In Thailand there a lot—at least it seems that way—of transgender and transsexual males and their variations. Known as “katoey” (”ladyboys”) in Thai, they are not persecuted like they are in some countries, and are accepted to a large degree, but you can’t quite say they are embraced either. On one hand they are fixtures of Thai soap operas, often playing spirited side kicks. Many work at cabarets or transsexual bars that feature male performers. Some are quite beautiful and sexy and are difficult to distinguish from real women. But on they other hand many live on the fringes of society and beliefs remain that they either are cursed by bad spirits or did something wrong in a past life. Katoey is also spelled “kathoey” and pronounced “ka-thoey.”

Reuters reported: “Transgenders and transsexuals have greater visibility in Thailand than in many other nations, holding mainstream jobs in a variety of fields. They are are commonplace in the fashion, beauty and entertainment industries and especially common in cosmetics shops or health stores, which almost always have a ladyboy shop assistant. Though there is very little discrimination against ladyboys in Thailand, they are not officially recognized as women and their identification cards will always say "male." [Source: Jutarat Skulpichetrat, Reuters, February 10, 2011]

Know Phuket reports: “Known in Thai by the jokey term 'katoey' and also called called ladymen or she-males, they are of course men who look like women. Some have had varying degrees of gender altering surgery. Some take hormones to increase their female attributes. Some just dress and make up as females. Whilst some are easy to spot, there are others that make very attractive women and if you saw them in the street, you really would not know they were men. There are many stories of men picking up women in bars only to find when they get back to their hotel that she is in fact a he. [Source: Know Phuket website Know Phuket]

What exactly is a katoey? “Some you can only call someone a katoey if they have had gender altering surgery. Otherwise, you should use the term ladyboy. The thing is, katoey is a Thai word and that is not how the Thais use it. They use the term much more loosely. They use the term for any man who acts like a woman. Transgender male is probably the closest English term. Those who have gender altering surgery are katoeys. So are those who take hormones to create female attributes such as breasts. So are those who just dress up like a woman. In fact, even gay men who flounce around and maybe put on a bit of make up are referred to as katoeys.”

Sam Winter of the University of Hong Kong wrote: Even though katoey “occupy a somewhat marginalised role in Thai society they nevertheless appear to enjoy a degree of prominence and acceptance unknown in most other places. They even have an international profile. As Matzner notes, ‘One of Thailand’s more sensational exports is news about transgendered males’. Many kathoey present outwardly, from their teenage years onwards, as entirely female – in terms of hair (often long), dress, cosmetics, manner, gait, gestures, voice, stereotyped personality traits and interests (including vocational). When they speak they employ a female tone and vocabulary, employing Thai word-forms normally restricted to females. Some kathoey appear indistinguishable from women. Those who can be ‘read’ may find themselves in that position only because of minor cues: height, width of shoulders, 'adam's apple', stereotypically exaggerated female manner, size of hands or feet, minor facial features or soprano voice. [Source: Sam Winter, Division of Learning, Development and Diversity, Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong, 10/5/2002]

“Kathoey have become entirely common place in Thai society. In Bangkok and other urban centres they go about their daily affairs – shopping, meeting friends, going to the cinema, eating and drinking in cafes, using public transport, visiting the temple. One may be served by a kathoey at a café, market stall, or boutique. The guide leading the tourists around may be one. Nor is the kathoey an exclusively urban or adult phenomenon. Taywaditep remarked that that children and adults can often identify at least one kathoey in every school or village. In short, it seems that, compared to elsewhere, a large number of genetic males in Thailand early on in life decide to make a gender transition that is substantial (indeed, for some as complete as it can get), long-term (apparently for life) and full-time. Whether these numbers reflect a higher incidence of those feelings we call in the West ‘gender dysphoria’ or simply a greater willingness to act on them, is a moot point. As you will see, I take the view that it is both.


More Precisely Defining Katoeys

Sam Winter wrote in the Transgender Country Report: “‘Kathoey’, a word originally used to denote hermaphrodites, is nowadays often used to describe the transgender male. The label is somewhat nebulous, and is sometimes extended to cover male homosexuals. Thais (including kathoey themselves) sometimes employ more specific labels exclusive to male transgender. These include ‘kathoey phom yao’ (‘long-haired kathoey’), ‘kathoey tee sai suer pha phuying’ (‘kathoey dressing as a woman’), ‘pumia’ / ‘pumae’ (‘male-female’), ‘pet tee sam’ (‘third sex’), ‘phuying praphet song’(‘second kind of woman’), ‘sao praphet song’ (‘second kind of girl’), ‘nang fa jam leng’ (‘transformed goddess’), ‘nong-toei’ (‘younger brother kathoey’), ‘ork-sao’ (‘outwardly a woman’), ‘sao-dao-thiam’ (‘artificial woman’), ‘tut’ (as in ‘tootsie’), or the informal English terms ‘ladyboy’ and ‘ladyman’. All of these terms make reference either to a clear female gender identity, or to one that is decidedly non-male.” Transvestites (trans-gender males) in Thailand are called trannies or “second-type” woman. [Source: Transgender Country Report: Thailand, Sam Winter, Division of Learning, Development and Diversity, Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong]

