Phuket, Thailand. Midnight: Bangla Road is packed with tourists. They’re mostly Westerners and Russians, but many Asians and a smattering of Indians. There seems a disproportionate number of unattached males. The music is very loud, and throbbing. Outside the bars, on elevated stages, Thai girls are dancing provocatively. They’re tall, fantastically beautiful, and seductive. They look, and move, like supermodels, but with better bodies. Then you realise: there are other Thai women here too, but they’re short, cute and pretty, not at all statuesque or magnificent. Alongside the kathoey, Thailand’s famous trans women, they are all but invisible, like candles next to a searchlight. It’s easy to see who has the attention of the gathered men.
On stage, one girl rolls her dress down to her hips so that her naked breasts and torso – she sports a delicate dragon tattoo on her back – are shown off, as she wriggles to the thrumming techno. Her body is as flawless as a Greek goddess’ and her dance mesmerising as a Siren’s: you just can’t help but watch and smile at her exquisite insouciance.
Most of the girls here have already had Genital Reconstruction Surgery; they are as proud of their bodies as teenagers with a new car, and as enthusiastic about displaying them. Everywhere, the dancing kathoey engage the watching men; they call out to them, beckon with their hands, seduce with a flick of their luxuriant hair or a flash of dark eyes. Breasts, buttocks and even more are flaunted, always with an outrageous gesture of false modesty: bashful these girls are not.
Fifty and hundred-baht notes are flying onto the stages like confetti, and the more explicit the dancer the more she earns. A girl slips onto an empty bar stool beside a middle-aged Western man. As she does so she daintily rucks her dress up round her waist. Like many of the girls, and discovering this has not required guesswork, she’s wearing no knickers. A moment later the man turns, smiles at her, looks down, and smiles even more. Business is about to be done.
This is the popular view of kathoey, as trans women are known in Thailand. As so often the case, however, this view is distorted, for the coyote dancers and bar girls are only a small fraction of the total. Nor are they by any means dominant even here, for there are far more natal women selling sex and titillation. Pattaya, for example, has an estimated 10,000 sex workers, of whom only 5% or so are kathoey.
Prostitution has very little stigma in Thailand, and a successful one can make £3000 or more a month, much more than a teacher or an office worker. Although prostitution is illegal, it is an entrenched part of Thai culture, and the main market is indigenous. Recent studies suggest that 75% or more of Thai men employ prostitutes. Visits are given as birthday presents, business sweeteners, even by wives to their husbands when they themselves are pregnant. The business is not the result of ‘sex tourism’, although that represents a lucrative addition to it.
Thai transwomen do not become so in order to work in the sex trade. However, some are attracted to the job, partly because, like all Thai, they are expected to help support their families, partly because their hormones, breast implants and other surgery are expensive, and partly because of the pleasure they get from affirmation: one proof that they are beautiful women is that men will pay to be with them.
However, far greater numbers of kathoey work in offices, banks, shops, salons, restaurants. They are models, showgirls, actresses, entertainers, even air-hostesses. Many are teachers; I know of one who is the ‘headman’ of her village. Others run businesses of all sorts, some with turnovers running into the tens of millions – of dollars, not baht. Many have degree-level education or higher.
Though the numbers may appear high, Thailand is not a trans paradise.
Discrimination is widespread, and families may reject them, unless they can send money home. Although proposed changes to the Constitution that might help have been reported in the Media, at present it remains impossible for a Thai to legally change gender. Since the production of an identity card is mandatory in many everyday transactions, having the wrong gender markers causes much distress and actual hardship to trans people. Many other petty and unnecessary obstacles confront them and complicate their lives.
However, any kathoey will say the same: ‘I was born this way.’ It is not a matter of choice. Often they began dressing as girls long before puberty, usually in secret, but not always.
Many Thai schools now have three toilets: male, female and kathoey. There is even a kathoey university. Being kathoey is no more a lifestyle decision than being transgender anywhere else: they just live in a society where they will, at least, not be ostracised, beaten or even killed for openly being what they are.
There are two distinct forms of Male-to-Feminine transsexualism.transgender, and these are known as HomoSexual and non-homosexual. The former are exclusively attracted to men from early age. They are often referred to as HSTS or sometimes, ‘transkids’, because they typically present Gender Non-Conforming (GNC) behaviours while very young, However, these individuals do not transition because they are homosexual. This is one factor in a cluster which identify them. While there are differences between ethnicities, HSTS tend to be small, lightly build, slender, neotenous (baby-faced), naturally feminine in deportment and manners and usually are unable to ‘be’ men successfully.
Why HSTS occurs remains uncertain, although it may be due to abnormalities in the delivery of hormones to the developing foetus.
On the other hand, the reason may be genetic. A genetic cause would explain, in a way that no other hypothesis can, why both homosexuality and one form of Male-to-Feminine transsexualism appear to be prevalent in all human populations, at about the same rate, throughout history.
One possible explanation might be that there is some link between Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS) and HSTS, in which testosterone is blocked from causing male-typical changes in the body.
The other type, much more obvious in the West, is called ‘non-homosexual’, because they are not attracted to men, at least prior to transition. Unlike HSTS, this type is morphologically similar to the male averages in their populations, they are not feminine of manner or speech etc and they look masculine. The explanation for why this occurred remained mysterious until the work of Dr Ray Blanchard identified them as ‘autogynephilic’. Autogynephilia is ‘a man’s propensity to be sexually aroused by the thought or image of himself as a woman’ or we might express it as a heterosexual man’s obsessive desire to be that which he is most sexually attracted to: a woman.
These individuals are usually known as AGP and are obvious in the West. Bruce ‘Caitlyn’ Jenner is a famous example.
In Thailand, as in the Philippines, most AGPs transition in adolescence and begin taking hormones early, sometimes by the age of 14. This means that by the time they are in their late teens or early twenties they can be very attractive transwomen. But despite their generally better looks, they conform to Blanchard’s model in most ways, other than their early onset.
Just as in the West, both types are found in Thailand and a rough guesstimate — because no proper statistical studies have been done — suggests that about one quarter to one half of kathoey are HSTS. However, this is difficult call, because Thai HSTS routinely pass as women even amongst other Thais.
Kathoey are thought to have been adulterers in a previous life. Since reincarnation happens to everyone, and treating kathoey unfairly might impact on one’s own status in the next life, people are usually polite to them. No one wants to come back as a slug, after all. And in a culture that believes in an infinite number of reincarnations, everyone has both once been, and will be, themselves transgender. Kathoey are living reminders that karma can be tough.
This article was originally written in 2013, although first published later. I have had to amend it somewhat in the light of new knowledge.
Originally posted 2015-06-20 13:20:44.
Also published on Medium.