya, Thailand, on Nov 2, was aired live on Thai television and watched by millions. An offshoot of Tiffany Show Pattaya, a cabaret show, Miss International Queen has grown into one of the most popular pageants in Thailand and has attracted international media coverage. It is also dubbed as the Miss Universe for transvestites and transgenders, whose aim is to empower transgenders, promote GLBT rights and provide a venue for showcasing their talents. The pageant has also launched the careers of several winners including Ai Haruna and Treechayada ’Poy’ Malayaporn, who has become mainstream actresses and models in Japan and Thailand respectively. [Ibid]

According to organisers, the parents and sister of Kevin surprised him by flying in from Manila to Thailand to watch him compete and win the pageant. His mother was so proud she wanted to immediately join and congratulate him onstage after the pageant. Kevin, who dreams of becoming a flight attendant, said he was proud to be the first Filipino to win the almost decade-long pageant, which has been dominated by winners from Thailand, USA and Japan. Three other Filipinos joined the pageant. One of them was Stefania Cruz, who won Miss Ripley's Popular Vote. [Ibid]

Sex Change Operations in Thailand

People from al over the world go to Thailand for sex change operations. Vehthani and Bumrungrad Hospitals offer male-to-female sex change operations for cost as little about $2,500 (compared to $20,000 in other countries), with total medical expense less than $5,000. Other places reportedly offer sex change operation for $1,600. Sex change tours are offered to Phuket.

To make a vagina, the penis split up the middle and the flesh from the flesh from scrotum and the root of the penis are molded into a labia and clitoris. The operation is often accompanied by hormone shots and breast implants if the patient hasn’t had those already. After the procedure patients are told to dilate their “vagina” every day or it will sort of collapse on them.

Thai doctors are known for their skill and craftsmanship. According to one survey 1 out of 30,000 Thais is on a waiting list to get a sex change operations. Explaining the phenomena, one Thai sexologist told Reuter, "Thailand is a liberal society and I think it is acceptable for people to have their sex changed if it’s their own wish."

People Who Have Had Sex Change Operations in Thailand

Patients for sex change operations are supposed to go through counseling first to make sure being a female is what they really want to be. Even so, foreigners are often attracted by the fact they don’t have to undergo extensive psychological counseling like they do in their home countries

One satisfied sex-change customer, a foreigner, told Reuter, "I'm very happy that my dream has come true...Although sex is not top priority in my life, I must admit that I have felt much better, since the intercourse I have now is much closer to the natural thing." One 70-year-old patient said, "I had a woman's heart and soul in men from an early age. So my biggest dream was to change my male sex organ into a female one." A Thai patient told Time, “I woke up smiling. I’d wanted it cut off for so long, it was just a relief to finally look like a woman where it matters most.”

By some counts there are 10,000 transsexuals (people who have sex change operations) in Thailand. Though they wear skirts, lack a penis and sometimes are surprisingly beautiful they are regarded as men in the eyes of the law after the operation. “Male” is listed on their passport and identity card. One person who was waiting to undergo a sex change operation told The Nation things would be easier if she could change from being a 'Mr' to a 'Miss', as she could then register a married certificate like other women. "I just want my life to be complete as a woman. Why do I have to go to another country to be allowed to register a marriage certificate with a man who I love? Why can't this country where I was born give it to me?" said a business transgender woman. [Source: Pongphon Sarnsamak, The Nation, October 28, 2009]

Thai Doctors Who Perform Sex Change Operations

Dr. Preecha Tiewtranon is known for performing among the cheapest, high quality sex change operations in the world. He has performed more than 1,200 male-to-female sex-change operations and has a waiting list for thousands more, including 300,000 from China and 1,000 from Japan. Tiewtranon started doing the operations in 1978. He said he entered the practice reluctantly and at first he didn’t even like transsexuals but felt sorry for because they endured botched procedures and felt someone—namely him—should learn to the job right.

At first most of Dr. Tiewtranon’s patients were Thais. But world got around of his skill. A lot of the Thai transsexuals he fixed moved overseas and married Europeans, particularly Germans. Now almost all of his patients are Americans, Europeans of Australians. His operation is relatively quick: only three hours for sexual reassignment surgery, breast additions and shaving the Adam’s Apple.

Other doctors who perform sex-change the operations include Supron Watanyusakul in Chonburi, who studied under Tiewtranon and offers a package with giant-size breast implants, and Sanguan Kunaporn, who works in Phuket and specializes in making a ‘sensitive “clitoris from penis skin in an operations that takes eight hours over two days.