According to “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand”: Katoey “has been defined as a “person or animal of which the sex is indeterminate” in the Thai-English dictionary. The use of the term kathoey to describe male homosexualities, however, has slowly given way to the more contemporary gay and its derivatives. Today, kathoey mostly refers to men who have feminine social behaviors, without much specific reference to their biological gender or sexual behavior. Being associated with feminine characters and other stereotypes (see below), the term is considered derogatory by Thai gay men today, many of whom adamantly distinguish themselves from kathoey. Other derogatory slang words, applied to both gay men and kathoey, are tut and tutsii (the latter from the title of an American movie, Tootsie, starring cross-dressed Dustin Hoffman), which, because their pronunciations are close to the derogatory Thai word for “ass,” suggest anal intercourse. [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]

“As implied in the usage today, a kathoey is a man who sees himself more as a woman and often dresses, to varying degrees, as a women, and is likely to have sex with men. Some take estrogens and progesterone to facilitate breast development and other body transformations. A few will undergo surgical sex-reassignment surgery. This surgery is well known and available in Thailand, although it is extremely expensive by Thai standards. In Western conceptualization, the kathoey maybe considered either effeminate homosexual men, transvestites, or pre- or post-operative transsexuals, none of which is readily applicable to the traditional construction of sexuality in Thailand. Thai people mainly see the kathoey as either the “third gender,” or a combination of the male and female genders. Alternatively, they are also seen as a female gender, but of the “other” variety, as reflected in a synonym ying pra-phayt song, meaning “women of the second kind.”

“Because for most Thais, the concepts of gay and kathoey are not clearly distinguished from one another, the stereotypic features of the kathoey are thought to be also attributes of gay men, particular gay queens. Some Thai men who have sex with men alternately refer to themselves as gay for political reasons, and kathoey for self-deprecating humor. These images of the kathoey (and to a lesser degree, “gay men”) in the Thai society bare striking similarities to the stereotyped lives of gay men and drag queens in Western societies before the gay liberation movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Interestingly, the American play, The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley, was translated to the Thai context in the late 1980s and became an immensely popular show. The appreciation that the mainstream audience had for the images of kathoey and gay men - as individuals struggling with societal pressure and self-hatred - sums up the overall social climate toward homosexuality today: characterized by sympathy, fascination, and curiosity, yet riddled with ambivalence and stereotyping.”

Katoey Research and Books

According to Winter: The last ten years have seen the publication of many English language studies of transgender in Thailand. Apart from isolated reports (Beyrer, 1998; Storer, 1999; ten Brummelhuis, 1999; Nanda, 2000, Wong, 2003, Totman, 2003) they come from several sources. First is the work of Peter Jackson, whose interest in transgender connects with an broader interest in gay anthropology and historiography (Jackson 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999a, b, 2003). The more recent work of Megan Sinnott can be interpreted in a similar light (Sinnott, 2000, 2002, in press). Standing in stark contrast is the work of Andrew Matzner, whose interests are in transgender in its own right (as evidenced by his recent work in Hawai’i (Matzner, 2002a)). Much of his engaging and provocative work is available through his own website (Matzner, no date a-g). Some is also available at the TransgenderASIA website (Matzner, 2002b) or in print (Matzner, 2001). [Source: Thai Transgenders in Focus: Demographics, Transitions and Identities, Sam Winter, University of Hong Kong]

Books: 'The Third Sex: Kathoey: Thailand's Ladyboys'. Written by R. Totman. Transpeople (Khon Kham Phet) in Thailand: transprejudice, exclusion, and the presumption of mental illness. Winter, S. (2011). Chapter 13 in Jackson, P (Ed.) Queer Bangkok: 21st Century Media, Markets and Rights. Hong Kong University Press (pp251-267).

Studies: 1) Sex-gender diversity: a cross-cultural perspective. (Nanda); 2) Transpeople in Thailand: Acceptance or Oppression. (Winter) English version. Thai version (thanks to Kosum Ompornuwat); 3) Articles by Andrew Matzner, previously posted on the Transgender in Thailand site; 4) The health risk and health care seeking behaviors of male-to-female transgender persons in Khon Kaen, Thailand. First implications for targeted prevention. (Luhmann and Laohasiriwong); 5) On the question of origins: kathoey and Thai culture (Matzner); 6) The kathoey as a product (Prempreeda) (English (trans. P.L.) / Thai version) ; 7) Why are there so many kathoey in Thailand? (Winter); 8) Counting kathoey (Winter); 9) Language and identity in transgender: gender wars and the case of the Thai kathoey (Winter); 10) Transgressing the Gender Boundary (Wong).

Katoeys Numbers

Thailand probably boasts one of the highest incidences of transgender world-wide. No one knows for sure how many there are. One British newspaper claimed there were 5,000 ladyboys working in Phuket's sex industry and a huge demand for their services. On that claim Know Phuket reported: “Where did he get this figure? It seems like a very bold claim. Is there a census? Do the authorities make a katoey count? I really doubt there was a reliable statistic available to this reporter...Phuket's high season population is estimated to be around 500,000. If 5,000 of them are ladyboys then that would be 1 percent of the population. That would seem a little unlikely but not totally inconceivable. But he said 5,000 actually working in the sex industry. Where was this army of available katoeys? [Source: Know Phuket website Know Phuket, April 15, 2007]

In his article “Counting Lathoey, Sam Winter of the University of Hong Kong wrote: “It has been reported that there are now some 10,000 kathoey living in Thailand (Ehrlich, 1996). This figure is almost certainly an underestimate. I have heard informal estimates as high as 300,000. Turning first to the more extreme end of the gender-transition continuum, there are an indeterminate number of government and private hospitals which offer sex re-assignment surgery. The three most active surgeons in this field have together performed around 2000 operations. At the other end of the continuum, Matzner reports that one provincial Thai university of 15000 students boasts a ‘sorority’ for over 100 MtF students (most at an early stage in transition). This represents around one in 150 students overall, and a rather larger proportion of the males! Even if the estimate of 10,000 is an accurate one, this figure would represent an incidence substantially above that estimated for transgender in many other parts of the world. [Source: Counting kathoey, Sam Winter, Division of Learning, Development and Diversity, Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong, uploaded 17/6/2002]

