Social division into ‘men’ and ‘not men’ groups, together with a domestic matriarchy, explains why transsexual expressions in SE Asia differ from the West.
Male to Female transsexuals are normally scientifically categorised as homosexual or nonhomosexual with regard to their birth sex. I use the term HSTS for the former. Blanchard explained the latter in terms of autogynephilia, love of oneself as a woman. These we term autogynephiles or AGPs. There is a discrepancy, between the West and Asia, however. Whereas in the West, most AGPs are older and about 60% seek relationships with women, most AGPs in Asia transition much younger and are almost exclusively attracted to men. Why is this happening?
I’ll use the Philippines example, but Don Kulick, in his book ‘Travesti’, reports very similar phenomena in Brazil and it is, to my knowledge, current throughout southeast Asia and India.
Men and Not men: Two Groups
Traditional Filipino society is divided into two social groups: men, and everyone else. Borrowing from Kulick, I call the latter ‘not men’. This group is formed of women, children, female and gender non-conforming adolescents, and older ‘not men’ including gay males and transsexuals. Kulick goes as far as to define gender in Brazil as ‘men’ and ‘not men’ and, again, I agree with him.
Gender conforming adolescent males form a ‘proto-men’ group, where they learn the social skills needed to join the ‘men’ group. Typically these include playing basketball, football and similar sports (but not volleyball); learning how to chase girls; learning how to talk about girls as sexual objects; often, learning to smoke and crucially, learning to drink. As they grow into adulthood, boys like this will be accepted into the ‘men’ group. So the ‘proto-men’ group is an extension of the ‘men’ group, not distinct from it.
Any gender non-conforming (GNC) boy, teenage or adult male is automatically placed in the ‘not men’ group. The reasons for this are complex but devolve to showing ‘unmasculine’ character traits. These include things like being somewhat nervous; being a pretty boy; having crushes on men and boys, liking to dance; liking flowers; liking to wear feminine clothes; the desire to be a woman and feeling ‘like a woman inside’.
This may sound harsh, but it is not as bad as it seems, because while traditional Filipino culture is outwardly very patriarchal, it is in fact a domestic matriarchy. Within the home, women are in charge, and the practical head of the family is Lola — the grandmother. It is common for several generations to live in the same household, and while Lola’s mother may still be alive, she will have been retired. Lola’s daughters are her captains, maintaining control and order in the house, assisted by their lieutenants, their own elder daughters.
Men do not socialise in this milieu, in fact they avoid it. While Lolo — grandpa — will be a much loved figure, his focus, if he is still earning, is outside the house. Within it, nobody gainsays Lola.
It is true that a GNC male or beki will lose status by not being able to join the ‘men’ group, through the ‘proto-men’ group. However in the ‘not men’ group she will find himself in the middle of a supportive and powerful cohort of women and other GNC individuals. And while, even in the ‘not men’ group, bekis are lower status than women, they are still given a social space. Within the ‘not men’ group they develop the circle of GNC and natal women friends who will be with them all their lives.
Learning to be women.
Just as, within the ‘proto-men’ group of gender-conforming boys, adolescents are learning how to be adults, so it is in the ‘not men’ group. Here, bekis are not learning how to be men but how to be women.
Young transpinays or bekis, learn, within the ‘not men’ group, the behaviours and social roles that they need to, in order to survive as adults.
Bekis form a subset of the ‘not men’ group. Their social identity is completely defined by it. In socialisation, therefore, they are first ‘not men’ and second bekis , so they adopt all the mores of the not men group.
Amongst the most important of these is that women are penetrated by male sexual partners. So although in the West, AGP transsexuals may express sexual desire for women, in part because of their socialisation as men, in beki culture that is a ‘not match’ and so instead, young AGP TS/TG seek sexual and romantic relationships with men. This means that nearly all bekis, with very few exceptions, appear as androphilic.
Gay = GNC male.
GNC males who are primarily attracted to men and those who are attracted to being women both consider themselves to be ‘gay’.
Note here that the word ‘gay’ in the Philippines just means ‘gender non-conforming male’. By the same token, ‘lesbian’ means ‘gender non-conforming female’. The Western sense of ‘gay’ meaning ‘attracted to masculinity’ is only a part of its meaning here. As well as this, there are other GNC expressions that fall under the heading ‘gay’ and are also therefore, bekis. These are homosexual and bisexual males who retain a masculine or intermediate gender expression: they may not transition.
