If I had to ask you about Thailand, I bet it wouldn’t take long before the topic of “ladyboys” (or transexuals) came up.
It’s the subject of countless stories and numerous jokes. To those who don’t know much of Thailand, it’s easy to stereotype this country of 60 million people into having an abundance of this particular sexuality.
So are there actually more ladyboys in Thailand? And if so, why?
Well, “ladyboy” is a translation of what the Thais call kathoey. It’s tricky to pronounce as it contains several sounds we don’t have in the English language. The closest pronunciation would be something like ga-teeughy with the second part being one syllable that rhymes with urrrgh if it had a ‘y’ on the end.
It’s a term that encompasses transvestites, transexuals and sometimes just gay people. Kathoey are more accepted into mainstream society and subject to less social stigma than in many countries and are so able to live their lives without hiding who they are.
The best estimates show that the actual percentage of transexuals in Thailand is pretty consistent with most of the world, around 0.3% – 0.6%.
So there aren’t more transexuals in Thailand than any other country. They are simply more open about it.
The reasons for which are fascinating. Stick with me and I’ll get into the nitty gritty.
What Exactly Is A Ladyboy?
The word ‘ladyboy’ is not a literal translation. The Thai word is kathoey (กะเทย) and this can be used to mean a person who is transsexual, transvestite, hermaphrodite or often simply homosexual. Although this last definition is becoming less commonplace where the term geh (เกย์) is used, simply the English loanword for ‘gay’.
The general sense is that of a man who acts feminine. It isn’t used for female-to-male transexuals at all.
The viewpoint of a ladyboy from people in the West is that of a man who dresses like a woman. Often used with negative connotations.
Is the English word ‘ladyboy’ considered offensive? This is a tricky question to answer. Generally speaking, I’d say no. I’ve known kathoey who’ve been happy to use the term about themselves, but that’s hardly speaking for everyone.
One the other hand, when you hear someone talk about ladyboys it’s often with a tone that is less than kind. The words transvestite or transgender don’t fully encapsulate the term either so for these reasons, I’m going to use the term kathoey.
(The Thai word kathoey also means a fruit with undeveloped seeds. It is believed that it morphed into the word for haemaphrodite and developed further from there.)
Is It Safe To Be A Ladyboy In Thailand?
Thailand and particularly its urban areas such as Bangkok, Pattaya or Phuket are safe places for LGBT people including those who identify as kathoey or transexual.
In 2017, Bangkok was named the second-most gay-friendly city in Asia. The survey included “each city’s LGBT dating scene, nightlife, openness, safety, and legal rights.” Although it must be said Asia is not exactly number one continent for LGBT issues.
I’m straight but the gay and transexual people I’ve known in Bangkok feel extremely safe. There are several gay-friendly areas like Silom Soi 4 with bars and clubs that are geared towards LGBT clientele.
While it’s frowned upon to exhibit PDAs such as kissing or huggin in public, this is true of heterosexual interactions as well. Thailand is conservative in this respect and any kind of affection, even holding hands, may be looked down upon. Particularly by the older generations.
Attitudes are less relaxed away from urban areas. For example, there’s a definite sense of ‘shame’ for some families if their son turns out to be a kathoey. It’s in a similar vein to how in Western countries, perhaps several decades ago, having a gay son was considered to be shameful for the family.
Are Ladyboys Looked Down Upon In Thailand?
On the surface, it appears that ladyboys experience far higher degrees of tolerance than they might in even the most progressive countries. A tall, broad-shouldered man, walking around in a flowery dress and heavy makeup will attract a lot of attention where I’m from (the UK). Mostly negative, perhaps even insulting or violent.
By contrast, the sight of a ladyboy in Thailand is of no more significance than seeing a policeman or a farang. It’s an everday occurrence. The idea of not being able to live their life without glares or insults is unthinkable.
That said, kathoey definitely experience discrimination. There are certain jobs that they are “allowed” to do (for want of a better word). Lots of ladyboys are hair stylists, for instance. A ladyboy whose dream is to become an architect or a lawyer, however, is going to find it tough to be taken seriously.
