During my year abroad, I was given a great introductory book on kathoey culture in Thailand by Rachel, a fascinating American expat teacher we housesat for in Malaysia. The book, Ladyboys: The Secret World of Thailand’s Third Gender, is a short but comprehensive look at the Thai genderscape, full of personal accounts. Though it might seem like a modern convention, Thailand has a long history of “ladyboys”, known in Thai as kathoeys or sao praphet-sorng (“a second kind of woman”), a more polite and respectful term to use than kathoey.
Historical and Religious Roots
In the Lotus Sutra, one of the most sacred sutras, or scriptures of Buddhism, Buddha counsels that one “should not make distinctions by saying, ‘This is a man,’ ‘This is a woman.’… [to not] try to apprehend phenomena… [which] are empty, without being, without any constant abiding, without arising or extinction.'” However, this is later contradicted in other parts of the text, in which the majority of the significant beings in the text are men; Buddha is called “the father of all living beings” and women who follow the Lotus’ teachings are reborn as males.
Homosexuality and transgenderism are to be seen as the result of a previous life full of sexual misconduct, according to traditional narratives in Thai Buddhism. The inconsistent depictions of third-gendered beings in the literature that Thai Buddhists rely on may account for some of the cross-cultural confusion on its moral implications.
A translation of the Pathamamulamuli, a creation story from the Yuan people of northern Thailand, implies that three sexes were fundamental to the origins of humanity: female, hermaphrodite, and male.
In Thailand, all Thai males are required to register for enlistment before turning 18; before their 21st birthday, they must participate in a draft lottery. “If they draw a black card, they go home. If they draw red, they enter the service for two years.”
The issue remains largely unspoken; a 2017 survey showed that only 3 out of 72 Thai-language news stories covered the struggles LGBT candidates face during conscription.
“In past years, some have been sexually propositioned or asked to bare their breasts publicly, while others were asked to give massages to serve male officers.”
Regardless of their status, trans women must still be present and show documentation to be dismissed. They face three avenues regarding military service:
- Those who have undergone sex reassignment surgery (SRS) are exempt from military service for two years.
- If diagnosed with gender identity disorder (GID), they are permanently exempted.
- Lastly, trans women not fitting the above categories are “forced to undergo long medical examinations and mental tests in order to ‘prove’ their transgender identity is real.”
This is problematic for several reasons.
- There was regulation of gender reassignment in Thailand until 2009, leading to many cases of castrations performed by individuals not trained in plastic surgery and urology. Let alone the fact that the concept of “passing”, or being able to be correctly recognized as the gender one identifies as is harmful to the trans community.
- Although being diagnosed with GID is an improvement from the practice used until 2005 of dismissing trans and gay recruits on the basis of a “permanent mental disorder”, transgender women say the reference to “disorder” still stigmatizes them.
- Lastly, the Executive Director of the Thai Transgender Alliance from Human Rights, Jetsada Taemsombat, stated that suicide rates rise around the time of the military lottery because trans women would “rather take their lives” than “be undressed, stared at, or humiliated in public”.
In terms of representation in pop culture, kathoeys are usually depicted as either “comic or tragic”, with those appearing the most feminine receiving the highest praise.
Some read the Thai state’s regulation and enforcement of gender roles as a means to “resist colonial encroachment” by enforcing a strict male/female dichotomy. For some middle-class Thais, “the presence of kathoey literally [demonstrates] that Thailand [has] not succeeded in civilizing gender”. In elite political and nationalist spheres, male effeminacy is framed as an oppositional threat to “Thainess”; this may be related to Thailand’s fertility rate which is lower than all developing countries in Asia.
“In the context of anxieties prompted by a perceived excessive national effeminacy, the re-signification of kathoeyness as a form of modern degeneracy reveals the moral contours of contemporary Thai genderscapes and their cultural politics.”
Nok Yollada, beauty pageant queen-cum-politician founded the TransFemale Association of Thailand, which provides funding for sex reassignment surgery. Yollada states that trans individua
ls are not “degenerate” but merely disabled, with treatment being gender surgery. However, Nok has revealed to fellow activists in confidence that she doesn’t believe she’s diseased, “but is using therapeutic citizenship as her political strategy to get rights from the state”.
In the United States, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed GID from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, in 2012 on the basis that the terms “characterized all trans people as mentally ill”. Individuals displaying “a marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender” are now diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria.
Although it its constitution Thailand recognizes a third gender, under current Thai law, citizens cannot change their gender on their official identification cards. Nor does the state recognize same-sex marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships.
Some speculate that the seemingly widespread social acceptance of kathoey in Thailand might be due to their large numbers and increased visibility through personal activism.
