Thailand’s recent ban on sex-change operations for boys under 16 years has, once again, brought the whole Thai sex scene into prominence. Hospitals and clinics are now barred from castrating would be “ladyboys” – “katoeys” to give them their Thai name. It was feared that the operation was being seen as a cheap and quick alternative to a full sex-change.
In letters to private health units doctors have been told that such operations performed outside formal sex-change therapy, would result in up to six months in jail. Policing this ban may be difficult as cosmetic removal of the testicles takes no longer than 15-20 minutes surgery, and is easy to conduct in secret. At the lower end of the market, Internet advertisements offer castration at clinics for as little as 4,000 baht ($125, £62.50).
Katoeys are a familiar sight in Thailand where the Buddhist faith of 95% of the population means that this transgender way of life is tolerated. That does not mean that the katoeys are never victims of attacks, or that their families accept them wholeheartedly. It means only that the tolerance for which the nation is well known extends to everyone, including katoeys.
Buddhism and Ladyboys (Katoeys)
For some devout Buddhists, the fact that some people want to change gender, may mean only that the person transgressed in a past life and they are now expiating their sins. Hence they are due pity rather than blame, acceptance rather than dismissal from normal social intercourse. For others, being a katoey is merely another way to earn a living and is an acceptable life style.
The term generally refers to a male to female transgender and the name is thought to be of Khmer origin. Most katoeys dress as women and, to help the changeover, undergo surgical procedures such as genital reassignment, Adam’s apple reductions and breast implants. Frequently they are indistinguishable from women and many are the tales told of the unsuspecting westerner who hooks up with one of these katoeys in the mistaken belief that their companion is female.
Thailand’s Ladyboy (Katoey) Scene
It may seem to some as though Thailand has more than its fair share of ladyboys, but that is not so. India and the Philippines have a flourishing ladyboy scene (they are called Billyboys in the Philippines), but Thailand is the most open society in Asia, and with its ready acceptance of all ways of life, sexual lifestyles that do not conform to the norm are not hidden from view as in other countries.
Found mostly in the entertainment field, katoeys are attracted to cabarets and bar shows, beauty salons, and the fashion trade. They are usually extremely glamorous and wear stunning outfits and many Thai singers and movie stars are katoeys. Bangkok and Phuket have many clubs featuring only ladyboys and in Pattaya they are the star attraction at Alcazar Nightclub and Tiffany’s Club.
The photograph that head this article is of one, Nong Thoom, a very successful professional Thai Boxer who underwent gender reassignment. Subsequently, A film was made of his life called “Beautiful Boxer”.
Discrimination against Ladyboys (Katoeys)
Legal recognition however, is non-existent, After the operation they are not allowed to change their sex legally. This leads to discrimination in access to amenities. For those who break the law, prison becomes twice as difficult, as due to their birth status being unchanged, they are always sent to an all-male prison.
A sign of the times may be that Chiang Mai Technology College has allocated separate toilets for the use of their katoey students. They are required to wear male dress but are allowed feminine hairdos.