Today, one of the best-known centres of transsexualism is Thailand. This is only partly because of the large numbers of transwomen — and transmen — in the country. That is has become a popular tourist destination has made it appear much more important than other areas in south east Asia, but this is incorrect. Across the region, transsexualism is remarkably common.
In his book ‘The Third Sex: Kathoey: Thailand’s Ladyboys’, Richard Totman discussed the background to Thailand’s transwomen, often called ‘kathoey’. This term in actual fact covers a range of presentations including gay men, but the author concentrated on the transwomen who make up the best known part of the group.1
Although we sometimes still hear the claim thay transsexualism in Thailand is recent and goes back only to the 1960s and the Vietnam War era, when US servicemen were on leave there, this is untrue. Totman documents kathoey being recorded in Thai culture for hundreds of years and other sources provide similar information. In fact, transsexualism in Thailand probably goes back thousands of years, into the pre-historic period.
Thailand’s religious culture is called Theravedic Buddhism. The name ‘Theravedic’ is important as it means ‘derived from the Vedas’. In other words, this is a culture that understands exactly the same classifications that we’ve already seen in Indian Vedic culture, and transsexualism is a part of that.
Totman cites examples of kathoey being observed at traditional weddings in Thailand hundreds of years ago, and also performing other roles, as entertainers and so on. These are very similar to the roles they play today. Theravedic Buddhism has been the basis of Thai culture for at least 2000 years and kathoey have been a long-standing part of this. However, the general prevalence of transsexualism across the region, in countries that are not majority Buddhist like Thailand, suggests that there might be an underlying cultural influence at work, or perhaps even a genetic one.