Following on the significant increase in media exposure that transgender has enjoyed in recent weeks, is this phenomenon actually becoming more common?
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 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. Her own grin is wide and genuine: she is no miserable sex-slave; this girl loves performing and is basking in the rapt attention of her audience.
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 trans women 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 trans women 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 transgender 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 remains some debate about why transgender occurs, despite the fact that it has a recorded history spanning some 6000 years, to the Eanna Temple of Inanna in Uruk in Sumer. In Rome, amongst the devotees of the Phrygian goddess Cybele, who was imported after the Punic Wars, ecstatic young trans girls called ‘galli’ would ritually self-castrate and then enter the service of the goddess.
This practice is maintained, today, by the transgender hijra of India and Pakistan. There is even evidence of the phenomenon in Palaeolithic burials. Whatever the cause, transgender has long been part of human culture.
Following the most recent editions to the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual and the positions of equivalents in France and the UK, transgender is no longer considered a mental disorder, but a normal part of human variation. Neurologists point to research that shows how the brains of trans women and natal women are similar in an area called the amygdala, which develops very early; but why these changes occur 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 homosexual behaviour and transgender identities appear to be similarly prevalent in all human populations, at about the same rate, throughout history.
However, the suggestion that either homosexuality or transgender might have this cause has long been objected to by social conservatives who argue that any non-hetero sexual behaviour or transgender identity must be a reproductive cul-de-sac because it does not lead directly to reproductive sex.
This completely ignored the inconvenient fact that same-sex behaviours have been observed in over 400 different species of other animals. These observations voided most of the social conservatives’ arguments but were unexplained. This was finally resolved in 2014 when researchers at the University of Portsmouth, led by Dr Diana Fleischman, established that same-sex bonding had indeed proved to be an evolutionary asset.
The team found that sex was not exclusively, in the populations studied, used for reproduction, but instead for a gamut of other functions that included reinforcing the bonds that held the group together and assisting the survival of the young. These helped the survival of the whole group, which in humans and the other species observed, is made up of closely-related individuals. Better group survival confers an advantage for the individuals within the group and explains why these phenomena may have a genetic cause. The ‘evolutionary cul-de-sac’ argument was finally, definitively, torpedoed.
Complex or simple though the underlying stimulus may be, transgender is very easy to treat. You give the patient the gender and body she or he needs, and that’s it. Many trans folk don’t even require sex reassignment, just hormones and cosmetic work.
So why is it often so hard for them to get help from their doctors that they self-medicate with drugs bought on the Internet? There lies the rub: the difficulty is not in making life better for the individuals, but in accepting them at all.
What all trans people want is to be treated with respect as the gender they feel
themselves to be. Thailand’s Buddhist culture provides that. 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.
Why is there such prejudice against trans people elsewhere? Don’t we encourage our children to ‘be all they can be’? If a person born a boy feels more than anything else that she is a girl, what’s the big deal?
There are many threads to the answer. In the first place, transgender challenges the patriarchy at its roots. In the patriarchy, to be a man is the highest status: so when someone says, ‘Yes, physically I could be a man, but I am a woman’, that person offends it.
Female to male transgenders, on the other hand, are stepping on territory that, to our status-obsessed male, is rightly his, and which he has been conditioned to defend. That is why Brandon Teena was killed. This particular hatred is inverted by some feminists, who castigate trans women, saying they ‘colonise’ women’s bodies. This is just mimicking the patriarchy – ‘That is our territory, and we will defend it.’ Claptrap: we have the right to do as we will with our own bodies, without asking the by-your-leave of others.
Then again, non-operative trans women, those who elect to retain their birth genitalia, undermine masculinity itself. They show that having a penis is not unique to men; some women have them too. All at once, the most potent symbol of the patriarchy is reduced to being an ordinary body part like a leg or an arm. There is nothing special or uniquely masculine about having one – and so there is nothing special about being a man.