“How can one count how many kathoey there are in Thailand?” One method, “which I admit has all sorts of problems attached to it, is to adopt an approach rather like I imagine the botanist might who is interested in studying a somewhat rare species of flower on an island. First he would ensure that he can recognise the species. Second, he would go out to likely locations and count how many he can find. Third, he would try to extrapolate to a figure for the entire island. It is this approach that we are currently taking in a research project in Thailand. We are selecting community locations at which people congregate, identifying a particular spot, and then observing and counting passers-by, making a note of each kathoey who also passes.

Data collected in different locations, on week days and weekends during the months of June and August 2002—Location: Duration, Passers-by, Kathoey: 1) Siam Centre, Bangkok: 3.5 hrs 4632, 12); 2) Mah Boom Kong Centre, Bangkok: 1.0 hrs, 930, 0; 3) Discovery Centre, Bangkok: 3.25 hrs, 6910, 25; 4) Gat Suan Gaew Centre, Chiangmai. 2.25 hrs, 1890, 5. The data represent a total of 10.00 hours and 14362 people in the nation's two largest urban centres. I should stress that all these shopping centres are middle-income locations popular with persons of both sexes (by that I mean male and female) and all ages.

If our combined figures for Bangkok and Chiangmai are representative of Thailand in general (1998 population 61,466,178) then we have a national incidence of around 3 in every thousand people (say 6 in every thousand males), extrapolating at nearly 180,000 kathoey nationwide.

Katoeys Demographics and Characteristics

In the study “Thai Transgenders in Focus: Demographics, Transitions and Identities,” Sam Winter of the University of Hong Kong wrote: For demographic data, we found that our participants were often among the youngest in their family, that females played a prominent role in their lives (often rearing them without any male help), and that around one in five brothers (natural or step) were also transgendered. [Source: Thai Transgenders in Focus: Demographics, Transitions and Identities, Sam Winter, University of Hong Kong]

“With regard to transition histories, we found that many participants had transitioned very early in life, beginning to feel different to other males, and identifying as non-male by middle childhood. By adolescence many were living a transgendered life. Many took hormones, beginning to do so by a mean age of 16.3 years, and several from as early as 10 years. Many underwent surgeries of various kinds, on average in the twenties, with one undergoing SRS as early as 15 years.

“As to identity, most of our participants thought of themselves simply as “phuying” (women), with a smaller number thinking of themselves as “phuying praphet song” (a ‘second kind of woman’). A small number thought of themselves as “kathoey” (a more general Thai term embracing a variety of gender non-conformities) While most participants would prefer to be a woman, there were a few who seemed comfortable being transgendered. A few foresaw that they would not be living a transgendered life into old age. The vast majority expressed a sexual attraction to men.

“On a seven-point scale 52 percent of our sample rated themselves as above average in confidence, with corresponding figures of 21 percent for relaxed attitude, 56 percent for happiness, 70 percent for self-esteem, and 33 percent for attractiveness. All of this indicated a fairly positive self-concept among our sample. Notwithstanding, the results were more disturbing for those who anticipated living a non-transgendered life when they were 50. Among these, there was a significantly lower level of happiness (ANOVA p 0.01), with only 45 percent rating their happiness as above average.

Katoey Identity

According to the Transgender Country Report: Thailand: “Individuals vary of course. However, most kathoey present outwardly as entirely female...A very large number of them take hormones, sometimes from as early as 10 years of age. Many of those who are able to afford cosmetic surgery do so. A rather smaller number undergo sex reassignment surgery. This outward presentation as female reflects their sense of identity. Our own most recent research on 165 kathoey (mean age 25 years) reveals that, by age 10, 71 percent felt different to other boys, 42 percent thought they had the mind either of a girl or a kathoey (or a related term), and 35 percent already thought of themselves as belonging to one of those gender categories. Around 70 percent of our sample said they would ideally want to be a woman and indeed be re-born as one. The vast majority saw themselves living as women or kathoey for the rest of their lives. In short our kathoey typically developed their transgendered feelings early in life, saw their feelings as long term, and desired to be re-born female. However, a minority of kathoey seem comfortable thinking of themselves as kathoey (or one of its synonyms). Around 19 percent said that they would prefer to be a kathoey (or its related terms), and 12 percent said that they would want to be reborn as such.[Source: Transgender Country Report: Thailand, Sam Winter, Division of Learning, Development and Diversity, Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong]

“In Thailand kathoey remain legally male, even after sex re-assignment. Their identification cards and passports show them to be male. This leads to all sorts of unfortunate consequences. In school many kathoey will be required to dress as a male and respond to their male name. At university kathoey may be allowed to dress in female uniform for lectures and tutorials, but may be required to dress as male or cut hair for special events (e.g. graduation awards, official visits etc.). In relationships, a kathoey finds that she cannot legally marry a man, though it will almost certainly be a man with whom she enters a relationship. In employment, kathoey commonly experience prejudice and discrimination when trying to get jobs; some employers (large and small) are quite clearly uncomfortable with the prospect of having a kathoey on staff. Finally, kathoey may have difficulty travelling abroad, risking refusal of entry and intrusive questioning and inspection at immigration points in other countries.

