In Thailand, ladyboys are all over the place. Thai people call them kathoey. Their big feet, low voices and Adam’s apples are usually a dead giveaway, but some are better disguised than others. Cosmetic surgery today makes it feasible to shave off that adam’s apple and pack on a pair of silicone c-cups. Apply some makeup and POOF! a man becomes a woman. Or something like that. So why does Thailand produce so many ladyboys?
In most parts of America, transexuals are vulnerable to a gauntlet of criticism from strangers and relatives alike. But in Thailand, gender identity is viewed far differently than that of western countries. Thai culture not only tolerates the ambiguous gender identity of the ‘third sex,’ but seems to encourage it.
One university in Bangkok, Suan Dusit Rajabhat University, is at the academic forefront for gender identity tolerance. This school actively encourages ladyboys to participate in class dressed as women. I’m pretty sure this is the first educational institution in the world to allow ladyboys to attend class under the women’s university dress code.
I teach English to grades 9 and 10 at a Thai high school. It’s fairly obvious which of my rather effeminate students is well on their way to becoming a full-fledged ladyboy. And there’s no fear of prosecution in the classroom. In fact, ladyboys seem to be among the most popular students.
Neither parents nor teachers nor peers is overcome with the urge to interfere and divert a kathoey from being who they want to be. Whether they agree with another person’s gender identity or not, Thai people simply seem to let it be.
Sometimes I’m thrown off by the openness of this culture, especially at school. Walking to class on any given day, I’ll hear, “teacher, you’re beautiful!” from a blatantly homosexual student, and the staff and students laugh along. Other times, it’s “I love you teacher!” My first response was an awkward cringe, but now I just shake my head and laugh. Like many of the challenges foreigners face in Thailand, it’s just a cultural thing.
I’m not gay, but I’ll take the side of Thai culture on this one. I think gay people and ladyboys should be able to do whatever they want without interference. If you identify yourself as a woman, then live like one. If you identify as a man, then live like one. It’s all good in Thailand. Maybe that’s the real reason why it’s called the Land of Smiles.