Features on Asian Art, Culture, History & Travel

X Close


Archives  >  THAILAND  >  Thailand’s "Women of the Second Kind"

Thailand’s "Women of the Second Kind"

Thailand’s "Women of the Second Kind"

Transvestism in Thai Society


By Andrew Forbes

Transvestitism is a common enough feature of Thai society, but one which is often little considered and less understood. Practically every town in Thailand has at least two or three open transvestites - men who dress as women and assume - or are born with - feminine characteristics. Indeed, so common is the phenomenon that it has assumed a semi-institutionalised status, with transvestites working not just where one might expect - in bars, reviews and theatres - but also in restaurants and post offices, department stores and travel agencies.

Transvestites appear regularly in Thai television serials, and not just as objects of derision. In Thai soap operas the phenomenon is usually treated as a normal part of every day life. For example, a family may have two daughters and two sons, one of whom is a transvestite. Such a scenario - which would be treated either as a farce or a tragedy in the West - tends to be downplayed in Thailand; quite often the transvestitism portrayed may have no bearing on the central theme at all.

Of course, transvestitism isn't a purely Thai phenomenon. There are plenty of "cross-dressers" in western societies, many of whom are now declaring themselves openly. There are transvestite clubs, special shops catering to those who require outsize female attire, and even cross-dressing weekend package tours.

In Thailand, by contrast, none of this is really necessary. Transvestites - known colloquially as kathoey - don't need to come out of the closet. Cross-dressing isn't something to be revealed only at weekends or at special gatherings. Most Thai kathoey make no attempt to conceal who or what they are - on the contrary, they flaunt it - from their dress, through their effeminate mannerisms, to their very speech patterns [using feminine personal pronouns like di-chan for "I" and the polite feminine participle ka (jao in the north) instead of the usual male krap.

Perhaps it is this openness - the relative tolerance of Thai society for transvestitism - that accounts for the high profile adopted by many kathoey in Thailand. Perhaps, too, looked at from a purely subjective standpoint, it is the comparative success of many Thai kathoey in achieving the desired metamorphosis. Often Thai transvestite males tend to be androgynous - small-boned, smooth, naturally graceful in a way that must excite a mixture of envy and despair in their broader, heavier and hairier western counterparts.

It seems probable that this very success encourages Thai kathoey - not, in any case, usually the most retiring of people - to disport and display themselves so openly. They often are very beautiful, and sometimes indistinguishable from "the real thing". By contrast, very few western transvestites can aspire to being taken for a woman. Of course they realise this, and the knowledge often causes a contrasting lack of self-confidence and an unwillingness to appear "cross-dressed" before an unsympathetic public. It also seems probable that many Thai transvestites - in apparent contrast to their western counterparts - are genuine transsexuals, or people born with female psyches in male bodies.

The use of the term kathoey is thought to date back at least several centuries, suggesting a substantial but unrecorded history of transvestitism (and, no doubt, of associated homosexuality) in Thailand. The prevalence of transvestitism in rural areas is attested to by the frequency and popularity of transvestite beauty contests at village fairs and festivals. These beauty contests are held across the country, and although a source of entertainment and amusement, are still taken very seriously. In the past, high camp may perhaps have been limited to the role of female impersonators in likay folk operas, though this tradition may more properly be likened to that of drag queens in European pantomime.

During this century, at least, it seems clear that the term kathoey has come specifically to denote effeminate cross-dressers, being associated with transvestites who play a strongly and exclusively feminine role. It may also be inaccurately applied, usually in a derogatory way, to passive male homosexuals ("Gay Queens", in the Thai vernacular) who are not transvestites at all. In contradistinction, male homosexuals or bisexuals who play an exclusively active sexual role (so-called "Gay Kings") are never categorised as kathoey.

In a further and elaborate differentiation between active and passive homosexuals, the former are also known as phuchai tem tua, or "complete men" - despite their homosexuality - whilst the latter, the passive gays, are disparaged as phuying praphet sorng - "women of the second type".  These terms are clearly indicative of Thai society's comparatively easy acceptance of active male sexuality (be it aimed in whatever direction). By contrast, the feminine, passive gay - especially if a transvestite as well - is viewed with some disdain. The term kathoey, therefore, indicates a lack of sympathy - and when combined in Thai rhyming slang as kathoey-saloey is distinctly derogatory, something like the English term "fairy", the Aussie "poofter", or the American "faggot".

Today transvestites are to be found at many levels of society. The old, rural tradition still flourishes - kathoey beauty contests are staged with enthusiasm at fairs and carnivals like, for example, the Lamphun Lamyai Festival in August, or the Phuket Vegetarian Festival each September.