In the study Thai Transgenders in Focus: Demographics, Transitions and Identities, Sam Winter of the University of Hong Kong wrote: “ When we asked our participants what they would prefer to be, the vast majority (around three in every four) declared they would prefer to be a woman... While all of our participants experienced some sort of transgendered identity, the nature of that experience varied greatly across individuals. Around half saw themselves as women pure and simple, around 15 percent saw themselves as a “phuying praphet song” (‘second type of woman’), and around 12 percent saw themselves as a “kathoey.” They differed also in the degree to which they had fully embraced their transgender. Around 70 percent would, if given the chance either now or in their next life, want to be a woman. But some appeared very happy to remain transgendered, both in this life and in the next. Only a small number (about five percent) expressed a preference to be a man. [Source: Thai Transgenders in Focus: Demographics, Transitions and Identities, Sam Winter, University of Hong Kong, 2002]

“While most anticipated living a cross-gendered life into their old age, a few foresaw living as men, or least dressing as men, by the time they were 50. One might conclude that here indeed were the ‘artificial “kathoey” ’(those living a transgender life while their youth and looks could support sex work). However, our analysis revealed otherwise. It was students, rather than other occupational groups, who were more likely to anticipate a male role at 50 (Pearson’s and Kendall’s coefficients 0.321, significant at p 0.01). Tellingly, those who anticipated later life as a man reported greater depression than the others (Kendall’s tau-b 0.17; significant at p 0.05). In our view, their thoughts about the future were born of a bleak pessimism about living long-term in a society in which, despite a superficial acceptance of transgender, one can never change one’s I.D. or legal status, may have difficulty getting a job or advancing in one’s career, and will unlikely ever be able to marry according to one’s sexual preference.

“We asked participants what sort of mind they believed they had. As one might expect, few felt that theirs was that of a male. Instead, around 70 percent reported a mind of a woman, with a few the mind of a kathoey or phuying praphet song. One study participant said: “I prefer to have a kathoey mind to that of a male or female. In my family, I relate well to all the females e.g. grandmother, aunt, etc. Therefore, my consciousness is female. In fact, I think mind and consciousness are two quite different things.

Comments and Questions About Katoey Identity

Among some of the comments made by participants were: 1)” Sometimes I feel like a woman, sometimes I feel like a man.” 2) “My mind is woman...only my body is kathoey. 3) “Before I was 8 or 9 I thought I was a lady, then I realised I was actually a kathoey.” 4) “Actually I didn’t want to accept that I am kathoey, but I had to accept it.” 5) “I liked boys and imagined I was a girl even in primary school. At that time I didn't think about whether I was the same as or different from others. Only at high school did I begin to think I was different from other boys. I called myself ‘kathoey’. I always liked men. I always had "mr" as my title. So people began to call me ‘kathoey’ too. [Source: Thai Transgenders in Focus: Demographics, Transitions and Identities, Sam Winter, University of Hong Kong, 2002]

Among the small but substantial number that expressed satisfaction with being transgender, one participant said: “I would like to be a beautiful ladyboy.” Another said: I would like to be the most beautiful kathoey, like a real woman but not a real woman. Among those that indicated that they would prefer to be a man, one said: “I prefer to be male. They are more powerful. At least I want to be any normal gender.” Another said: “Whatever...but if a man then a proper man, and if a lady, then a proper lady.” Others said: 1) “I wish to be real man or woman ,, either male or female, just a normal gender”; 2) “I just want to be the gender I was born with;” 3) “Any gender, so long as it matches my mind.”

Main Questions and Answers in the study “Transgenders in Focus: Demographics, Transitions and Identities, which had 195 participants: A) I feel different from other males: Yes, 95.2 percent; No, 1.1 percent; Not sure, 3.7 percent. B) I feel I have a mind that is: Man, 0.5 percent; Woman, 70.4 percent; Kathoey, 8.8 percent; Phuying praphet song (‘second kind of woman’), 15.5 percent; Other, 5.2 percent. C) I think of myself now as a: Man, 0.0 percent; Woman, 46.9 percent; Kathoey,12.3 percent; Phuying praphet song, 36.1 percent; Other, 6.1 percent. D) Right now, if I could, I would prefer to be a: Man, 5.1 percent; Woman, 74.8 percent; Kathoey, but dressed as a man, 1.5 percent; Phuying praphet song , 15.4 percent; Other, 4.6 percent.

Transition to Kathoey and Attitudes Towards Sex-Related Surgery

In the study Thai Transgenders in Focus: Demographics, Transitions and Identities, Sam Winter of the University of Hong Kong wrote: “As we have seen, for many participants transgender identities had developed early in their lives. On average they felt by their eleventh year that they had a mind that was not male, but instead was that of a woman, or a kathoey or phuying praphet song. On average by their twelfth birthday they were self-identifying as a woman, or as a kathoey or phuying praphet song. Most in our sample reported cross-gendered identity and behaviour in early or middle childhood. Many were developing a transgendered identity in middle childhood, were actively presenting themselves as transgendered by their early to mid teens, and were pursuing surgery by their late teens and early twenties. While many Western transgenders report feelings of cross-gendered identity, or at least gender confusion, in early or mid-childhood, few would report living out their identities so early in life. [Source: Thai Transgenders in Focus: Demographics, Transitions and Identities, Sam Winter, University of Hong Kong]

“Interestingly, there was some divergence in attitudes towards sex-related surgery (SRS). Of the seven out of ten who had not undergone SRS, around five said they would like to do it and another one was not sure. That left just one in ten who showed no intention of ever getting SRS and whom we therefore might therefore call non-operational transgenders (‘non-ops’). In the West there appear to be larger numbers who reject the operation (e.g. Kockott and Fahrner, 1987). Seen in this context, the apparently high percentage of people in our sample who were planning SRS is particularly striking. However, we have no way of knowing whether our incidence for non-ops is representative for Thailand overall.

