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Kathoey, or katoey (Thai: กะเทย; RTGS: kathoei Thai pronunciation: [kàtʰɤːj]), is a word used in Thailand to describe a male-to-female transgender person or person of a third gender or an effeminate homosexual male. Transgender women in Thailand mostly use terms other than kathoey when referring to themselves, such as phuying (Thai: ผู้หญิง 'woman'). A significant number of Thais perceive kathoey as belonging to a third sex, including some transgender women themselves.
In face of the many sociopolitical obstacles that kathoeys navigate in Thailand, kathoey activism has led to legal recognition as of January 2015. As of 2020[update], Thai law prohibits legal gender change.
Most trans women in Thai society refer to themselves as phuying (Thai: ผู้หญิง 'women'), with a minority referring to themselves as phuying praphet song ('second kind of woman') and only very few referring to themselves as kathoey. Related phrases include phet thi sam (Thai: เพศที่สาม, 'third sex'), and sao praphet song or phu ying praphet song (Thai: สาวประเภทสอง, ผู้หญิงประเภทสอง—both meaning 'second-type female'). The word kathoey is of Khmer origin. It is most often rendered as "ladyboy" in English conversation, an expression that has become popular across Southeast Asia.
Although kathoey is often translated as 'transgender woman' in English, this term is not correct in Thailand. As well as transgender people, the term can refer to gay men, and was originally used to refer to intersex people. Before the 1960s, the use of kathoey included anyone who deviated from the dominant sexual norms. Because of this confusion in translation, the English translation of kathoey is usually 'ladyboy' (or variants of the term).
Use of the term kathoey suggests that the person self-identifies as a type of male, in contrast to sao praphet song (which, like "trans woman", suggests a "female" (sao) identity), and in contrast to phet thi sam ('third sex'). The term phu ying praphet song, which can be translated as 'second-type female', is also used to refer to kathoey.:146 Australian scholar of sexual politics in Thailand Peter Jackson claims that the term kathoey was used in antiquity to refer to intersex people, and that the connotation changed in the mid-20th century to cover cross-dressing males. Kathoey became an iconic symbol of modern Thai culture. The term can refer to males who exhibit varying degrees of femininity. Many dress as women and undergo "feminising" medical procedures such as breast implants, hormones, silicone injections, or Adam's apple reductions. Others may wear make-up and use feminine pronouns, but dress as men, and are closer to the Western category of effeminate gay man than transgender.
The term kathoey may be considered pejorative, especially in the form kathoey-saloey. It has a meaning similar to the English language 'fairy' or 'queen'. Kathoey can also be seen as a derogatory word for those who self-identify as gay.
Bunmi, a Thai Buddhist author, believes that homosexuality stems from "lower level spirits" (phi-sang-thewada), a factor that is influenced by one's past life. Some Buddhists view kathoeys as persons born with a disability as a consequence of past sins.[dubious ].
Requirements to confirm eligibility for gender-affirming surgery
In 1965, Johns Hopkins Hospital in the US became the first institution to perform sex-reassignment surgery. Today, in cities such as Bangkok, there are two to three gender-affirming surgery (GAS) operations per week, more than 3,500 over the past thirty years. With the massive increase in GASs, there has also been an increase in prerequisites, measures that must be taken in order to be eligible for the operation. Patients must be at least 18 years old with permission from parents if under 20 years old. One must provide evidence of diagnosis of gender dysphoria from a psychologist or psychiatrist. Before going through gender reassignment surgery, one must be on hormones/antiandrogens for at least one year. Patients must have a note from the psychiatrist or clinical psychologist. Two months prior to the surgery, patients are required to see a psychiatrist in Thailand to confirm eligibility for gender-affirming surgery.
Many kathoey work in predominately female occupations, such as in shops, restaurants, and beauty salons, but also in factories (a reflection of Thailand's high proportion of female industrial workers). Kathoey also work in entertainment and tourist centres, in cabarets, and as prostitutes. Kathoey prostitutes have high rates of H.I.V.
