In Thailand, there exists a class of transwomen called kathoeys, or, in the commercial milieu, ladyboys. There are vast numbers of them, and not surprisingly they attract men from all over the planet, adding to Thailand’s reputation as a major world centre for sex tourism.
There are a number of things that need to be said about kathoeys right up front. The first is that, unlike the travestis of south America, a significant number have regular jobs, indeed, often good professional careers. Thai culture is based on the Buddhist faith, which is far, far less judgemental of individuals than Anglo-Saxons are used to. Given that, according to Buddhism, it is possible that any one of us might be re-incarnated as a kathoey, or have been one in the past, (or as anything else for that matter,) there is a natural incentive to treat these women as we might wish to be treated ourselves. In order to become a kathoey, it is believed that they must have transgressed in a past life. Their sin is usually thought to have been adultery; they destroyed a marriage by their adulterous behaviour in a past life and so cannot marry in this one, and they are often pitied for this.
Because of this, kathoeys in Thailand enjoy many advantages that could only be dreamed of in other cultures. To give an example of how this works, all Thai males are required to serve two years in the country’s armed forces. Until recently, kathoeys were exempt, and the reason given was that they were ‘mentally unstable’. This, however, caused the kathoeys great difficulty, because a certificate of completion of military service, or the appropriate exemption, is asked for when opening a bank account, applying for a mortgage, being interviewed for a job and so on, and the kathoeys found that many careers and other opportunities were denied them because of their official ‘mentally unstable’ status on their certificates. The Thai State’s response to this is instructive. As soon as the problem was brought to their attention they changed the wording on the exemption certificates to ‘suffering from a disease that could be cured within thirty days’, and for the longer term, created a new gender class for the army to accept kathoeys—thus effectively creating a third gender recognised by the Thai State.
Kathoeys, like transwomen the world over, take feminising hormones, give themselves female names, refer to themselves as female, dress and live their daily lives as women, seek physically-transforming surgery, and a proportion elect to have GRS. They differ from travestis in that they do not consider themselves to be men; they either feel a part of a third sex or as a second type of woman. Note that they do not consider themselves to be women, not in the general sense anyway. Most kathoey are uniquely submissive in their private sex lives, though of course, their professional behaviour may be very different. Although to western eyes many kathoeys are entirely passable, Thais usually have little difficulty identifying them.
Kathoeys in Thailand work as models, bank clerks, in business. They are entertainers, pop singers, radio and television presenters, actresses and showgirls. They can own their own homes, cars, and can have good lives. They are present all over the country. A vastly smaller proportion of kathoeys are sex workers than is the case in the travestis, although there are still an awful lot of kathoeys who do work in that business. Kathoeys in the main tend to be much better educated than travestis, as they will probably have completed school, and many have degrees.
Nevertheless, we should not assume that life is all roses for kathoeys. Life is better than in many parts of the world, but they do still suffer from a stigma. It is very difficult for a kathoey to have a professional career as a lawyer or an accountant. Unfortunately, kathoeys have gained a bad reputation for dishonesty, theft, and causing problems in their neighbourhoods. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that kathoeys in the sex business are prepared to rob or extort from their clients and generally breach the peace. Whether this might be a consequence of their being kathoeys, or of being prostitutes, is not clear, but nevertheless it does contribute to a certain mistrust. However, while there are issues facing kathoeys in their home country, their social status and the conditions that they live under are so much better than in most countries that most transwomen across the world would simply love to have the disadvantages they do!
Being a kathoey has a very long history in Thailand, and the word itself originates in the Khmer language; Thailand was part of the Khmer empire which as centred in present-day Cambodia and which existed from the 8th to 16th centuries CE. This suggests that kathoeys have been around for many hundreds of years at least.
As well as the kathoey phenomenon, Thai culture is very relaxed about prostitution, even though it is officially illegal, a fact that should amaze anyone who has walked round Bangkok at night. It is commonplace for a wife to engage the services of a prostitute to satisfy her husband while she cannot, due to pregnancy, for example. It would have been unthinkable that these two phenomena would not collide, and they did, resulting in the ladyboys, kathoeys who work in Thailand’s vibrant and thriving sex marketplace.