New Sex Change Regulations in Thailand

In November 2009 new rules formulated by the Medical Council of Thailand went into effect that require that transgender people consult a psychiatrist, live as a woman for a year and receive hormone therapy before being be allowed to have a sex change operation. AP reported: “Thailand has issued rules making sex change surgery more difficult - including a requirement that potential candidates cross-dress for a year - over fears that some patients are rushing into the operation, a medical association says. Transsexuals and transgender men are a common sight in Thailand...but over the past two years, a rash of castrations, especially among young men, has alarmed the medical establishment and prompted the new rules. [Source: Jane Fugal, Associated Press, November 27, 2009]

Dr Sampandh Komrit of the Medical Council of Thailand said the new rules require a person to wait a year after deciding on the surgery. The applicants must be over 18 and are required to dress in women's clothing for the year before surgery. It also requires a mental evaluation before the surgery and continued follow-up visits with a psychiatrist after getting the sex change.

"This is a very important decision in their life," Sampandh said on Thursday. "After the operation, there is no way to fix it." The year before Thailand's Health Ministry ordered hospitals and medical clinics to temporarily stop performing non-medical castrations. The ministry said the procedure needed stricter monitoring. Sampandh said he understood the motivation for sex change surgery, adding that he has met many men who insist they would be happier being a woman. But he said the new regulations give them the opportunity to think through their decision. "This is not a small thing, not like going shopping. Especially the teenagers, think carefully. Don't do it because your friend did it," Sampandh said. Patients with a long history as cross-dressers would be exempt from the one-year waiting period, he said.

"The council want to make sure that they [transgender people] really want to be a woman and spend the rest of their lives as a woman, forever, not for a second," council president Dr Somsak Lohlekha told The Nation. "Sex reassignment surgery would affect the physical body [of the person undergoing the operation], as well as people's mental health and society around them."[Source: Pongphon Sarnsamak, The Nation, October 28, 2009]

Pongphon Sarnsamak wrote in The Nation: “The council's new rules require transgender people to consult psychiatrist to assess people's mental state before they are allowed to get hormone therapy from endocrinologists....Somsak said at least two psychiatrists must give guarantees for transgender people who want to undergo a sexchange. Foreigners seeking to have such operations here must get approval from a psychiatrist in their country of origin as well as a psychiatrist in Thailand before undergoing surgery. After the operation, surgeons and physicians must follow up on their patient's condition and provide appropriate medical treatment. The new regulations require that surgeons or physicians undertaking the sexchange be registered with the Medical Council. They must also treat any complications that occur following surgery. Surgeons who violate the new regulations face warnings or the threat of having their medical licence revoked.

Dr Panom Ketman, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists of Thailand, said one year of living as woman should be enough to evaluate if a transgender person is ready for sexchange surgery. "During this period, they have more time to ask themselves whether they really want to be a woman or not. If they are absolutely sure, psychiatrists will allow them to undergo such surgery," he said.

Dr Paiboon Jittrapai, of Thailand's Royal College of Surgeons, said the new rules would lift standards for sexchange operations. They would also help screen transgender people who really need sexchange surgery. He said some patients had committed suicide after a sexchange operation as they had later rejected changing sex. "Some transgender people underwent reassignment surgery because they wanted to do it for their job, such as performing in a cabaret show, not because they want it for their lives."

Transgender Women of Thailand chairperson Yollada Suanyot expressed satisfaction with the new regulations but said relevant agencies, such as the Interior, Foreign and Justice ministries, should revise laws to allow transgender people to change their gender title from Mr to Miss."Basic women's rights are also fundamental needs for transgender people," she said. "We also want the respect in human dignity, the same as anyone else."

Impact of the New Regulations On People That Wanted Sex Changes

Pongphon Sarnsamak wrote in The Nation: “Areeya Milintanapa, a 26-year-old transvestite, had hoped to undergo sexual reassignment surgery at a private clinic in Bangkok next year, but her plans have hit a setback - new regulations by the Medical Council of Thailand. For Areeya the new rules are an inconvenience. "I have already spent my whole life as a woman - since I was a little boy - and why [do] I have to live as a woman for another year to undergo sex change surgery?" she said. [Source: Pongphon Sarnsamak, The Nation, October 28, 2009]

Areeya said she had wanted to be a woman since she was a young boy. She said she had played with dolls like girls did and wore her mother's skirts. "I know myself that I have always been woman not a man." Areeya, who married an American man three years ago, said she started doing research and finding out information on sex change surgery over many years, by consulting transgender people who had undergone sex reassignment operations, before making a decision to undergo the operation herself next year.

"This [operation] was going to be a special gift for me to celebrate the New Year," she said. But her plan has been set back a year as the new regulations mean she cannot undergo a sex change without seeing a psychiatrist first.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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