Before answering yes, because Thailand can be considered that, let’s ask a different question: What is a Ladyboy? Transgender males that choose to have a female identity don’t like the term “Ladyboy” very much. The correct term is “Kathoey” (commonly pronounced in English as Ka-Toy). This is actually a word derived from the Khmer language and literally means “Boy is also a Lady”. Naturally, it is easier to say ladyboy in English, but kathoey is more accurate and easier to say for Thais.
The definition of ladyboy has many facets, both physical and psychological. A Ladyboy is a male that has a feminine appearance. Some guys just like to dress and act as girls for the fun of it. Others have a deep sense that their male gender does not agree with how they really feel. That mindset wants to completely change to a female identity. Historical records indicate this has openly been the case since the 14th century, but it certainly goes much further back than that.
So, Why Are There So Many Ladyboys in Thailand?
This question is important to ask because there are actually so many ladyboys in Thailand. Estimates are that more than 1 million people, roughly 1.5% of the population of Thailand, identify as Kathoey. There are essentially two good answers: A third gender is recognized throughout the tenets of Thailand’s Theravada Buddhism. The same religious influence calls for kathoeys to be accepted and not persecuted or harmed. These conditions allow personal identity to flourish in the manner the individual chooses much more than it can in the west.
Kathoeys can live public and honest lives in Thailand. They are not pursued by hate groups like in so many other western countries. Hate groups do exist, but Thai society is not built on hate and fear of each other. A climate like this makes it easier for people to be open about their sexual orientation and not go underground. That is why one can see kathoeys everywhere. That is why there seems to be so many.
Ladyboy Paradise in Thailand is only Superficial
Life is not a bed of roses for Kathoeys in Thailand. Thai laws do not acknowledge gender orientation. Kathoey is not mentioned in the anti-discrimination clause of Thailand’s constitution. Changing gender is not actually legal in Thailand. As it stands today, basic human rights for kathoeys are withheld by the government. Most importantly of all are the views of Thai families. Parents do not always understand their sons that choose to come out as kathoey, especially in rural areas. They are not disowned immediately as often happens in the west, but they are not always totally embraced either.
Kathoeys in Thailand are not totally relegated as second-class citizens, but their role in society is marginalized. To have an office job is common, but to advance in the corporate world they have to be more conformist. Transgender men are prevalent in the entertainment and hospitality industries. Ladyboys are a character in nearly all Thai TV shows, many movies, and are featured performers in cabaret shows. But onscreen they are always cast as humorous or as the fall guy to other actors. The stage shows are all about how glamorous kathoey are if they sing well it is just an added plus.
Where Do Ladyboys Come From?
Geographically most Kathoeys are from the countryside of Thailand. Some research has shown that parents recognize gender change in their male children early. These parents begin to foster this with female hormone additives around age 6-7. Cross-dressing is tolerated if not actually encouraged. The child is thus essentially bought up as a kathoey. But more often the recognition is within the individuals themselves. The glamorized portrayal of Transgenders in society then comes into play and the identity is pursued further. Teenagers will start taking female hormones on their own and develop the identity further with cross-dressing and sexual experimentation. Coming out is no big deal in most families due to the freedom of expression afforded in Thailand.
Many kathoeys at this point gravitate towards big cities and well-known popular tourist spots looking for better economic opportunities. There they find acceptance and employment whereas at home there is little of both to begin with. Since Thai society is open to this movement, the dream of a better life is actually realized away from home. But as noted the opportunities have limits, and for better or for worse, many end up in the sex business.
What Is It Like to Be a Ladyboy in Thailand?
Kathoeys recognize from the start that they are tolerated but not fully accepted in Society. The typical individual reaction to this is to have a more relaxed attitude towards life. Ladyboys are famously funny. Outsiders see them as having a great time being themselves and they are. Many kathoeys make a game of their life experience, they are in character when they are around others, especially foreigners. Kathoeys don’t dwell on the downside, instead, they make the most of their chances. So many Kathoeys are extraordinarily beautiful, more so than many females in Thailand. Being overtly sexual is a favourite pastime and sexual indulgence is a ladyboy trademark. This is all part of the fun, and like many Thai females, it is also their vehicle to finding a male benefactor. Even Kathoeys get old, so finding a partner to take provide for them is a prime objective in their life.
Are Ladyboys in Thailand an Emerging Force?
Unequivocally, yes! More and more males that are big entertainment industry celebrities in Thailand are coming out with their real female identity. Thailand has the only elected MP (Mister of Parliament) in the world. LGBT issues are getting priority attention in Thailand now. Gay marriage is on the legislative agenda (again) and LGBT specific anti-discrimination laws are being drafted. More opportunities for gender-changing people are opening up. But Slowly. The struggle is moving to the front pages, but there is still a long way to go. Check out the major issues for LGBT expats in Thailand.