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A glimpse into what motivates Thailand’s ladyboys – the ‘third sex’.

A glimpse into what motivates Thailand’s ladyboys – the ‘third sex’.Thailand is unique. Well, almost! In today’s modern world, it is one of the few countries that have never been conquered or colonised. It has developed largely in isolation, and it’s a nation that has never been forced to absorb ‘foreign’ systems of government, law, commerce, language or culture. As a result, it has its own language, a unique way of measuring time, an unusual legal system, commerce and banking works within its own specific network, and even its mathematics differs curiously from our Western culture. These things are not evident to visitors or tourists. Except for the language, of course. And one other curious aspect – Thailand’s ladyboys.


If you were born outside of Asia, then you just won’t be able to help yourself. And the meaning of this is not what you think! What I’m getting at is that everyone makes assumptions and judgements based entirely on the values they’ve grown up with – all of us are products of our own societies and cultures. And this means you’re going to instinctively try to relate things you see in Thailand to your own way of thinking. Thus when it comes to ladyboys, the automatic response is to reach for labels like ‘gay’, ‘bi-sexual’ or ‘transvestite’. But that’s like asking a Thai person what the time is. You won’t be able to relate to the answer – traditionally Thailand doesn’t use a 12-hour or even a 24-hour clock. And, likewise, the sexuality of ladyboys and their place in Thai society is nothing we can understand in the West.


There’s a whole truckload of reasons for this and, not surprisingly, graduate and postgraduate theses have been penned on the subject in universities all over the world. But it’s probably easiest to begin by saying that you’ll come across ladyboys in nearly all walks of life here, from television, film and the entertainment industry to beauty and fashion, in hotels and resorts, shops and banks, and you’ll even find them working as flight attendants and teachers. It’s estimated that in Thailand there is one ladyboy per hundred of the adult population. Even though the term ‘kathoey’ is generally used in the Thai language, a gentler term clarifies their position in society: ‘phet ti saam’ – the ‘third gender’.


Perhaps the roots of this can be traced back to traditional Buddhist teachings that acknowledge a ‘third gender’, believing that it’s the result of an unfulfilled love life in a previous incarnation. And this sets the social stage, over a 2,500-year period, Page-100-3for individuals who are not destined to bow to a specific gender role, whatever their physical baggage might be. Although this doesn’t explain why in Thailand the percentage of ladyboys is notably higher than in the neighbouring Buddhist countries. Unless, for this, we have to return to the thought that Thailand has never had an invading foreign culture or their way of thinking imposed upon its society.


Most certainly the ladyboys of Thai antiquity were a tolerated minority, not particularly popular, and of little consequence. But this changed towards the end of the 19th century. It must be kept in mind that Thailand was an autocracy until as late as 1932, with an enormous social gap between the aristocrats of the royal court and the peasants. In this period, it was taboo for women to dance or be a part of courtly entertainment. Happily there was a handy supply of ‘third genders’ readily available, and only too willing to dress up and perform as women! It was Thailand’s most beloved king, HRM Rama V, who first popularised these ‘ladyboys’, being pleased and amused by their performances, effectively bestowing a royal stamp of approval upon them which elevated them socially. This approval then spread into high society, A glimpse into what motivates Thailand’s ladyboys – the ‘third sex’.and then gradually out into the world beyond the palace gates.


All of which is to explain that, today, boys who feel that they are girls are quite normal in general Thai life. They are not seen as some kind of deviation from the norm; they are very much a part of what constitutes the norm. And, in today’s age of global tourism, their popularity is higher than ever before. Another element that differs radically from the West is that Thai males are small, often delicate, with small hands and feet, and rarely have much in the way of body hair. The word ‘transvestite’ to Western ears summons visions of hairy bricklayers prancing about enthusiastically in Dolly Parton wigs. However, Thai people would find this image equally repulsive – over here, there’s just no such comparable concept!


But, it has to be said, the aim of every ladyboy is to have breasts - although it’s debatable whether this priority comes before or after the need to be desired and the urge to find a loving boyfriend! Either way, it’s hard to find the money for the operation (around €1,000) leading to many opting to work in the sex industry to get the start they need. But, once on the path, the world is their oyster, as witnessed by the enormously popular gigantic, lavish shows, which are packed every night, such as Tiffany, Alcazar or Simon cabarets, all of which showcase the most beautiful ladyboys in all of Thailand, many of whom have had full transgender surgery.


But it’s not all glitz and glamour, and there’s often a strong thread of ‘feminism’ in amongst the femininity! Such as the Thai champion ladyboy boxer, Nong Toom, who celebrated her numerous victories by kissing her (usually horizontal) opponent, and who was the subject of the movie, ‘Beautiful Boxer’. Or the Tiffany Cabaret ladyboy ensemble who took on the touring All Blacks rugby team at elephant polo (with one short pause to hunt for a broken fingernail). Or how about the kathoey side that won the Thai National Volleyball Championships in 1996?


To realise that you are a girl inside a boy’s body is by no means smooth sailing, even in Thailand. But, unlike the traumatic emotional wilderness this usually leads to in the West, the path is smoother here. And, along with the palaces and the temples, many visitors come here to try to find an insight into the world of Thailand’s third gender. The whole business is intriguing, for men and women alike, and it’s one of the less-promoted attractions of Thailand – even though it’s a normal part of daily Thai life!


 Rob De Wet


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