Gender identities in Thailand

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In Thailand, as elsewhere, one can find only two gender roles, male and female. However, contrary to popular belief in Thailand being a cornerstone of transgender acceptance, the country has yet to increase any acceptance or acknowledgement of the third gender. The demand for positive self-identity is growing in Thailand although support is ungrowing.[1]:52-85[2]

The tom-dee identity[edit]

Tom identity[edit]

A "tom" is a female who dresses, acts, and possibly speaks in a masculine fashion. She may not be a lesbian, but she may be perceived as one by others. Toms wear short hair, a deviation from traditional Thai culture which prizes long hair as a sign of feminine beauty.[3] Women usually wear skirts in Thailand, and in many government offices skirts are compulsory and pants suits banned. Toms dress in men's clothing—slacks, sandals, and loose fitting button—down shirts. According to Ara Wilson, a tom will use male speech terms, especially the old, now-crude pronouns "goo" (Thai: กู) and "mueng" (Thai: เม็ง / มึง).[4][5]:127,131

Dee identity[edit]

The "de" is a homosexual (or bisexual) female who follows outward Thai gender norms. A dee will look, act, and speak in a manner congruent with Thai female gender norms. The only difference between dees and traditional females is that dee engage in relationships with toms.[4]

Tom-dee within society[edit]

Heterosexual public displays of affection are frowned upon in Thai culture. However, minor displays of affection, such as hand-holding, between same sex individuals is considered the norm. In this way tom-dee partnerships can be invisible to the wider society.[6]


Main article: Kathoey

Although the terms "kathoey"[7] or "ladyboy"[8] are rather ambiguous, simply put, both terms refer to a male who dresses as and adopts the mannerisms and identity of a woman. Though the term is often translated as "transgender", transgender is rarely used in Thailand. Instead Thais use the term kathoey. This term can now also be used to refer to any male homosexual and was originally used to refer to intersex people. Due to this term becoming so broad, many choose to use the English word to explain a homosexual male dressing as a woman as a "ladyboy".[9] The term can also be meant as an insult, especially to those who are trying to alter their identity. Ladyboys suggest that they are still men who are merely dressed as women.[citation needed] The term is used rather loosely at times and can be used to refer to any male who possesses feminine qualities. Personally most of kathoeys prefer to call themselves "a transformed goddess" or "a second type of woman".[10]

Acceptance of kathoeys[edit]

Ladyboys are numerous in Thailand and are seemingly accepted by society, not only in the cities but in the countryside as well.[11] Thai Buddhism does not specifically regard homosexuality as a sin and has no specific prohibitions regarding the lifestyle.[12] Though kathoeys face discrimination, they are gaining acceptance and have made themselves part of the Thai society. They have not yet attained equal status with those who are not transgender. Restrictions come with the identity: the inability to marry someone of the same sex, and not being able to officially change their birth sex on birth certificates or passports.[10]:121-138

Kathoeys in society[edit]

Kathoeys appear to be grudgingly accepted by Thai society.[13] Though kathoeys have enjoyed some prestige in the past, they still face many struggles in everyday life. Many have found success in the entertainment business or in fashion, while others dance cabaret or accept lower level work so that they are able to live their lives in the open.[9] Beginning in the 1950s we are able to see a presence of kathoey and it can be traced in the media. The trend of kathoeys being a regular part of entertainment such as movies, music entertainment, and television shows is rather recent.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jackson, Peter A. (1997-07-08). "Thai research on male homosexuality and transgenderism and the cultural limits of Foucaultian analysis". Journal of the History of Sexuality. 8 (1). 
  2. ^ "Professor Peter A. Jackson". Australian National University. Retrieved 29 November 2015. 
  3. ^ Chami Jotisalikorn (2006). Thailand's Luxury Spas. Tuttle Publishing. p. 183. ISBN 978-0-7946-0341-0. 
  4. ^ a b Wilson, Ara (July 2004). The Intimate Economies of Bangkok: Economies of Bangkok Tomboys, Tycoons, and Avon Ladies in the Global City. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520239685. 
  5. ^ Becker, Benjawan Poomsan (1998). Thai for Intermediate Learners. Bangkok: Paiboon Poomsan Publishing. ISBN 1887521011. 
  6. ^ Jody Houton (2016). A Geek in Thailand. Tuttle Publishing. p. 60. ISBN 978-0-8048-4448-2. 
  7. ^ "kathoey". Wiktionary. Retrieved 29 November 2015. 
  8. ^ "ladyboy". Wiktionary. Retrieved 29 November 2015. 
  9. ^ a b Winter, Sam; Udomsak, Nuttawut (2002). "Male, Female and Transgender : Stereotypes and Self in Thailand". International Journal of Transgenderism. 6 (1). ISSN 1434-4599. Retrieved 29 November 2015. 
  10. ^ a b Jackson, Peter A; Sullivan, Gerard (1999). Lady Boys, Tom Boys, Rent Boys: Male and Female Homosexualities in Contemporary Thailand. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-1560231196. Retrieved 29 November 2015. 
  11. ^ Michaelson, Jay (2015-02-08). "Thailand's Transgender People Aren't Just 'Ladyboys' Anymore". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 29 November 2015. 
  12. ^ a b Jackson, Peter A. (August 2003). "Performative Genders, Perverse Desires: A Bio-History of Thailand's Same-Sex and Transgender Cultures". Intersections: Gender, History, and Culture in the Asian Context (9). Retrieved 29 November 2015. 
  13. ^ Hodal, Kate (2012-01-17). "Flying the flag for ladyboys: Thai airline takes on transgender flight attendants". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 November 2015. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Totman, Richard (2003). The Third Sex: Kathoey: Thailand's Ladyboys. London: Souvenir Press. p. 57.
  • Ladyboy: Thailand's Theater of Illusion. Chiang Mai, Cognoscenti Books, 2012. ASIN: B0085S4WQC
  • Grünhagen, Céline (2013): Geschlechterpluralismus im Buddhismus: Zur Tragweite westlicher Wissenschaftskonstruktionen am Beispiel frühbuddhistischer Positionen und des Wandels in Thailand. (Studies in Oriental Religions, 66) Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

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