“Meanwhile the Thai Transgender Alliance is working to de-list gender dysphoria from the US and international psychological diagnostic criteria (as homosexuality has been), which are currently under revision.”
Now, if you read my blog or know me personally, you’ve probably heard me wax poetic about Japan. So I was especially pleased to learn that Japan also has a history of third-gender persons in spite of its incredibly traditional and formal culture.
Last year, the Japan Society’s “A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints,” exhibition featured erotic prints for the Edo period. The exhibition’s guest curator Asato Ikeda stated, “Even though we have this rich tradition of gender, prints like these are not found in our textbooks. We don’t do these kinds of exhibitions in Japan.” The New York Times’ Susan Chira also commented on the display:
The art on display shows how many permutations were acceptable in Edo society: men or women in liaisons with the adolescent wakashu; female geisha dressing like wakashu and engaging in rough sex; male prostitutes cross-dressing as women; men impersonating women (who were banned from the stage) on the Kabuki stage, a tradition that lasts to this day; and even a male Kabuki actor impersonating a woman who pretends at one point to be a man.¹
The images also depict cross-dressing in various forms ― female sex workers known as “haori-geisha” who dressed as wakashu to appeal to male clients aroused by masculinity, enacting a sort of drag within drag.
Even a century ago, women who chose to dress in the masculine-presented ‘flapper’ style were called modern girls (or “moga”) while Europeanized “high collar” (haikara) men would pay close attention to their appearance even wore facial powder.
Despite the strict adherence to rules and conservatism, especially during the Edo period, it seems art provided a legitimate guise for the Japanese to express and experiment with their sexuality as soon through art such as Kabuki theatre and shunga (erotic prints).
However, even during this period, there were scant depictions of lesbianism in art, “since women were not granted the sexual freedoms men were.” Even today, although Japan is among the world’s richest countries, it is last in terms of female political representation.
The wakashu (lit. “beautiful youths”) were androgynous adolescent boys who were sexually available to both men and women until their coming-of-age ceremony. During the ceremony or genpuku, the boys would be given an adult name and would begin wearing the clothes, hairstyle, and sword of a Samurai.
The modern-day iteration of this gender experimentation presents itself in the form of the gender-less “danshi” (“young men”, in Japanese) who play with androgyny by applying makeup or sporting feminine coiffures. The concept is not so novel, considering the bishōnen (“charming boys”) depicted in manga. Until recently, Japan relied on loan words such as toransujendā (transgender). In the last few years, however, words more native to the language have emerged.
A recent online survey of Meiji Univerisity students found that of Japanese young adults (aged 18-22) “two-thirds felt that youths did not take risks or new challenges and that they instead had become a generation of ‘introverts’ who were content or at least resigned to living a life without ambition”.
Professor Suzuki, points out that unlike the US, where homosexuality has historically been met with anti-sodomy legislation and hatred, “in Japan, people just don’t want to know”.
Some cities do allow partnerships between LGBTQ individuals. However, the Law 111 of 2003 requires transgender applicants who seek a legal gender change to:
- be single without children under 20 years old,
- be unmarried,
- receive a psychiatric diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder,
- “have body parts that ‘resemble the genital organs of those of the opposite gender”,
- and undergo sterilization surgery.
Future of Gender
Although there are many other third-gender communities in Asia, I chose to focus on the countries I’ve personally visited. This concludes my short series on gender but there is still much to learn and explore within the field. For example, a proposed research study in Canada seeks to understand potential changes in women’s sexual psychology when they have to compete with third-gender individuals for mates.
“This research is cutting edge. We are the only lab in the world that has a sustained program of research on third-gender males,” says Vasey. “Studying non-traditional mating systems such as those that include Samoan fa’afafine and Istmo Zapotec muxes can result in transformative new ways of theorizing about the dynamic interplay between reproductive and non-reproductive sex. This can help reconfigure our thinking and help to correct biased, incomplete or erroneous views about human sexual psychology.”
- Kumārajīva, ., Kubo, T., & Yuyama, A. (2007). The Lotus Sutra. Berkeley, Calif: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.
- Peach, J.L. (2002). Social Responsibility, Sex Change, and Salvation: Gender Justice in the Lotus Sutra. Philosophy East and West, 52(1), 21. doi: 10.1353/pew.2002.0003
- Käng, D. B. (2012). Kathoey “In Trend”: Emergent Genderscapes, National Anxieties and the Re-Signification of Male-Bodied Effeminacy in Thailand1. Asian Studies Review, 36(4), 475-494. doi:10.1080/10357823.2012.741043