"Perhaps the sexes are more related than we think, and the great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in this, that man and maid, freed of all false feelings and reluctances, will seek each other not as opposites, but as brother and sister, as neighbors, and will come together as human beings, in order simply, seriously and patiently to bear in common the difficult sex that has been laid upon them." --Rainer Maria Rilke
I thought I'd tell you all about an interesting bunch of people: the kathoey. (I'm not sure how to pronounce "kathoey;" based on alternative spellings, I'm guessing "kah-TOH-wee.")
A kathoey is a male-to-female transsexual in Thailand, who starts out as a feminine boy and is raised as a girl. Though Thailand is far from the transgender paradise Americans think it is, it's still more tolerant of gender variance than many other countries.
In Thailand, gentleness and mildness, sentimentality and weakness, excitability, emotionality and a tendency to worry are all very stereotypically feminine traits. If a boy has these traits, especially if they are combined with a preference for playing with girls and a love of girls' toys, people around him are going to decide that he is actually a girl, and he will be raised accordingly. Such a boy is called a kathoey. As she gets older (from this point on I will use feminine pronouns), she will meet other kathoey who validate this for her, just by their example. Older kathoey will teach her how to be a kathoey. 71% of kathoey report that they have felt different from other boys since before age 10, 42% felt they had the mind of a girl or kathoey, and 35% thought of themselves as being girls or kathoey. (The rest, I'm sure, are effeminate gay men who are put into the "kathoey" category by Thai society; more on this later.) By age 14, 50% use feminine pronouns and speech markers for themselves. When they grow up, 46% think of themselves as women, while 47% think of themselves as a third sex. 70% would prefer to have been born genetically female, but 19% prefer being kathoey. (The rest have no preference between the two.) The majority (91%) are attracted exclusively to men; most of the rest are bisexual, and there aren't that many lesbian kathoey. A female-to-male equivalent exists, but this group is less well-known than kathoey in Thai society.
By contrast, the same "boy" in most cultures is thought of as a feminine boy who needs to toughen up a bit and learn to fit in as a boy. "He" is not thought of as a girl with the wrong body, but as a boy with the wrong mental attitude. For a firsthand account of what that's like, read my page The Early Years. In Thailand, I would simply have become a kathoey.
However, American law forbids this. Aurora Lipscomb, a 6-year-old girl in Ohio, was taken away from her "unfit" parents because they let their biologically male child be a girl like she wanted and even tried to enroll her in school as a girl. She has insisted, from the age of two, that she is a girl, not just a boy who likes to wear dresses and play with dolls, and has even renamed herself after the princess in Sleeping Beauty. (She had been named Zachary at birth.) In Thailand, she would have simply become a kathoey.
Thailand has more people who are openly transgendered than anywhere else in the world. Western observers have estimated that 0.6% of all genetic males in Thailand are kathoey. However, I would say that this is an underestimate, because people find it more difficult to tell what gender a person of a different race is, and because some kathoey are born looking more feminine than others and thus may pass more easily. Informal estimates go as high as 1%; there's a university in Thailand with a sorority for kathoey that accounts for 1 in 80 genetically male students. Children and adults can identify at least one kathoey in every school or village, and in cities, people meet them everywhere. Some people think of kathoey as women, while others think of them as a third sex.
Unlike Western transsexuals, kathoey make no attempt to hide who and what they are, because they are accepted more than they would be in any other country in the world. The high numbers of kathoey and the high profile of some of them makes the idea of becoming a kathoey more acceptable. 50% of kathoey believe that they became kathoey because of influence of friends. Once they become teenagers, they start taking hormones, which they can get without any kind of prescription, and they present as entirely female in every way--clothes, hair, speech, gestures, you name it. When someone can tell that someone else is a kathoey, it's because of minor things like big hands, broad shoulders, or, ironically, an exaggerated feminine manner. Sex reassignment surgery is widely available to those who can afford it; 22% of kathoey have had it (some were as young as 15 at the time!), while 65% plan to. The surgery does not carry the problems it does among Western transsexuals, which suggests that the problems of Western transsexuals stem from their society's non-acceptance of them. Only 5% of kathoey surveyed described themselves as lacking confidence or low in self-esteem, 7% as depressed, and 28% as anxious.
According to a survey, 40% of kathoey believe that Thai society accepts or encourages them, 27% believe that it merely tolerates them, and 15% believe it rejects them. It's even better in families; 40% of kathoey believe that their fathers were accepting when they found out they were kathoey, and 66% said their mothers were. 30% cite parental influence as part of the reason they became kathoey, and another 30% cite sibling influence. If we had such high rates of acceptance in the West, I'd have become a kathoey long ago.