“On the whole our participants had early in their lives developed a transgendered identity. They felt different from other boys at a mean 8.3 years, felt they had a mind that was not male by a mean 10.9 years, and believed that they were in a fundamental sense something other than male by a mean 11.9 years.

“As a whole they had presented early in life in a way that was consistent with that identity. The mean course of transition involved ( a ) feminine language patterns by early- to mid- teens (e.g. using ‘”kha’” (instead of the masculine form ‘”khrap’” ) as an affirmative and polite particle, and using ‘”noo’”, ‘”chan’” and ‘”dichan’” (instead of the masculine form ‘”phom’) to denote the first person pronoun); ( b ) growing long hair, living in female clothes, and taking hormones by mid- to late- teens; ( c ) surgery, for those that underwent it, in their twenties. Around this mean course of development there was much variation. Several participants had started taking hormones around age 10.5. Several had undergone SRS in their teens, one as early as 15.5 years.

“Substantial numbers had undergone nose operations (39 percent) or obtained breast implants (40 percent). Substantial numbers had employed silicone injections to their face or body. Rather smaller numbers (in every case under 30 percent) had undergone operations of other sorts to their chin or forehead, as well as to their Adam’s Apple or (arguably the ultimate transition) had undergone sex reassignment surgery (SRS). Many of our younger participants who had not yet had operations reported that they might do so when they were older. The clearest indication of this was in regard to SRS. Two out of three who had not yet had SRS indicated they wanted to do so in the future (i.e. appeared to be ‘pre-op’ transgenders).

“However, another 17.0 percent declared they did not want SRS at all (i.e. appeared to be ‘non-ops’). We looked at these individuals in some detail. We found, compared to others in the sample, that fewer among them identified as women. They were instead more likely to identify as transgenders, either as “phuying praphet song” (‘a second kind of woman’) or as “kathoey” (traditionally used to refer to a range of deviances from male norms, but nowadays more often used to denote transgender).

Katoeys and Thai Culture

The kathoey has been a fixture of Thai culture for some time. According to “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand”: Children and adults can often identify at least one kathoey in every village or school. Despite their subtle “outcast” status, the village kathoey are often given duties in local festivities and ceremonies, mostly in female-typical roles such as floral arrangements or food preparation. The kathoey seem to have adopted the “nurturer” role prescribed to Theravada women, and ideas of female pollution (e.g., the touch taboo and fear of menstruation) are extended to the kathoey as well. Social discrimination varies in degrees, ranging from hostile animosity to stereotypic assumptions. Some of the assumptions are based on the idea that the kathoey are unnatural, a result of poor karma from past lives; other assumptions are typical of generalizations about women as a whole. [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]

“To illustrate the stereotype, the Thai cinema and contemporary literature usually dramatize the kathoey as highly histrionic in gestures, emotionally unstable, subject to men's abandonment, and thus leading lives of bitterness, loneliness, suicides, or promiscuity. Although there are plenty of kathoey who hold other professions, stereotype predicates that many kathoey become street sex workers or small-time criminals, and others become beauticians, fashion designers, hair-dressers, florists, artists, or entertainers. A few comedians and media personalities have been publicly known for their kathoey sensibilities and camp humor, while other kathoey celebrities have caused public sensations by their flamboyance or eccentricities.

Winter wrote: “The kathoey has attained a prominence in Thai society that is probably unknown for TGs elsewhere. Each year there are several ‘kathoey’ beauty contests throughout Thailand, in some cases drawing hundreds of entrants. The two best-known (Miss Tiffany and Miss Alcazar) are televised and/or recorded for later sale in mainstream record and video stores. These beauty contests are so much a part of Thai culture that some Buddhist temples (e.g. Wat Sangkratchai, Wat Maipatpheelen, both in Bangkok) are known to stage kathoey beauty contests to raise money for temple works etc. Kathoey beauty contests are also a very important part of some up-country fairs. Kathoey have been a regular feature of TV shows for years, albeit often as comic figures. Indeed the Thai Government at times seems a little uncomfortable with the high cultural profile occupied by kathoey. It recently advised television stations to curb appearances of kathoey – real or acted - on shows. [Source: Transgender Country Report: Thailand, Sam Winter, Division of Learning, Development and Diversity, Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong]

Know Phuket reported: “In 2002, there was a Thai movie given the English title 'Saving Private Tootsie'. In this movie, a plane crash strands a group of katoeys in the jungle of a neighbouring country. A group of macho Thai soldiers is sent to rescue them. The story revolves around the personality clashes between the flouncy katoeys and the macho soldiers as they try to escape this neighbouring country. In the end, they all pull together to make the final crossing back to Thailand. The soldiers put aside their dislike for the katoeys and their leader returns home to finally accept his son, who is also a katoey. The movie's message is that Thais should tolerate and respect everybody. At the end of the movie, one katoey says "I may have been born in the wrong body, but at least I was born in the right country." [Source: Know Phuket website Know Phuket, April 15, 2007]

Religion, Buddhism and the Acceptance of Katoeys

According to the “Transgender Country Report: Thailand: “In Thailand, as in other South-East Asian societies...prevalent belief until the beginning of the last century was that there were three original sexes; the third being the male-female. There is a strong tradition of transgendered shamanism in Thai culture. The tradition survives in some rural areas, perhaps offering a valued place in society for the rural kathoey. [Source: Transgender Country Report: Thailand, Sam Winter, Division of Learning, Development and Diversity, Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong]