On the other hand, they might; many bekis are, outwardly, somewhat ‘gender fluid’ and will move from one expression to another as social pressures require. But at all times, and no matter how they are presenting, they understand that they are ‘women inside’ and this is what makes them bekis. Do not run away with the idea that bekis are in any way ashamed of what they are. This is a powerful and supportive sub-culture which even has its own language, bekimon. Being beki is a social identity worn with pride.
The HSTS, just like Blanchard HSTS in the West, will have crushes on boys and older men. They have desired male partners since childhood. Since women have male partners, they therefore understand that their desire makes them ‘women inside’. (Homosexuality is not the only characteristic of the HSTS group; they tend to be small, lightly built, neotenous (pretty) and have naturally feminine manners.)
The autogynephiles, those attracted to the idea of themselves as women already are ‘women inside’ and, since women are attracted to men, they start having crushes on them. This group lacks the physical homogeneity of the HSTS group and in behaviour are much less feminine, although they do learn.
To put that another way, HSTS learn that they are women because of their powerful sexual desire for men, and AGPs learn that they should desire men because of their feeling of being ‘women inside’.
The two statuses are, as you can see, very similar. Essentially, both groups see themselves as ‘women inside’. It’s just that their reasons are subtly different. These two developmental pathways are united in beki culture.
It is not at all unusual for transpinays to be confused by the Western division of ‘homosexual’ and ‘non-homosexual’ transsexuals, because of the above. Since they all identify as bekis, they place less value on how they came to be so. An individual beki may never have even considered whether her attraction to being a woman (AGP) or her attraction to men (HSTS) came first.
However, the truth can be teased out in a number of ways. We know from studies done in the West that HSTS tend to be, on average, smaller, more lightly built, lighter in weight and more feminine in appearance than AGPs and this holds true in Asia too.
In the West, most AGPs transition much later than HSTS, in their late 30s or above. In Asia they do appear a little later than HSTS, but usually still in their teens or twenties. On the other hand, many do transition soon after puberty and begin hormones then.
An AGP may relate how she liked to wear her mother’s clothes, or her sister’s; how she liked to be to be with girls and felt comfortable with them; how she ‘knew she was a girl’. For her, being beki is internal; it’s about how she feels about herself. It’s introspective.
Outward not inward.
An HSTS will tell you about her first crushes on boys, or her first sexual encounter, if she has had one. She might remark that her mother’s friends had commented that she ‘looked like a girl’. She was certainly very feminine.
She may actually have preferred to play with masculine boys — except this was her rehearsal for womanhood, in which she would become the focus of the male attention she desires. Her pleasure came from the nascent erotic thrill that the close company of her sexual targets gave her. Her vision is outward, not inward. She was turned on by men, not by her self-image as a girl.
It should be easy to see how the close relationship of these two types as ‘women inside’ blur the distinctions that are so obvious in the Western profile.
As they grow up in the ‘not-men’ group and develop their own circle of GNC friends, both HSTS and AGP transsexuals may begin dating men. However, by no means all do.
Westerners, used to the prominence of transwomen sex-workers in places like Pattaya, often assume that all transwomen do this. That is not true.
Many transwoman, probably a majority even in Thailand, where there is much less of a taboo than the Philippines, have never worked as prostitutes. In the Phils, the vast majority do not work as prostitutes. Indeed, a substantial number in both countries, but probably more in the Philippines, have never had sex at all.
Naturally this fits very well with one type of AGP, the analloerotic. She is happy just ‘being a woman’ and living her life as one. Others, an increasingly large number today, spend their lives on the internet chatting up men. They may make this a business and milk men for support: these they call ‘sponsors’. These women see nothing at all immoral about having ten or more men in various parts of the world, sending them money in return for sexy chats.
They have no intention of ever meeting these men. If one threatens to appear, they will vanish. They have to, because they know that if they spend three or four weeks with one man, they will lose all their other sponsors.
Some work as ‘cam girls’ in which they put on sexy shows for paying customers, over the internet. Naturally, for AGPs, this is rather a satisfying way to make money, but at least as many HSTS do it.
Sexualised, non-sexual reward.
Others get their sexualised reward, or affirmation, from their professions. Many Thai transwomen work as primary school teachers. This is seen as a woman’s job, and doing it provides affirmation. In the Phils, every third girl I meet seems to have done or be doing a course in Hotel and Restaurant Management. Many are nurses or hairdressers — again, all seen as woman’s professions.
