Thailand is a traditional but increasingly progressive society when it comes to gender roles. Thai women hold cabinet positions and seats in the legislature; they are the country’s scientists, doctors, and engineers; and they work in finance and business. Pass any construction site and you’re likely to see women digging trenches, hauling sand, or engaging in other forms of manual labor that some might consider “man’s work.” Women have equal access to education and enroll and complete programs through graduate school at nearly the same rate as men.
But, they’re also usually the primary caregivers of children and of elderly parents. Women manage the household and, of course, are expected to look pretty and feminine. While many career paths are open to women, there are few female chief executives of large companies or managing directors of banks. The military, an important political institution in Thailand, is virtually all male at the upper echelons. In sum, Thai women face the same issues that women all over the world face.
Some help-wanted advertisements will even specify that female applicants should be slender and not wear glasses.There are also some peculiarly Asian gender issues in Thailand. Job applicants are asked to submit photographs and provide height and weight information, and some help-wanted advertisements will even specify that female applicants should be slender and not wear glasses. Although the practice is less and less common (and is illegal), wealthier men will sometimes take more than one wife or have long-term mistresses, while women are not socially permitted more than one husband. Prostitution is not uncommon in Thailand, and it exists not just in touristed areas frequented by foreigners.
Gay and Lesbian Culture in Thailand
Thailand has an extremely progressive and tolerant view toward homosexuality, and it may be one of the most open societies in the world when it comes to transsexuality. Especially in urban areas, it is completely ordinary to see same-sex couples walking hand in hand, and many gays and lesbians, especially in the younger generation, don’t often feel compelled to hide their sexual orientation from their friends or families. For whatever reason, the creative sector tends to attract a large number of gay men. There are numerous clubs and neighborhoods in all major cities that are either completely gay or mixed, and in general, no one at any “straight” club will bat an eye if a same-sex couple enters.
Transsexuality is common in Thailand, and you’re likely to see katoey (the Thai word for a transsexual male) working as waitresses, store clerks, travel agents, and in other service-oriented businesses. Many katoey go to great lengths to look very feminine, to the point that it is difficult for most people to tell the difference. In fact, Thailand is the world leader in gender-reassignment surgery, and people travel here from all over the world for it.
Despite Thailand’s tolerant stance on homosexuality, some discrimination and prejudice still exists toward gays, lesbians, and katoey. Few of the country’s business and civic leaders are openly gay (and none are katoey), and some Thais in the older generation view anyone who isn’t heterosexual as abnormal.
Dressed to perfection with silky, shiny hair down to her shoulders, a miniskirt up to her thighs, and an enchanting smile accentuated with just the right touch of makeup, the sexy, ultrafeminine waitress serving you dinner is getting stares from every guy in the room. On closer inspection, the waitress seems a little taller than the average woman, her hips a little slimmer, her presentation a little more perfected…her voice a little deeper. The person everyone is staring at is a beautiful woman, but she may not have been born as female.
Though no one knows the exact numbers, it’s safe to say Bangkok is home to thousands of katoey or ladyboys, male-bodied women who either live as women, are in the process of undergoing gender reassignment, or have completed the transformation. Katoey take women’s names and will always use the feminine particle ka instead of the masculine kap when speaking.
While there are transgender people all over the world, the extent of the phenomenon is unique to Thailand. Homosexuality is generally well tolerated, especially in the big cities, and won’t be viewed as out of the ordinary by many people. Open transsexuality, still taboo in many cultures, is also far more accepted here, and it’s more commonplace in Bangkok than in any other city in the world. Discrimination still exists, but you are likely to see katoey working in retail shops, in offices, and in hotels and restaurants.
The art of transitioning is particularly well practiced in Thailand, where some of the biggest and most prestigious hospitals offer a myriad of procedures to transform male bodies to fit a female self-identity. As a result, many of the ladyboys in the city adjust smoothly.
Despite the widespread practice and general level of acceptance, it would be inaccurate to say that the life of a katoey is not filled with challenges. The movie Beautiful Boxer, based on the life of muay Thai champion Parinya Charoenphol, is a wonderful, heartbreaking, and uplifting story about a young woman in the provinces whose male body didn’t fit with her identity. By chance she turns to kickboxing as a way to earn enough money to change that, but learns that she loves the sport and remains a fighter through the transition. The international award-winning, beautifully filmed film chronicles her emotional journey from male body to female set against a backdrop of kickboxing rounds and cabaret performances.
Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Living Abroad Thailand.