Transgender also challenges conventional notions of sexuality. The popularity of transgender pornography on the Internet proves that many men are attracted to trans women; but at the same time, society still insists that a man who has sex with someone born male has thrown away all his status. He’s gay, that’s it, end of: you know how it is…sleep with one little ladyboy…he’ll never be able to show his face down the pub or the golf-club again. The patriarchy will close ranks; now he’s ‘playing for the other team’.
So men are on the horns of a dilemma, attracted to trans women, yet tortured by the horrible angst that says penis, past or present, means they are other men, and for a man to desire sex with one is the greatest taboo of the patriarchal hegemony. This dilemma, often exacerbated by alcohol, can be lethal for trans women. Men, who’ve been pawing them all night, suddenly realise what they’re doing and can’t handle it; in order to redress the offence to their masculine status, they beat the girl up, or worse.
Sometimes, men go further, have sexual relations with a trans woman, and only turn violent when they realise they are about to be discovered by their peers. They may attack the woman to prove how ‘manly’ they really are: as the subsequent trial proved, this is why and how Gwen Araujo died the horrible death she did. But Gwen’s tragedy is not unique or even unusual; trans women die at the hands of male attackers with shocking frequency, as we see only this week.
As well as this, ‘gender-bending’ upsets how we relate to others. We are conditioned to see gender as a male/female binary. When someone appears to be one thing but is, or might once have been, another, or is in between, we become confused. It’s as if they’re trying to trick us; but they’re not, they’re just being who they are. None of this, however, is the fault of trans people: it’s our own social conditioning that’s to blame. Indeed, they are the victims of great injustice; yet so few of us are prepared to recognise that.
Brandon Teena, Gwen Araujo and more recently Filipina Jennifer Laude, Mercedes Williamson and many others were not alone in having their young lives ended by vicious, intolerant men. In Brazil, over a hundred trans women were murdered in 2012, and beatings and killings take place everywhere, all the time. Nearly all the victims were in their teens or early twenties, who had a right to be allowed to live out their lives – a right that society did nothing to defend.
This year, a shocking uptick in killings of trans women in the USA is causing great concern; it is almost as if the more progress trans people make towards acceptance, the more determined the transphobic extremists are to silence them.
While the killers and beaters themselves are most culpable, every one of us, in not speaking out and acting against the transphobia that spurs them on, is accessory both before and after the fact. Our sin may be of omission, but this blood is still on our hands.
The media often carries articles mocking prominent men for dalliances with trans women. Mainstream ‘entertainment’ has a nasty track record of insulting trans people for a cheap laugh. Most distressingly, in the comments sections of news reports on the murders of trans people, for example Jennifer Laude, a horrible undercurrent of hate is prevalent. Trans people, it says, are dishonest and trying to trick others, and their deaths are their own fault. This is a blatant victim-blaming that would not be tolerated under any other circumstances.
Any time the subject of transgender comes up, people express distaste or worse, not to mention the overt disapproval of a grim hegemony of social conservatives from pulpit to politics.
All of this leads directly to transphobic violence by a technique called ‘othering’. Trans people are not like us, it says, and so it’s all right to mock, slander or beat them. This intimidates not only trans people, but the rest of us too. Any man, or woman, who dares to defend them also risks mockery, abuse and violence. The inference is obvious, and ever the threat of cowards and bullies: stand up for those we despise and we will turn on you next. The patriarchy always isolates its intended victims before going for the kill.
Attitudes towards homosexuality have come a long way, over the last thirty years, in Western Europe, although it would be foolish to suggest that all prejudice has been eradicated. Governments have had to legalise ‘same-sex’ marriage and put in place laws against discrimination against gays in the workplace and elsewhere. However we must not forget that in large parts of the world, atrocious levels of discrimination and violence, often sanctioned by church and state, are levelled at people solely for the crime of loving each other.
This better treatment of gays within more enlightened cultures has not led to an explosion in numbers. Alfred Kinsey, sixty years ago, long before the liberalisation of anti-gay legislation, found that 8% of American men had been ‘exclusively homosexual for at least three years’, and research published in 1995 found a range between 6-10%. At least nine other peer-reviewed studies concur.