Thai culture is also much more accepting of homosexuality. It's considered all right for two men to have sex and even get married, but disclosing homosexuality is much less accepted. Basically, it's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." And if a man is attracted exclusively to the passive role in sex with other men, he is seen as forfeiting his right to be male and is thus put into the group of kathoey. The term is actually pretty nebulous, like "transgender" (the meaning of which can vary depending on who's speaking). Sex between a man and a kathoey is considered heterosexual by both partners, and by society in general. At least part of the reason for the acceptance of homosexuality and transsexuality is because maleness is defined by what a genetic male does with his anatomy. In Western culture, a man who has sex with a male-to-female transsexual is still considered homosexual; this, combined with our culture's intolerance toward homosexuality, leads to many murders of male-to-female transsexuals--even in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area, as we see through the case of Gwen Araujo. Even after her death, the media referred to her as a boy named Eddie, which is considered very offensive among transsexuals; this is significant in a culture that believes in honoring the wishes of the deceased.
Kathoey in cities are often stall holders, shop assistants, tour guides, hairdressers, beauticians and performers in shows for tourists. They are somewhat marginalized in society, but their rights are improving as women's rights improve. At this point, the status of women is higher in Thailand than in any other Asian country. As womanhood is less strongly linked to motherhood, and as divorce rates rise, more and more women go out and work full-time. Without having to spend all that time and money that raising children requires (kathoey cannot legally adopt children), kathoey can do very well in the business world.
I realize I've painted a really good picture of the situation in Thailand. However, it's far from perfect. How much a kathoey is accepted depends on her personality. Some--quite a few, actually--are mistreated at school, at home, or on the streets as children. So it's quite likely that I would have been no more accepted there than here. Also, there's lots of job discrimination; many kathoey complain that they have to be better than any of the competition just to get a job interview (this was before the economic collapse--now everyone has to be better than the competition just to get an interview!), which means many are poor. And while they're very widely accepted socially, they aren't recognized legally at all; kathoey are considered male under Thai law. Thus, they are forced to wear male clothing when they go to college (though they can wear feminine hairdos), and their passports label them male, which gives them problems when traveling abroad. (However, this is starting to change as kathoey demand their rights.) In addition, many never get into long-term relationships, no matter how much they may wish to; men prefer "real women" and women prefer "real men," so, like their American counterparts, kathoey are trapped between worlds in terms of relationships. Perhaps this is one reason they are seen as a third gender. Many men will have one-night stands with kathoey, but like most Thai women (and many Western women as well), most kathoey are not as interested in sex as they are in romantic love. The life of a kathoey is difficult; some try very hard to be boys until they see how much more they enjoy being one of the girls than trying to be male (their experience is similar to mine). It's a bit like being gay in Western culture. Because they are not completely accepted into mainstream society, some kathoey decide to live as men, one reason being to improve their chances for getting a job. 6% of kathoey anticipate that they will be living as men when they reach the age of 50. Still, that's a much better rate than Western culture, which makes it so hard for a genetic male to live as a woman that the majority of women in men's bodies don't bother with transitioning.
Social scientists who study kathoey are hesitant to say whether the Thai system or the Western system is better. At first, I thought the Thai system, for all its problems, was much better than the Western system; after all, if our system is so much better, why are there so many people who become transsexuals later in life? However, since most kathoey are stuck with the choice between living in poverty and living as men, I'm finding it harder to see why the Thai system is so much better. One could also ask why, if their system is so much better, so many kathoey decide to live as men.
Thailand isn't the only country that does this. Samoa has a similar group of people, called fa'afafine. In rural Albania, someone who is biologically female can live as a man by swearing to remain a virgin, thus becoming a Sworn Virgin.
It seems that things are starting to change in some Western countries. Check out this site about kids in the Netherlands. This site shows seven "boys" who are allowed to become girls before they start puberty, and they get to take hormones so that their bodies will develop the way those of teenage girls do. Also check out this page about 13-year-old Nicole Roukema, born Niels Roukema. ('Volkskrant' magazine article "Wrong Body" by Ellen de Visser, September 13, 2003)
This is a 12-year-old Dutch girl named Valentin who is biologically male and was named Willem at birth.
In a landmark ruling in Germany, a 14 year old transgendered teen named Johanna has been given permission to receive hormone therapy to begin her physical transition from boy to girl. (Women's Own magazine, June 14, 2004.)
Even in the United States, some parents of transgendered children are allowing them to unofficially live as their desired gender, as shown by some of the articles on my main page.
Perhaps Thailand's present is a glimpse into our future?
This information comes from Transgender Asia. For a different perspective, try this page. For some pictures of kathoey, visit this site. Don't worry, it's not pornographic like some kathoey sites are.
I also recommend Male Bodies, Women's Souls: Personal Narratives of Thailand's Transgendered Youth by Leeray M. Costa and Andrew J. Matzner.