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Wednesday, September 22, 2004

The third sex : Kathoey – Thailand’s Ladyboys

AsiaViews, Edition: 35/I/September/2004

Interviews and detailed observations shed light on the many Thai boys who’d rather be girls

That Thailand’s katoeys have “no equivalent in Western culture” is the reason behind Richard Totman’s decision to pen this book. Written from interviews and observations over a period of three years in Thailand’s major cities – Bangkok, Hua Hin, Pattaya, Hat Yai, Chiang Mai and Khon Kaen – the book is an interesting narrative of the lives of 43 katoeys and throws light on their unique Thai subculture: childhood, school years, careers, lifestyles, acceptance by family and society.

The author found it is inappropriate to describe them by such Western terms as “cross-dresser”, “transvestite” or “gay” and decided to keep the original untranslated term of katoey.

According to the author’s research, the ages at realisation of their desire to become a katoey ranges from “as long as I can remember” to puberty. The number of sex reassignment surgeries carried out every year in the country is estimated between 500 and 1,000 and growing, while some go to Singapore for the operation. There is also an interesting analysis about why there is a constant reference to “broken hearts” in this subculture.

Through library research and historical documents, Totman looks at the origin of the third sex in Thai society, evident as far back as the Buddhist scriptures. But whether katoeys are born the way they are because they were promiscuous in their previous lives remains debatable.

Totman is not the first person to touch on Thailand’s third sex, but his assumptions about the connection between modern cabaret shows and likay (the traditional dance theatre of the common people) should be approached with caution. In the chapter “The Kathoey of Modern Thailand and Old Siam”, he assumes likay to be the ancestor of the modern katoey cabaret shows.

Totman based his assumption on a thesis by a postgraduate student of London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies which contained some fascinating photographs. One taken in Chiang Mai is captioned: “Members of a likay opera troupe sitting backstage before the figure of their teacher spirits.” He went on to conclude : “It is clear that the individuals in the group are katoeys.” Many Thais would disagree with this, especially as all the references in this chapter are drawn from non-Thai texts.

The assumption clearly needs more attention and further inquiry from Thai documents or from likay experts. Totman’s interpretation seems to be based on the assumption that every man wearing makeup is a katoey. And, as noted by Supang Chantavanich of Chulalongkorn Univers-ity’s Institute of Asian Studies, he might forget the fact that a straight man is not necessarily a hunk, nor a slender man with smooth face a katoey.

There is apparently no link between cabaret and likay and those performing likay are not necessarily katoeys, says Supang, who has done a PhD thesis on likay.

Likay in the old days was performed only by men. According to Supang, the makeup and slender figure of the leading actor or pra ek li ke were partly to attract mae-yok benefactress. The mae yok, usually older than the actors, did not need strong men to protect them but they did need “just desserts” to sweeten their lives.

In the chapter “The Katheoy and the Religious Order”, Totman again makes a dichotomy.

“The contrast between the two sets of characteristics [of monks vs kateoys] is indeed striking,” he writes. A chart describes monks as strong and admirable, katoeys as weak and pitiful; monks as celibate as opposed to katoeys as promiscuous – which is obviously not always the case.

Totman made a strong comment towards the end of the book that as Thailand comes increasingly under the influence of globalisation, especially now in major cities, a gay subculture of a little more than 30 years old is strongly in the ascendant while the katoey subculture, whose history spans thousands of years, is being marginalised.

He observes that among the middle class of Bangkok who have latched on to the concept of gayness as Western and trendy, the old katoey concept has begun to appear quaint and uncool.

“While Buddhism is tolerant of the transgender subculture, it is a double irony that the issue has become a serious public debate in a Buddhist country like Thailand,” he concludes.


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