Kathoeys are more visible and more accepted in Thai culture than transgender people are in other countries in the world. Several popular Thai models, singers and movie stars are kathoeys, and Thai newspapers often print photographs of the winners of female and kathoey beauty contests side by side. The phenomenon is not restricted to urban areas; there are kathoeys in most villages, and kathoey beauty contests are commonly held as part of local fairs.
Kathoeys currently face many social and legal impediments. Families (and especially fathers) are typically disappointed if a child becomes a kathoey, and kathoeys often have to face the prospect of disclosing their sexuality. However, kathoey generally have greater acceptance in Thailand than most other East Asian countries. Legal recognition of kathoeys and transgender people is nonexistent in Thailand: even if a transgender person has had genital reassignment surgery, they are not allowed to change their legal sex. Discrimination in employment also remains rampant. Problems can also arise in regards to access to amenities and gender allocation; for example, a kathoey and a person who has undergone sexual reassignment surgery would still have to stay in an all-male prison.
Representation in cinema
Kathoeys began to gain prominence in the cinema of Thailand during the late-1980s. The depiction at first was negative by showing kathoeys suffering bad karma, suicide, and abandoned by straight lovers. Independent and experimental films contributed to defying sexual norms in gay cinema in the 1990s. The 2000 film, The Iron Ladies, directed by Yongyoot Thongkongtoon, depicted a positive portrayal of an almost entirely kathoey volleyball team by displaying their confidence. The rising middle-class in Bangkok and vernacular queer culture made the mainstream portrayal of kathoeys more popular on television and in art house cinemas.
Miss Tiffany's Universe
Feminine beauty in Thailand allowed transsexuals to have their own platform where they are able to challenge stereotypes and claim cultural recognition. Miss Tiffany's Universe is a beauty contest that is opened to all transsexual women. Beginning in 1998, the pageant takes place every year in Pattaya, Thailand during May. With over 100 applicants, the pageant is considered to be one of the most popular transsexual pageants in the world. Through beauty pageants, Thailand has been able to promote the country's cosmetic surgery industry, which has had a massive increase in medical tourism for sex reassignment surgery. According to the Miss Tiffany's Universe website, the live broadcast attracts record of fifteen million viewers. The winner of the pageant receives a tiara, sash, car, grand prize of 100,000 baht (US$3,000), equivalent to an annual wage for a Thai factory worker. The assistant manager director, Alisa Phanthusak, stated that the pageant wants kathoeys to be visible and to treat them as normal. It is the biggest annual event in Pattaya.
In 1993, Thailand's teacher training colleges implemented a semi-formal ban on allowing homosexual (which included kathoey) students enrolling in courses leading to qualification for positions in kindergartens and primary schools. In January 1997, the Rajabhat Institutes (the governing body of the colleges) announced it would formalize the ban, which would extend to all campuses at the start of the 1997 academic year. The ban was quietly rescinded later in the year, following the replacement of the Minister of Education.:xv–xiv
In 1996, a volleyball team composed mostly of gays and kathoeys, known as The Iron Ladies (Thai: สตรีเหล็ก, satree lek), later portrayed in two Thai movies, won the Thai national championship. The Thai government, concerned with the country's image, barred two of the kathoeys from joining the national team and competing internationally.
Among the most famous kathoeys in Thailand is Nong Tum, a former champion Thai boxer who emerged into the public eye in 1998. She would present in a feminine manner and had commenced hormone therapy while still a popular boxer; she would enter the ring with long hair and make-up, occasionally kissing a defeated opponent. She announced her retirement from professional boxing in 1999 – undergoing genital reassignment surgery, while continuing to work as a coach, and taking up acting and modeling. She returned to boxing in 2006.
In 2004, the Chiang Mai Technology School allocated a separate restroom for kathoeys, with an intertwined male and female symbol on the door. The fifteen kathoey students are required to wear male clothing at school but are allowed to sport feminine hairdos. The restroom features four stalls, but no urinals.