Here’s an interesting article on the plight of LGBT folks in Thailand. One transgender woman with a bachelor’s in education found herself rejected for several teaching positions on account of her gender identity. Such stories are common, despite the Thai constitution guaranteeing equal rights for all genders.
On TV shows, kathoey are rarely given leading parts. They are a source of humour and are often given the low-status jobs that they are stereotyped as having. This quote gives a good impression of how ladyboys are viewed in Thailand with regards to the media.
The entertainment industry accepts us with open arms because we poke fun at ourselves and make people laugh. But if we want to be taken seriously in a field like medicine we are not afforded the same courtesy.Prempreeda Pramoj Na Ayutthaya, transgender rights activist and programme officer at UNESCO
On the more positive side, here’s an article from the BBC where Thailand shows itself to be more tolerant than almost anywhere else in the world. It tells the story of a rural school in the impoverished Northeastern region of Isaan that amazingly offer separate toilets for transexuals. The headteacher estimates between 10-20% of the male students identify as kathoey!
They used to be teased every time they used the boys’ toilets 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.
Why Is Thailand More Tolerant Of Kathoey?
Transgender people may have not reached absolute equality in Thailand but they experience greater acceptance and tolerance than they do in most other countries. On a purely personal note, I see more transgender people openly living their lives in an average month in Bangkok than I did during 25 years of living in the UK. So what are the reasons for this tolerance?
One theory is built upon the importance of religion and its influence on culture and gender roles. Many of the developed economies of the world are Christian nations or have had great Christian influence. I don’t think I need to mention Christianity’s distaste for homosexuals or the Bible’s fondness for burning them to death…
The dominant religion of Thailand is Theravada Buddhism with great influence from Hindu culture. Many of the great Hindu epics are celebrated in Thailand (notably the Ramayana) and the Thai language has a huge amount of Sanskrit and Pali loan words.
Some of these stories include tales of Gods that change gender which perhaps has some influence. Buddhism itself is particularly non-moralising towards LGBT issues as well.
On the other hand, other countries known for large transgender populations like Brazil and the Philippines are predominantly Christian countries, so perhaps religion has less to do with it than first appears.
Another point is that, like much of the world, Thailand has antiquated views on homosexuality where the idea of male-on-male intercourse is sinful, damaging or whatever, but a kathoey and a man having sex is fine. In fact, it’s common for men to have sex with kathoey but not consider themselves as gay as the traditional gender norms remain intact.
If homosexuality is frowned upon but being transexual is not, it makes sense that LGBT people would be attracted to a lifestyle that allows them to live without discrimination. In fact, as many kathoey age, they leave behind the girly clothes and mountains of makeup to simply live as gay men instead.
This is also evident in Thai lesbian culture. A lesbian relationship in Thailand is made up of a taawm (ทอม) and a dee (ดี้) to mean a ‘tomboy’ and a ‘lady’. Again, highlighting the need for an “opposite” sex in the couple.
How Progressive Is Thailand On Broader LGBT Issues?
Given the prevalence of kathoey in Thailand, you might think of the country as an LGBT-haven which rivals the more progressive Western countries. Unfortunately, it is not. The truth is murky and reveals the conservative side of the country which is more in line with its status as a developing economy.
While kathoey and other LGBT folk are tolerated and allowed to live their lives largely trouble-free, discrimination exists and is rife.
The biggest black mark on Thailand’s LGBT reputation is that of gay marriage. “Thai law currently does not recognize same-sex marriages, civil unions, or domestic partnerships.” Quite simply, in the eyes of the law, homosexuality does not exist. This means homosexual people do not enjoy many of the rights of heterosexual people. For example, only married couples are allowed to adopt which immediately prohibits LGBT people from adopting children.
In workplaces, LGBT people suffer serious discrimination and find themselves shoehorned into particular ‘feminine’ job roles such as hairdressers, wedding planners or clothes stylists.