They may be performers in cabaret, or work the many trans beauty pageants. There are thousands of these and efforts in the Philippines, mainly by conservative church leaders, to close them, have clearly failed. Some of these are performed in the street or the baranggay or village hall, but the big ones are lush, professional events with prizes that could be over a year’s salary in many jobs.
Both HSTS and this profile of AGPs seek work like this. Where the Western AGP profile appears, such as in the recent public transition of racing driver Ian King, they may, as he did, pursue masculine careers. But these individuals tend to have been much more exposed to Western culture. In the Phils, they may come from ‘Fil-Am’ families or even have grown up in the USA.
Once again, the two traditional profiles in Asia are very close and differ from the Western AGP profile as described by Blanchard. This indicates that there are cultural influences affecting the Western, late-onset AGP profile that differ from those I have described above.
Blanchard described the phenomenon of AGP transwomen (who are attracted to femininity) having male lovers as ‘pseudo bisexualism’. For an AGP transwoman, the act of sex with a man affirms her as a woman. In Asia, she is conditioned by her inclusion in the ‘not men’ group and her adoption of its values — particularly that a woman desires men, and to desire men makes one a woman. This makes her open to the idea of sex with men, even if that is not her primary orientation.
Remember that autogynephiles are attracted to themselves as women; so they have to be attracted to femininity. (And they are, very much so.) Their conditioning in the ‘not men’ group, however, teaches them that the single most powerful affirmation they can have, that they are women, is to have male partners. More than that: it also teaches them that to have female partners would compromise their identity as women.
An HSTS will see her partner very much in the same way as a woman of the same age does — in romantic and erotic terms, as a physical lover. AGPs tend to see their partners in idealised terms and talk about their ‘eventual life partners’. They are looking to replicate the lives of their natal sisters.
This is to conform to the mores of traditional Asian culture, where they get to be respected members of their own domestic matriarchy. Of course, this is complicated because they can’t have children. However, a beki who does well and contributes to the family finances will find her status elevated. She may become one of Lola’s trusted captains.
This should not be taken to suggest that AGPs in Asia do not like sex. They may be less directly sexually driven than their HSTS sisters, at least in their attraction to men, but they certainly do, if they are sexually active, enjoy it.
SOGIE: not an issue in Asia.
Now I recognise that this will get up many noses, but the disingenuous political lie of SOGIE, that gender and sexual orientation are not intimately linked, cuts but little mustard outside the West. Being penetrated by a man makes you a woman. This is good news for both forms of Asian MtF transsexual.
The Warm Pink Jelly Express Train.
I wrote about this in my book ‘The Warm Pink Jelly Express Train’. Here the narrator, Brian, is talking about the first time he had sex with the heroine, Rafy, a Brazilian TS:
‘for Rafy that first union between us must have been a moment of truly inspirational power. Look: a man, exactly the type of man she believed she should love…a man she had chosen but who had courted her, finally took her as the woman she was…It was the final kiss that brought Pygmalion’s beautiful creation to life. When I made love to Rafy in that chalet, I made Rafy. The more I thought about it the more humbled I felt.’
So the reward is being made into the woman she feels herself to be. Harry Benjamin commented on how powerful this was for transsexuals, and nothing has changed.
The affirmative sexual hit that a transwoman gets from sex with a man — or sex as a woman as I have previously described it, meaning being penetrated — is huge. It is so powerful that girls can get addicted to it.
The affirmative power of sex work.
As an aside, it is often, mistakenly, thought that the myriad MtF trans sex workers in places like Pattaya are all congruent with the Western HSTS profile. This is not true. Many of them are AGP, again in conflict with the Western model.
It is the power of gender affirmation that sex provides — and especially the fact of being paid for it — that these transwomen are responding to. This is why they so enjoy the life of a sex worker. (In Brazil, this lifestyle is actually called ‘La Vida’ — The Life.)
So although they do present as androphilic and, if asked, will normally not say they are attracted to women, they are not necessarily HSTS. (This is why I dislike the term ‘androphilic TS’ as a substitute for HSTS. They are not the same at all.)
While some SE Asian AGPs do have female partners, these are often transmen, or, in Thailand, ‘Toms’. A number do involve themselves romantically with women, too.
So why are so many Western AGPs gynephilic?
The answer seems to be homophobia. These individuals, in the West, grew up in a society with crushing levels of homophobia. They are conditioned from childhood to be homophobic themselves. That leads to the feelings of self-loathing that are so often clear in the characters of late-transitioning Western autogynephiles. They literally hate themselves because they are afraid that they might be homosexual men.