Following the 2006 Thai coup d'état, kathoeys are hoping for a new third sex to be added to passports and other official documents in a proposed new constitution. In 2007, legislative efforts have begun to allow kathoeys to change their legal sex if they have undergone genital reassignment surgery; this latter restriction was controversially discussed in the community.
It is estimated that as many as six in every thousand native males later present themselves as transsexual women or phu ying kham phet.
Thai activists have mobilized for over two decades to secure sexual diversity rights. Beauty pageant winner Yollada Suanyot, known as Nok, founded the Trans Female Association of Thailand on the basis of changing sex-designation on identification cards for post-operative transsexual women. Nok promoted the term phuying kham-phet instead of kathoey but was controversial because of its connotation with gender identity disease. The goal of the Thai Transgender Alliance is to delist gender dysphoria from international psychological diagnostic criteria and uses the term kathoey to advocate for transgender identity. A common protest sign during sexual rights marches is Kathoey mai chai rok-jit meaning "Kathoey are not mentally ill".
Activism in Thailand is discouraged if it interferes with official policy. In January 2006, the Thai Network of People Living With HIV/AIDS had their offices raided after demonstrations against Thai-US foreign trade agreements. Under the Thai Constitution of 1997, the right to be free of discrimination based on health conditions helped to minimize the stigma against communities living with HIV/AIDS. In most cases, governments and their agencies fail to protect transgender people against these exclusions. There is a lack of HIV/AIDS services for specifically transgender people and feminizing hormones largely go without any medical monitoring.
Trans prejudice has produced discriminatory behaviors that have led to the exclusion of transsexuals from economic and social activity. World-wide, transsexuals face discrimination amongst family members, religious settings, education, and the work-place. Accepted mainly in fashion-related jobs or show business, people who identify as transsexual are discriminated against in the job market and have limited job opportunities. Kathoeys have also experienced ridicule from coworkers and tend to have lower salaries. Long-term unemployment reduces the chances of contributing to welfare for the family and lowers self-esteem, causing a higher likelihood of prostitution in specialized ladyboy bars. "Ladyboy" bars also can provide a sense of community and reinforces a female sense of identity for kathoeys. Harassment from the police is evident especially for kathoeys who work on the streets. Kathoeys may be rejected in official contexts being rejected entry or services.
Based on a study by AIDS Care participants who identified as a girl or kathoey at an early age were more likely to be exposed to prejudice or violence from men in their families. Kathoeys are more subjected to sexual attacks from men than are other homosexuals.
Anjaree is one of Thailand's gay feminist organizations, established in mid-1986 by women's right activists. The organization advocated wider public understanding of homosexuality based on the principles of human rights. The first public campaign opposing sexual irregularity was launched in 1996.
Social spaces are often limited for kathoeys even if Thai society does not actively persecute them. Indigenous Thai cultural traditions have given a social space for sexual minorities. In January 2015, the Thai government announced it would recognize the third sex in its constitution in order to ensure all sexes be treated equally under the law.
Identity cards are particularly important in Thailand. The vast majority of transsexuals in the country were unable to change their documents at all, and those who are able to were held to rather severe standards. Identity cards facilitate many daily activities such as interface with businesses, bureaucratic agencies (i.e., signing up for educational courses or medical care), law enforcement, etc. Impeded by these identity cards on a daily basis, transsexuals are "outed" by society. The requirement facilitated by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (I.C.C.P.R.) that does not offer transsexuals the opportunity to change their personal documentation remains as a threat to privacy for the transsexual community in Thailand. There is no question that the country's rigid bureaucratic rules are still adjusting to incorporate transsexual rights.