In “Why are there so many kathoey in Thailand?,” Winter wrote: “Ideas about multiple genders are found in ancient Northern Thai creation myths which speak of three genders – male, female and mixed - at the beginning of the world. These beliefs apparently persisted until the mid-twentieth century. Archaic Thai beliefs link transgender to special shamanistic abilities; a tradition that persists today. [Source: Why are there so many kathoey in Thailand? By Sam Winter, University of Hong Kong, 10/5/2002]

Arguably, additional themes of gender blending arise from Buddhist teachings on transience and incarnation. Buddhism teaches that all things lack permanence, even to the extent that there is no soul. What is reborn is not a soul as such, but rather the result of one’s lives, current and previous. From life to life one’s elements may be incarnated as male or female, or ‘kathoey’. Indeed, certain Buddhist writings suggest that all of us have been kathoey in earlier lives. [Source: Transgender Country Report: Thailand, Sam Winter, Division of Learning, Development and Diversity, Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong]

“There is an overarching view in Thailand that maleness is defined not only in terms of what anatomy you have, but in terms of what you do with that anatomy. This is echoed in some Buddhist scriptures. For example Jackson notes that the Buddhist Vinaya text (a code of conduct for monks) identified four main sex/gender categories – males, females, ‘ubhatobyanjanaka’ (hermaphrodites) and ‘pandaka’ (‘inadequate’ males, i.e. those displaying a variety of other non-normative anatomies or sexual preference). While many Thais see transgender (TG) as a non-normative pattern of behaviour that deviates from the ideal, they also see it as quite natural. The kathoey’s condition is often viewed as her fate; a karmic consequence (punishment in this life) for a sexual misdemeanour in a previous life. Accordingly, TG is not generally seen as a disorder as it is in the West.

“As one might expect from this, there is an overall relative acceptance of TG in contemporary Thai society. Our own Thai research is interesting on this point; our kathoey said 40 percent of their fathers were encouraging or accepting when they first made it known that they were kathoey, and 66 percent of their mothers. It is important to note that such acceptance is not universal. It varies according to persons concerned – with some indication that females may be less accepting of kathoey than males. (at least at the level of university students). It also varies according to the behaviour of the kathoey concerned (she is expected to be conform closely to female stereotype), as well as her appearance and her abilities. It also depends on the nature of the relationship between the two parties (relative, friend, employee etc.). “

Negative Image of Katoeys

Know Phuket reported: “Katoeys do have a reputation for being spiteful and untrustworthy. I have personally met a few during my years in Thailand and I have to say they all seemed well adapted and happy. However, I have also heard plenty of stories of katoeys involved in criminal activities such as pick pocketing and other thefts. They have also been known to harass and threaten passers-by late at night while looking for customers along the beachfronts. These things certainly do happen but the scale of the problem is not clear. Whether katoeys really commit crime on a scale greater than other Thais is hard to judge.[Source: Know Phuket website Know Phuket, April 15, 2007]

“They also have a reputation for being emotionally unbalanced. As I said, all the ones I have met have seemed fine. However, I think it is fair to say that the strains of their lives are very demanding and it is not surprising that many of them lose emotional control very easily. The tolerance of katoeys in Thai society is not absolute. Their families, particularly the fathers, sometimes reject them. Men who in most other ways are tolerant of katoeys, can still find it shameful to father one. And the authorities' tolerance also has its limits. When a katoey volleyball team won the national championships, two of the team were selected for the national team. The government stepped in and blocked their selection. They did not think it was good for the country's image.”

Why so many Katoeys in Thailand?

In his paper “Why are there so many kathoey in Thailand?,” Sam Winter of the University of Hong Kong wrote: “While I suppose biological differences cannot be entirely ruled out, it seems to me that the answer likely lies elsewhere – in religion, culture, society and psychology.” He then offers his thoughts on four main areas: 1) Thai spiritual and social beliefs; 2) Attitudes towards females; 3) Attitudes towards sexual and gender minorities; 4) Developmental pathways for the kathoey [Source: Why are there so many kathoey in Thailand? By Sam Winter, Division of Learning, Development and Diversity, Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong, 10/5/2002]

“1) Thai spiritual and social beliefs: “In the West sex and gender are defined above all in terms of anatomy; males have a penis, and women do not. In contrast, in Thailand (as in many other non-Western societies) gender is often defined in terms of ones social role (what role, male or female, one plays in the house and in the community), and sexual role (what you do with your anatomy during the sexual act; specifically, acting as the inserter or as the insertee in sex Just as genders are perceived as multiple, so too I wonder if they are perceived in Thailand (more readily than in the West) as transient genders; in the sense that Buddhist teachings on impermanence, re-birth across lives, and karmic fate may all serve to encourage a person to act on a desire for gender transition. For if all things are transient (even our souls) then why should gender be immutable within a lifetime, especially when the means to alter it are so clearly available today? Buddhist teachings hold that, until such time as we achieve enlightenment, we are all doomed to re-birth. If we are to re-born in a future life, perhaps as someone quite different, why not be re-born in this life?