On the plus side, things are changing. One notable example of progressiveness is in the recent (2019) elections where 4 LGBT politicians were elected as MPs for the Future Forward parts including one Kathoey, Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, The government has even stated that existing regulations on the dress code of MPs could be relaxed to allow for these new representatives.
Why Are There So Many Transexuals In Thailand?
The simple answer is that there are not. The estimated percentage of transgender people in Thailand is 0.3% which is roughly the same across all countries.
The reason it might appear that there are more transexuals in Thailand is that the country is much more tolerant (if hardly perfect) in allowing them to live out their lives in peace. In Western countries, it’s hard to imaging transexuals feeling comfortable being who they are in public or in the daytime. Even in our progressive day and age, it is something that is kept for safer spaces like LGBT clubs.
Are Kathoey Pre-op Or Post-op Transexuals?
The term kathoey is an umbrella term for many gender identities, including transexual but also transvestites, hermaphrodites or simply homosexuals. with the broad theme of someone who identifies as transexual. For this reason, a kathoey can be either post-op or pre-op.
Thailand is a hugely popular place for gender reassignment surgery for both locals who can afford it and foreign visitors who are attracted by the cheap prices. Medical tourism is huge in Thailand. People come to get expensive surgeries, dental work, hair transplants or cosmetics done on the cheap. People transitioning between genders is no exception.
What’s The History Of Kathoey In Thailand?
One of the interesting aspects of Thailand was its hyper-rapid modernisation near the end of the 19th century. Seeing the outcome of its neighbours Burma and the Khmer empire who tried to resist the Western powers, Rama V, the king of Siam (as it was known) saw the writing on the wall and did everything he could to westernise Siam to appease Britain and France.
Part of this modernisation was to introduce Western laws and customs. Ancient Siamese customs like traditional dress where woman’s breasts were on full display were banned and Western-style clothing was introduced. It also meant that a culture that had non-heterosexual norms that dated back to the 14th century brought in “civilised” Western cultural practices like making non-heterosexual intercourse illegal and punishable by death or castration.
If I Go To Thailand Will I See Ladyboys?
There are lots of Kathoey in Thailand but that doesn’t automatically mean you’ll see one. Despite what you may have been told, they are not hanging around on every street corner waiting to be gawked at. They are normal people, living their lives in a normal way. That said, for better or worse, many visitors will tell tales of their ‘ladyboy’ experience.
Kathoey are much more concentrated in the urban and progressive areas. So the areas you are likely to go and see as a tourist are more likely to have kathoey there. Spend some time touring the rice paddies of the conservative North East and chances will go way down.
It’s also worth pointing out that it’s not like there’s a flashing beacon above every Kathoey’s head with a sign saying ‘LADYBOY HERE’, Most are not trying to attract attention and are in fact hoping to blend in.
Some signs to look out for that distinguish a woman from a Kathoey might be a deep voice, larger hands, smaller hips and/or waist, an adam’s apple or simply more makeup than might seem appropriate.
If you’re interested in a memorable experience, there are ladyboy themed gogo bars at the red light areas in Bangkok such as Patpong or Nana Plaza. For the price of buying one of the lovely ladies a drink, you will get their company for 10-20 minutes where you can be sure they will make lots of jokes (if making you a little uncomfortable). For me, it’s more enjoyable than spending time in the actual gogo bars/brothels.
A more typical (and probably wholesome) experience would be going to a ladyboy cabaret show. I’ve never been but I’ve heard they can be very entertaining. The famous one at Asiatique on the river is worth looking into.
TIP: It’s common for the menfolk who visit or live in Thailand to chat about their experiences matching with kathoey on Tinder. These girls are surprisingly attractive. It’s a common joke that if you match with someone who is too hot for you, it’s probably a ladyboy! Anyway, most kathoey are open about it and not looking to deceive anyone. Look for a ‘ladyboy’ or ‘lb’ in their profile to check.