Transgender individuals were automatically exempted from compulsory military service in Thailand. Kathoeys were deemed to suffer from "mental illness" or "permanent mental disorder". These mental disorders were required to appear on their military service documents, which are accessible to future employers. In 2006, the Thai National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) overturned the use of discriminatory phraseology in Thailand's military service exemption documents. With Thai law banning citizens from changing their sex on their identification documents, everyone under the male category must attend a "lottery day" where they are randomly selected to enlist in the army for two years. In March 2008, the military added a "third category" for transsexuals that dismissed them from service due to "illness that cannot be cured within 30 days".
In popular culture
The first all-kathoey music group in Thailand was formed in 2006. It is named "Venus Flytrap" and was selected and promoted by Sony BMG Music Entertainment. "The Lady Boys of Bangkok" is a kathoey revue that has been performed in the UK since 1998, touring the country in both theatres and the famous "Sabai Pavilion" for nine months each year.
Ladyboys, also a popular term used in Thailand when referring to transsexual women, was the title of a popular documentary in the United Kingdom, where it was aired on Channel 4 TV in 1992 and was directed by Jeremy Marre. Marre aimed to portray the life of two adolescent kathoeys living in rural Thailand, as they strove to land a job at a cabaret revue in Pattaya.
Thai kathoey style and fashion has largely borrowed from Korean popular culture.
"Uncle Go Paknam"
"Uncle Go Paknam", created by Pratchaya Phanthathorn, is a popular non-heterosexual advice column that first appeared in 1975 in a magazine titled Plaek, meaning 'strange'. Through letters and responses it became an outlet to express the desires and necessities of the non-heterosexual community in Thailand. The magazine achieved national popularity because of its bizarre and often gay content. It portrayed positive accounts of kathoeys and men called "sharks" to view transsexuals as legitimate or even preferred sexual partners and started a more accepting public discourse in Thailand. Under the pen name of Phan Thathron he wrote the column "Girls to the Power of 2" that included profiles of kathoeys in a glamorous or erotic pose. "Girls to the Power of 2" were the first accounts of kathoey lives based on interviews that allowed their voices to be published in the mainstream press of Thailand. The heterosexual public became more inclined to read about new transsexual communities that were previously given negative press in Thai newspapers. Go Paknam's philosophy was "kathoeys are good (for men)."
Inside Thailand's Third Gender
A documentary entitled Inside Thailand's Third Gender examines the lives of ladyboys in Thailand and features interviews with various transgender women, the obstacles these people face with their family and lovers, but moreover on a larger societal aspect where they feel ostracized by the religious Thai culture. Following contestants participating in one of the largest transgender beauty pageants, known as Miss Tiffany's Universe, the film not only illustrates the process and competition that takes place during the beauty pageant, but also highlights the systems of oppression that take place to target the transgender community in Thailand.
- Bakla – equivalent of kathoey in Philippines
- Kothi (gender)
- Bahasa Binan
- Gender Identities in Thailand
- Hijra (South Asia)
- Tamil Sexual Minorities
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- Andrew Matzner, In Legal Limbo: Thailand, Transgendered Men, and the Law, 1999. Criticizes the common view that kathoey are fully accepted by Thai society.
- Andrew Matzner, Roses of the North: The Katoey of Chiang Mai University, 1999. Reports on a kathoey "sorority" at Chiang Mai University.
- Transgender Asia including several articles on kathoey
- Where the 'Ladyboys' Are
- Ladyboy: Thailand's Theater of Illusion. Chiang Mai, Cognoscenti Books, 2012. ASIN: B0085S4WQC
- Can you tell the difference between Katoeys and real ladies?"
- E.G. Allyn: Trees in the Same Forest, 2002. Description of the gay and kathoey scene of Thailand.
- Chanon Intramart and Eric Allyn, Beautiful Boxer, 2003. Describes the story of Nong Tum.
- The Hermaphrodite World is a film exploring the kathoey culture of Thailand
- Katoey Thai-Ladyboys
- Farrell, James Austin. "The price of change and the right to be a woman in Thailand", Asian Correspondent, 2015-12-14.