In the higher echelons of Thai society a handful of particularly feminine and socially skilled kathoey (who are usually transsexuals as well as transvestites) become fully accepted and nationally acclaimed as singers, actresses and even businesswomen. Such people are admired for their attainments and courage in much the same way as western transsexual intellectuals like Jan Morris. They are people who "come out of the closet" and make a success of the way they are. In Thailand, however, this admiration is both more genuine and more widespread than in the West, where admirers tend to be limited to the like-minded and to "politically correct" progressive circles.

Below this, yet in the same vein and very much a twentieth century refinement of the kathoey tradition, elaborate transvestite reviews are staged at venues like the Calypso in Bangkok and - especially - Tiffany's and Alcazar in Pattaya. These reviews owe more to Paris' Crazy Horse than to likay, and the transvestites who work in such venues are - at least for a few brief years - numbered amongst the glamorous superstars of their profession.

Further down the social scale, many kathoey work in the bar business. The best - most authentically feminine - of these may dance in upmarket Go-Go bars such as King's Corner in Patpong (once, at least, known to its Thai and other regular customers as a transvestite haunt providing a regular source of cynical, worldly-wise amusement, as night after night unknowing tourists succumbed to the all-too-feminine charms of some of the "girls"). Transvestites working in such upmarket establishments are often transsexuals, paying for expensive sex-change operations (including, beside the complex basics, breast enhancement and excision of the Adam's apple), thus effectively becoming - at least in the eyes of transvestite society - "complete women".

Interestingly, it seems that in Thailand it is not homosexuality itself which is disparaged, but effeminacy and passive homosexuality. In Thai society as a whole there may be a greater tolerance of bisexuality than in the West, but this is the privileged domain of the active male alone. By contrast, the kathoey is thought only to be able to obtain satisfaction by being the passive party. For this reason the kathoey is subordinate to and controlled by the active man.

This strange phenomenon - largely unknown in the West, where active and passive homosexuals are generally equally disparaged - suggests that the predominant pattern of male sexuality in Thailand is not so much anti-homosexual as anti-woman, in the sense that dominant male sexuality is implicitly regarded as being more valid than female sexuality. Consequently, it may be that kathoey - passive male transvestites - suffer less opprobrium from being homosexual than from their ascribed feminine status.

In other words, homosexuality, like heterosexuality, is still basically seen as a "man" sexually dominating a "woman", albeit a surrogate female or "woman of the second type". Of course, what "women of the first type" - that is, the real thing - think of this interpretation is another matter - but it should at least give pause for serious thought.

Interview with Meo

Meo is a thirty one year old transvestite from Nonthaburi. She works as a waitress during the day and hangs out with a handful of like-minded friends in the shopping malls and streets of Suthisan most evenings. In this, Meo is typical of many Thai kathoey - though in another way she is very atypical. For Meo, born a man but subsequently having undergone a full sex-change operation at the age of twenty nine, is married - to a woman - by whom "she" fathered the two children before the big change. Of course, they can hardly enjoy a normal husband-wife relationship nowadays, but they remain good friends.

So how does Meo explain her drastic decision to change sex? "I always felt like a girl, even when I was a child. I liked girl's clothes, and I didn't want to kick box or play football". So why get married to a girl? "I liked her. And I got her pregnant... yes, I could do all that, but my thing was small and I liked men too (laughing). Anyway, I loved my first son, so we decided to have another. Well, maybe it was an accident too, but now I have two sons". What do they think about Meo's sex change? "No problem. They call me mummy no. 2!" And will the boys grow up to be transvestites? "Up to them, but I don't think so". How does Meo see the future? "I will grow old and die, then be reborn - but next time as a real girl from the start", she says seriously. Then, with a pout and a wiggle, she head off to a nearby shopping mall to check out the latest - female - fashions. One night in Bangkok...

Interview with Tuk

Like Meo, Tukata always felt more feminine than masculine, and has been cross-dressing since her early teens. Unlike Meo she hasn't had a sex change operation as yet, though she takes hormones to stimulate breast growth and cut down on body hair - not that the latter is much in evidence, at least on short acquaintance. Tuk's family was less understanding than Meo's, and she ran away as soon as she left school to work in Bangkok. Before long she gravitated towards Patpong, the Thai capital's most notorious red light area. Here she got a job in a bar catering mainly to Western tourists, many of whom fail to realise she isn't a girl.

Why hasn't she had a sex change operation? "I keep meaning to, but whenever I save up the money I spend it on clothes, drinks and going out with friends." Why does she work in a bar which mainly serves foreigners? "They're nice, they're hairy, they...(laughing, a little huskily) don't know I'm what I am." How does she like the work? "Oh, its OK. Sometimes its fun, sometimes not. I want to meet a nice man, Thai or foreigner, who will take care of me." And pay for the operation? "Yes, I hope so, why not?"


Text by Andrew Forbes; Pictures by Rainer Krack, David Henley & Pictures From History - © CPA