Removing the judicial sanctions did not lead to a substantial increase in actual prevalence, because there is a base rate, which appears constant. All that changes is how open people are about their orientation.
There is a big difference between homosexual individuals, of either gender, and transgenders; it is far easier for gay men and women to blend in. This is not because trans people are necessarily easy to spot, but because by definition, their lives must change. The families of many gay people might never know, but it’s hard to keep a gender transition so well hidden.
Because of this, trans people may either attempt to hide or suppress their natures, or break all ties with their pasts and disappear, to live in so-called ‘deep stealth’. If they feel rejected or discriminated against, they are more likely to do so. This causes problems with estimating their numbers, and allowed some to suggest the prevalence was very low.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA), on the basis of a small study in Germany in the 1960s, for decades insisted that the prevalence for male to female transgender was around 1:30,000, and this figure was widely accepted. Then, in the late 1990s, Emeritus Professor Lynn Conway of the University of Michigan, herself a trans woman, became frustrated at the lack of any proper statistical study, and did one herself.
She used a very robust method, which divided the adult male population of the US by the actual numbers of Sex Reassignment Surgeries (SRS) that had been carried out. This gave a prevalence of 1:2500, over an order of magnitude higher! Furthermore, this only counted male-to-female transgenders who had already undergone SRS. It did not include those who were awaiting surgery, and more fundamentally, those who had no intention of ever having it. Nor did it consider those who had gone abroad for surgery, to places like Thailand.
Conway herself estimated that taking all other factors into account would raise the overall prevalence, including non-operative and pre-operative trans women, to 1:200, again a factor of ten. Other groups in the USA have slightly higher estimates; all are at least 1% but none more than 5%.
In Thailand, the majority of trans women do not seek SRS; the sensual sirens of Bangla Road represent only a small fraction of the total. Many have no choice, since the surgery is so expensive. Others simply do not feel that they need to go further.
There are around twenty Thai clinics offering SRS procedures, which can be found through a web search. Those that publish figures suggest they carry out 150 to 200 surgeries per annum each, but perhaps half of these are on non-Thais. That would suggest that over the last twenty years, around 40,000 of the Thai transgender population have had the surgery. Although it is immensely difficult to find accurate figures, most estimates suggest that 1-2% of the Thai adult male population is transgender.
Multiplying the estimate of completed SRS surgeries by Conway’s factor of ten supports this. Conway’s finding is statistically robust, and the truth is all over Thailand; far from being vanishingly small, the numbers of trans people are high enough to be obvious, when they feel secure enough to be themselves.
So, if we treat trans people better, we should expect to see more. But, like gay men and women, they won’t over-run the place. The statistical estimates and the evidence from Thailand above strongly suggest that transgender prevalence will stabilise around 1-2%, given similar social tolerance. That’s far less than some, more visible minorities.
Other than seeing slightly larger numbers of tall, glamorous women and small, fine-boned men, nothing will change; the sky will not fall on us for treating other people with decency and compassion. Speaking out against transphobia whenever and wherever it arises will cost us absolutely nothing more than the loss of some absurd prejudices, and perhaps a fair-weather friend or two. Shining the light of public disapproval into the dark places where transphobic hatred festers would do our souls good, too. We could take credit for protecting vulnerable people, and we wouldn’t have to go to war or drop bombs on anyone to do it. We’d just have to call time on the transphobic bullies, as we have already begun to do on racists and homophobes.
We should applaud the good things that trans people bring, in forcing us to be more accepting of difference, in showing that personal resolution and fortitude are keys that can open any door, in the undemanding tolerance, resilience and good humour in the face of adversity that so many exhibit themselves, and in having the courage to walk a difficult and lonely path.
Some of the issues mentioned here are discussed in my new book, ‘Why Men Made God’, co-authored with Karis Burkowski, which will be published tomorrow by Redefining the Sacred. ISBN: 978-0-9572612-2-8.
Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2015 Rod Fleming's World