This is why these individuals are so strident in their insistence on the absurd — that they are ‘real women’. Of course they’re not. But the only way that they can assuage the guilt that their homophobic conditioning has cursed them with, is through that untruth.
It’s even worse, however. Having sex with a man is the one thing they are not allowed to do; yet it is, by far, the most powerful affirmation they might have. Without it, their very existence as women remains unproven. They are only women because they say so.
‘Kristine’ a presumably AGP transsexual commenting on Yahoo, said this:
‘Many transsexual women consider (recipient anal sex) to be too close to their perceptions of “gay sex”. (They) are desperately trying to fight stereotype concepts of who they are, even within themselves…A great many transsexual women avoid sexual activities and relationships altogether.’
Clearly, homophobia is acting on the minds of the transsexuals Kristine is discussing. There could be no reason to deny oneself sex with men ‘because it would be gay’ otherwise. Sex is just sex. Even if it were ‘gay’ for a transwoman to have sex with a man — and it would not be, anyway — the only thing that could make that bad is homophobia.
Although transphobia does, unfortunately, exist in Asia, homophobia in the Philippines is practically non-existent. The place is a gay paradise and Thailand even more so.
Late-transitioning AGPs appearing in the West now and over the last two decades, grew up at a time when homophobia was even more stiflingly repressive than it is today. Because of it, they learned to hate the form of sex that can most affirm them. Instead they harp ‘I’m a real woman’ and bully anyone who disagrees.
They did not grow up surrounded by supportive girls and other GNC children, learning how to be women. They grew up as tough, masculine men, determined to prove that even though they knew there was something unusual about then, the one thing they were not was homosexual. So they became fighter pilots, engineers, CEOs; professions as distant as possible from anything feminine.
Worse, they learned how to be men, and all straight men see women as sexual targets. Growing up as a man means learning to identify women that might be persuaded to give you sex, and the techniques needed to make them do it. The ‘Cotton Ceiling’ scandal was other than the blatant attempt to coerce a lesbian — who doesn’t have sex with people who have, or used to have, penises — into agreeing to sex by shaming her into thinking she is being transphobic for exercising her legitimate right of choice.
Western AGPs are fond of saying how the difference between themselves and HSTS is ‘just one of age of transition’. And yes, age at which hormones are started is important. But while trumpeting this hardship, AGP mouthpieces are careful to avoid the concomitant fact — not only did they start hormones too late to prevent their bodies masculinising, they socialised as men in adolescence. They have no clue whatsoever about being a woman.
Isolated, alone and full of loathing for themselves, they became bitter. Western AGPs hate women for being that which they desire to be but cannot; they hate HSTS for just being so darn
cute; and they detest gays because all their lives they have been trying to hide their autogynephilia for fear that it was homosexuality.
This created the typical late-transitioning Western autogynephile.
Her SE Asian sister could not be more different. She didn’t grow up learning to be a homophobic man, she grew up learning how to be a beki! Homophobia could not be further from her mind. But what she shows us is important. She shows us that it is not necessary to be as disturbed as so many Western late-transitioning AGPs are. She shows us that it is not autogynephilia that makes them so, it is homophobia, and what society does to them.
There will never be a return to the domestic matriarchy that works so well in SE Asia, in the West. Nor will there be the beki culture that sustains GNC youth of all kinds. There will never be the supportive networks that give young bekis a start in life and allow them to face the slings and arrows of homophobia and discrimination, resolute in the knowledge that somebody really loves them, for all their faults.
But in the West, as in Asia, a new phenomenon has risen — the internet and social media. Through this, young Western GNC people are coming together. This is why referral rates for transition are going through the roof. People can find out about who they are, what they are becoming and what to do about it.
In 2010, Larry Nuttbrock suggested that autogynephilia appeared to be on the decrease. But what he meant was traditional, late onset AGP of the classic Blanchard model. One reason why this might be happening is that over the last two decades, since the arrival of the internet, AGPs have been transitioning younger. (Meanwhile, more HSTS have avoided being bullied into being ‘gay men’ by the likes of Jim Fourrat, which we can only be thankful for.)
We can expect this to accelerate. The arrival of the smartphone a few short years ago put the support network in every GNC child’s pocket. We may, in the not too distant future, even see the disappearance of the Western late-onset Blanchard autogynephile.
In all honesty, I can’t say I’ll miss her.
The above is a chapter from my forthcoming book, Travels with a Ladyboy: Sex and Gender Through Asian Eyes. Please keep an eye open for developments!
Also published on Medium.