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When you bear in mind that the vast majority of Ladyboys will head to the big cities and tourist areas (as it’s easier for them to find work there), then it’s clear to see that they make up a noticeable percentage of those populations. Tourists and newcomers to Thailand are often amazed by the number of Ladyboys they find in the country, surely nowhere else on this planet has so many Ladyboys or transgendered people in its population?
The loosely translated word for transsexual in Thai is ‘Kathoey’, and it’s not unusual for very young Thais to be referred to in such a way, if they display certain mannerisms and behavior. While most Thai schools have quite strict dress codes and don’t accept males dressing female, some young Thai males will start to grow out their hair and even start displaying female behavior from as young as 10-12 years old.
That still doesn’t answer why so many young Thai males wish to become a Ladyboy (it should also be noted that Thailand has a much larger tomboy population than most countries – female to male transsexuals). One explanation could be that there are so many Ladyboys in Thailand simply because it is an option to become one.
Thai teens who wish to become a Ladyboy are usually given some freedom to grow their hair long, develop more feminine tropes and gestures, and even start wearing makeup and dressing femininely (outside of school at least). You would be hard pushed to find another society or community in the world which would be so accepting to people so young challenging their gender roles. In most other countries such obvious feminine behavior from a young male would be discouraged in some way, if not by the parents and guardians – then by peers and classmates. This is not to say that every Thai family will show such tolerance towards their young, but the vast majority will, and in general the local community will.
Beyond the general freedom and tolerance offered towards those who wish to become Ladyboys, it’s perhaps certain role models and transgendered icons that help to encourage young ladyboys, support those on the long and difficult road to becoming fully transgendered.
Say, for instance, a young American boy decided he wanted to become a ladyboy and his family, friends and local community all fully supported him (this is very unlikely, but bear with me), he would still have very little support from the media, with almost no one in the way of role model. In fact, transgendered people in western media are still seen as being peculiar or taboo, and the only real place transsexuality has found in western popular media is in comedy and the bizarre.
Contrast the role of transsexuals in western media to Thai media and you get something very different. On Thai TV you’ll find ladyboy presenters, personalities, models, and fashion icons, not only appearing on some of the most popular prime time TV shows, but featuring on giant billboards and advertisement campaigns. You may not have realized, but a lot of the stunning Thai female models you see on the TV ads and billboards are actually ladyboys. It’s also worth noting that the annual Miss Tiffany contest (a ladyboy beauty contest), is one of the most watched TV events each year, and the winners are treated like superstars.
Moreover, even in smaller, more rural Thai neighborhoods, a young ladyboy is likely to see other, older ladyboys in their community, maybe even at their school, which they can look up to and even approach for help. It’s almost as if every small village will have a salon which is run or staffed by ladyboys. It’s also not uncommon for a local community to have one or more annual fairs, at which ladyboy beauty contests are a very traditional and celebrated part.
Thai law is very tolerant towards homosexual and transgendered relationships. Outside of the law against same sex marriage, having a relationship with a ladyboy would not really give you any more legal obstacles than a same sex relationship would face outside of wedlock.
Religion must also play a large role. Some world religions are very clear in their stance on same sex relationships and the taboo of transgender, however, Buddhism is extremely tolerant towards other lifestyles, and Thai Buddhism in particular, does not regard homosexual acts or relationships as being sinful (although many other Buddhist countries do).
Of course, ladyboys are not fully equal in all aspects of Thai law and culture, not only can they not get married to someone of the same sex, but they are also not allowed to change their sex on their birth certificate or passport (though laws on identity cards may be changing in the near future). However, even in countries that are now more forward thinking and have opened up their laws to better accommodate homosexuals and alternative lifestyles, even though same sex marriages are permitted, transsexuality is still seen as a taboo, much to do with a poor social understanding and acceptance.
Some of Thailand’s most popular ladyboys, such as the winners of Miss Tiffany and successful actresses and popstars, often openly date with other celebs and those of high standing, being admired in the glossy mags and gossip columns. Many of Thailand’s ladyboys seem to have a natural gift for entertaining and the more creative talents, and have therefore played a big part in Thai media, which is one reason for their acceptance in modern times. This is changing Thai opinions even more so in the modern age, with social media and the internet giving way to a new generation of talented ladyboy entertainers.
Ladyboy have also found a home in Thailand’s huge tourist industry. In fact, ladyboys are something of a selling point, a unique form of art and expression which can only be found in ‘Amazing Thailand’, with cabaret shows among the country’s most popular tourist attractions – not to mention the large part ladyboys play in the nations large adult tourist industry.
It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation, but Thailand is also the home to many of the world’s best surgeons when it comes to SRS (sexual reassignment surgery), and more minor operations such as hip implants and breast implants are incredibly inexpensive when compared to the west. Having breast implants and shaping your body to become a woman isn’t just a pipe dream for a young Thai ladyboy, but a very realistic and obtainable option, many even seeing it as a rites of passage.
Not only is surgery readily available to ladyboys once they have finished their school years, but such is the availability of inexpensive hormone tablets, many ladyboys will start to take courses of hormones during the early stages of puberty, resulting in much softer skin and even growing small breasts.
This is not a definitive document on why there are so many ladyboys in Thailand, nor does it tackle when/how/why ladyboys first entered Thai society or the role of transsexuals in Thai society pre-media, however, this should give you a better understanding of why so many young Thais do tread the path to becoming a ladyboy and how transgender people are far more tolerated than the vast majority of other societies and nations.
Posted on Gods of Thailand November 28, 2014 in