“2) Attitudes towards females. Like other societies, Thai ascribes to males and females a range of stereotypic personal characteristics. However, in Thailand the differentiation between males and females in terms of those characteristics is smaller than in many other countries.. In short, males and females are seen by Thais as far more similar (each to the other) than in other cultures. This raises the intriguing possibility that, however great the step towards womanhood may be chemically and anatomically, it is, in Thailand compared to other cultures, a relatively small psychological step. But would any Thai man want to be a woman? We might here answer ‘yes’ more readily than for many other societies; Asian or otherwise. Thai women occupy a more advantageous position in Thai society than elsewhere in Asia. These last authors remark that Thai males tend to revere females, referring to them as the ‘peht mae’ (gender of mothers). Conversely, all things worthy of reverence are conceived of as feminine; for example a great river is called mae-nam (‘mother-water’)

“3) Attitudes towards sexual and gender minorities. Thai culture is one of overall tolerance, albeit a conditional tolerance, to all groups – religious, ethnic, gender and sexual. Just as the position of women is relatively privileged, so, compared to many other societies, is the position of those who do conform to the male stereotype. Homosexuals are a case in point. Thailand is a markedly non-homophobic society. Buddhism has a broadly neutral view on homosexuality, seeing it as resulting from bad karma. There is high social acceptance of male-male sex, allowing homosexuals the freedom to pursue their lifestyle. Indeed, male-male marriages are still common upcountry.

“4) Developmental pathways for the kathoey. Once a young boy has become discontented about his gender identity, he finds that modern Thai society opens up for him a clear identity group and a clear developmental path. On one hand media personalities – TG actresses, singers, models, beauty queens - provide role models to aim for. Nearer at hand an older peer, often a fellow student, may provide first social contact with a kathoey, and a means, through an informal contact, of making contact with many more. These older role models can provide the young kathoey with important information; initially regarding hormones, clothes, make-up, beauty contests etc, and perhaps later on extending to information about employment and surgery. Not surprisingly then, our recent research found that over 50% of kathoeys believe that they became a kathoey because of the influence of friends. Once the kathoey has decided to make a transition she will find it easy to get hormones, entirely by-passing the medical profession in doing so. In the town of Pattaya I recently counted, at a general store selling toiletries, health and beauty products, a total of 23 hormonal preparations, most of them contraceptives, and all available without any doctor’s note and at modest price. A similar situation exists for surgery.”

“If asked for my opinion on the most important factor, I would put my money on the role played by the very different views of the relationships between sexual anatomy, gender identity, gender presentation, social role, and sexual role, in a place like Thailand. In the West we expect a concordance between sexual anatomy and gender identity and presentation.... But in places like Thailand. society expects a concordance between social role, sexual role and gender identity andpresentation. Beyond that it tolerates a discordance between these things and sexual anatomy. Anyway, all other things being equal, individuals growing up in Thailand seem more likely to describe and explain their feelings in terms of being a kathoey .What sort of feelings? Well, the answers might be in Williams and Best (1990), whose study investigated what ordinary Thais believe are the stereotypic traits of males and females. For Thais, gentleness and mildness, sentimentality and weakness, excitability, emotionality and a tendency to worry are all very strongly female-stereotyped traits.”

On the question of why are there so many of katoeys in Thailand, Know Phuket speculated: I think the reason is much more to do with the tolerant attitude of the Thai people. There are many katoey TV stars, singers and models. There are even katoey beauty contests. There have been several katoey movies such as 'Beautiful Boxer' which is the true story of a katoey who became a champion Muay Thai fighter. She would often kiss her defeated opponents. Katoeys seem to be a widely accepted part of Thai society. This is probably partly to do with the Buddhist religion and its preaching of tolerance towards others. However, other countries with a strong Buddhist influence (Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Laos, Japan) are not known for their ladyboys. There must be something else at work. I think one strong factor is the Thai belief that life should be fun (sanook). When they see a katoey, they think it is fun. They will laugh and joke about it but not in a nasty way. They certainly will not hurl abuse or threats as might happen in western countries. So the main reason why there are so many katoeys in Thailand is simply that Thai society is so open and tolerant. It makes you wonder how many transvestites we might have in our own countries if our societies were a little more forgiving. [Source: Know Phuket website Know Phuket]

Suttirat Simsiriwong, a campaigner for transgender rights, told the BBC: "Maybe the numbers of gays, of people with sexual identity issues, might be the same as in other countries but because Thai society and culture tend to be very sweet, very soft, and the men can be really feminine, if we tend to be gay, many of us tend to be transgender." [Source: Jonathan Head, BBC News, July 28, 2008]

Family Background of Katoeys

In “Thai Transgenders in Focus: Demographics, Transitions and Identities,” Sam Winter of the University of Hong Kong wrote: “Our participants often came from families in which they were one of the youngest, and were brought up exclusively by females. Sometimes it was the mother alone, but sometimes it was female relatives or friends, and occasionally older sisters. Fathers were often absent, sometimes entirely and from the early years. Participants often appeared to blame fathers for the broken home, though one might speculate that those who did so might have been following their mothers’ leads in this regard. These findings are highly suggestive. However, they should be treated with extreme caution. They may not be representative of Thai transgenders overall. Even if they are, they may also be representative of non-transgendered Thais. Third, it should be borne in mind that, no matter how frequently our participants came from broken families, there remained another 23 percent who had been parented in a way considered ‘traditional’ in the West (i.e. by a mother and father who live together). More research on the family structure of transgendered individuals is needed. [Source: Thai Transgenders in Focus: Demographics, Transitions and Identities, Sam Winter, University of Hong Kong, 2002]

“The vast majority of our participants reported that during their childhoods their family had experienced average affluence. Very small numbers reported more exceptional economic conditions; either poor or rich. One should not read too much into this finding; among other things it begs questions about participants’ understanding of the term ‘average’, ‘rich’ and ‘poor’.

“Around one in five participants indicated their father and mother had separated (or else had been separated by force of circumstance) before they had reached the age of ten. In one in six of these cases the separation was before the child’s first birthday. Comparable overall figures for Thailand are difficult to come by, but it is clear that there is nowadays a divorce for every six marriages (1999 figures cited in Government of Thailand, 2003). There must surely be, in addition to those who divorce, many more who simply agree to separate. Of the reasons given for the separation, 44.4 percent were framed in terms of a mutual difficulty (e.g. parents arguing or fighting) or event (for example, parents being separated through death). But for those who framed the separation in terms of a particular parent’s behaviour, the vast majority (88 percent) framed it in terms of something the father had done (in most cases new or additional wives or mistresses), with only 12 percent making reference to the mother (e.g. running away with another man or going abroad to work). “

Caregivers and Siblings of Katoeys

In “Thai Transgenders in Focus: Demographics, Transitions and Identities,” Sam Winter of the University of Hong Kong wrote: “We now turn to findings on caregivers, examined in terms of the following categories: mother, father, older brothers, older sisters, other relatives outside the immediate family, and others entirely outside the family. Predictably, most participants reported their caregivers as coming from a number of the above categories. In 22 percent of cases it was the mother and father. In many others it was another combination, usually the mother in conjunction with their older daughters and/or others inside and outside the extended family (most often grandmothers). In contrast, just under half reported having been raised by one category of person alone; most commonly the mother. In some cases it was someone from a support network of relatives (most commonly the child’s grandmothers, less commonly their aunts) or friends and neighbours. [Source: Thai Transgenders in Focus: Demographics, Transitions and Identities, Sam Winter, University of Hong Kong, 2002]

“The upshot was a very strong influence of female caregivers in the lives of our participants. We estimate that overall, around 50 percent of our participants were raised only by females, performing the task of childrearing either unsupported or with the help of other females. The absence of comparison data for a non-transgendered sample limits interpretation of this finding.

“Turning now to natural siblings, we found that 89.2 percent (174) of our sample had at least one brother or sister. Together these siblings totalled 437. Brothers were as numerous as sisters (52 percent of siblings versus 49 percent). But siblings were more likely to be older than younger (62 percent of siblings versus 38 percent; p 0.001 on the Wilcoxon Signed-Rank test). This imbalance was evident for both sexes of sibling. Older natural brothers outnumbered younger ones (60 percent versus 40 percent; p 0.01). The imbalance was even greater for natural sisters, among whom 64 percent were older and only 36 percent were younger (p 0.001). We also looked at stepsiblings, 327 in all. There were no great imbalances. Again they were as likely to be male as female (52 percent v 48 percent). They were also as likely to be older as younger (51 percent v 49 percent). The balance between older and younger stepsiblings extended to both sexes.

“We found surprisingly high incidences of MtF (male-to-female) transgender among brothers, both natural and step. Among older natural brothers the incidence rate was 19.3 percent. Among younger natural brothers it was 18.9 percent. Among older and younger stepbrothers the rates were 17.2 percent and 20.7 percent respectively.

“Once armed with this information, we were able to adjust the sibling arithmetic in terms of presenting gender. Sisters (natal or transgendered) now accounted for 255 of the natural siblings (58 percent). Of these 63 percent were older and 37 percent were younger. There were now only 182 brothers (42 percent of all siblings), of which 60 percent were older and 40 percent younger). Stepsisters (natal or transgendered) now accounted for 190 (58 percent) of the stepsiblings, equally balanced between older and younger (50 percent, apiece). There were now only 137 stepbrothers (42 percent of all stepsiblings), of which 49 percent were older and 51 percent were younger.

“Taking these findings with the earlier ones on the role of the mother and older siblings in child care, one is left wondering whether a home rich in females, particularly those older than oneself who may be involved in one’s child rearing, might act as a factor (albeit just one) underlying the development of MtF transgender in Thailand.. Unfortunately, we do not have access to comparison data (either from this study or from other researchers) that would enable us to make better sense of this finding.

Female Equivalent of Katoeys

According to “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand”: “Another cross-gendered phenomenon is found primarily in women in the cults of the ancestral spirits (phii) in northern Thailand. Members of the phii cults believe that ancestral guardian spirits are passed on matrilineally to young women in order to maintain health, harmony, and well-being in the family. Certain women, by becoming “possessed” by the phii, serve as medium for the spirits, and they are called maa khii. In their annual ritual, these women, and sometimes children, are possessed by their ancestral spirits and perform dances, which include displays of wild and rude behaviors (e.g., drinking, smoking Thai cigars, and shouting expletives and insults) as well as stereotypically masculine behaviors (e.g., wearing men's clothes and flirting and dancing with young women). [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]

“However, because of their revered role as maa khii, many of these women are held in high esteem. Outside these rituals and performances, these women, most of whom are married to a man and hold respectable roles (e.g., healers and midwives) in their village community, return to their everyday behavior typical of the female gender. Although most of these women do not remember the specific events during the trance, they are well aware of the male characters they take on during the dances. In an interesting twist of role, these women hold positions of power, in contrast to the general patriarchal Thai society and the male domination in Buddhism.

“While most maa khii are women, a noticeable minority are male, and many are also kathoey. We have observed that the maa khii who are kathoey also enjoy a more-revered place in the community, overcoming some of the ordinary stigma they would otherwise experience. During the spiritual dance (fawn phii), the mediums who are kathoey, like their female counterparts, exhibit male-stereotypical behavior remarkably different from their own manners during ordinary circumstances.

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.

Last updated May 2014

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