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The Thai concept of katoey however is hardly understood in the West.
Commonly used terms such as ladyboy, shemale, transsexual are often not preferred by katoey or by insiders since they are often associated with sex, eventhough they perfectly describe the hybrid nature of the phet ti saam (third gender).
In moden psychology the term gender identity disorder is used, which sounds even more stigmatizing.
Wanting to stay half-way i.e. remaining pre-operative seems to be largely incompatible with the Christian moral on which Western society is based. In most cultures liminality or hybrid has traditionally been put in a negative context. One is expected to adapt to one gender role exclusively, which nowadays includes the possibility of a full gender change for those absolutely sure that they are born in a wrong body.
According to people of the katoey community a full gender change operation can lead to emotional and sanity problems in the long run.
People who choose to opt out on full surgery are easily referred to as human freaks or seen as sexually obsessed and form an exception in the rest world.
The idea that one could be able to like a woman who turns out to have male genitals seems to be a frightening idea for many men. Transphobia, similar to homophobia, is an uneducated attitude towards gender versus sexual identity, usually a fear of the unknown, incuding one's own identity.
There's little historical information about katoey, so there's very little solid evidence to explain the relitively high popularity and social acceptance of transgender people in Thailand.
Reseachers Peter Jackson and Rosalind C. Morris have extensively investigated the Thai katoey phenomenon; below I prefer to just give my view based on what I know rather than pretentiously trying to build a solid case.
In contrast to Christian, Jewish and Muslim religions, Buddhist teachings clearly state that there is no objection to the third gender lifestyle, saying it's the result of a bad love life in a previous body, which means that for the last 2500 years or so, there is an awareness that someone is destined to adopt a certain gender role in life, regardless of their physical luggage.
Still, this doesn't explain why in Thailand the popularity of transgender and transvestite lifestyles is much more common and visible than in surrounding Buddhist countries.
In Thai language the only distinction to refer to someone as male or female is his or her use of the Thai male and female politeness form when ending sentences ie. using the male form 'Krap' or the female form 'Kha'.
As a courtesy males who are using the female politeness form 'Kha' are generally being referred to as 'she' and 'her' regardless of their appearance and gender. Reversely part of Thai lesbians, tom-boys and transgenders will use the male form 'Krap' and are often being referred to as 'he' and 'his'.
Traditionally in Thaland the gender role gap for male has been small, Western writers and diplomats have been pointing this out centuries ago. It was against the moral of Western visitors and expatriates that there was so little taboo on Thai males behaving feminine.
This can perhaps best be compared with the tolerant Western attitude towards female who to behave masculin. Although it might perhaps upset conservative Muslim, few Westerners will be troubled to see a woman behave and dress like a man, this in sharp contrast to the opposite.
In old Thailand and surrounding countries women were not allowed to act or to entertain in public, instead effeminate men dressed up and played the female role in theatres, even the royal palace had ladyboys for entertaiment. Young men joined travelling entertainment shows where they dressed up as women. A part of the income was brought back home. Especially in poorer families there was little hesitation to accept this lifestyle. In some families young boys were encouraged if they act like girls. It formed hope for the parents that their son would be able to support them when they were older. Less acceptance exists in families who are better off. Fathers can be hesitant to accept the fact that their son chooses to look like a woman. In general the higher in the the social ladder the more difficult it turns out to be for parents, the husband in partical, to accept their son's new lifstyle.
Due to the old custom together with the Buddhist concept of destiny there is less taboo, especially in the lower income group, on boys to behave feminine or desire to become a woman as opposed to the western concept of a gay lifestyle, keeping the same gender appearence, a thing which can be hidden more easy.
There's an increasing amount of men who choose a gay lifestyle more in accordance with the Western example, but this a recent development.
In Thailand the katoey tradition still continues, partly as a way out of poverty to perform either as a professional dancer or offering sexual services. These ladyboys can be found in tourist centers like in Bangkok, Pattaya, Patong and Koh Samui. The compettition is fierce, a small minority of katoey form gangs and engage in criminal activities. Their negative press works counterproductive towards an unbiased view of the third gender by outsiders.
A majority of katoey have regular jobs. This can be anything from store or factory employee to designer, dancer and media-personality. Convincing and/or higher educated katoey are more likely to be found in the higher salary job-segment. Foreigners will often not be aware, since many companies require a male dress code.
The attitude of the Thai government is somewhat ambivalent: Transgenders are prohibited from becoming civil servants nor are official identity change or same-sex marriages allowed.
There's a general awareness that the upper class or so-called hi-so people do see katoey as low class citizens, but hi-so account only for around 5% of Thai.
The katoey phenomenon seems to be not yet compatible with the self-image of a thriving Asian nation.
For cultures with a monotheistic dogmatic background it's hard to understand that taboos about what once was regarded as averse role playing and sexual behaviour has hardly been a matter of ethics and concern in other societies. The old Greek, Romans and Japanese Samurai had little scruples towards intimate encounters of the same gender.
A more recent example can be found in isolated Bhutan where researchers found that bi and homosexuality have never been a real issue. In case someone is bi-sexual or gay, people in the area will probably be remotely aware, yet someone's sexual orientation is simply not a topic of concern. Drukpa (Buthan's official language) lacks a commonly accepted term for gay/bi oriented people. Although still forbidden by an old law inherited for British-India there's no record of people ever being charged.
Acceptance of 'two-spirit' people can also be found among certain native American tribes.
In Thailand, awareness of any taboo has mainly been imposed by the Western world, but had little effect compared to formely colonised neighbouring countries where katoey and gay behaviour was suppressed by law.
In these countries the custom slowly dissapeared from the daylight, but in Thailand, for a big part in the poorest area Isan it still survived. In Isan I've seen young boys from age four who liked to behave feminine and regularely were encouraged by their mother and neighbours to do so. Reportedly some foreign-Thai couples living in Isan have a son who has become a katoey or is in the process of becoming one.
Thai boys in their teens who concider a change to katoey lifestyle are often encouraged by other katoey. There's a strong sense of a community spirit and katoey are likely to help eachother out in case of problems. The Transfemale Association of Thailand with 2000 members advocates equal rights for male to female transgenders.
In 2011 the group has won a courtcase whereby they were able to stop the army rejecting katoey with feminine features due to mental illness as opposed to unfit. Formely the stigma resulted in being rejected to apply in the higher job segment as well as failing to get reimbursed by insurance companies. Although I have not been able to check the severity of the last issue and whether it has been solved, the Thai army now rejects katoey for symbolic minor physical defects such as a large chest or having a problem with one of the little toes.
Most katoey do not consider themselves gay, they desire to act and function like a woman throughout their life nor do they wish their partner to be sexually interested in the same sex. Katoey or pet ti saam is used as self reference.
A common misconception is that all katoey dress up. A large part of katoey hardly ever dress like a woman, either this was/is not tolerated by family and/or work or is not preferred by the person in question. These people will only distinguish themselves only by their male or female use of the Thai language.
A small percentage of male partners of katoey will consider themselves gay or had gay affairs, for the major part male friends are interested in women and katoey or katoey exclusively.
Apart from men, a small group of (western) lesbians seem keen on starting an affair with a katoey person.
A class system in the katoey community exists to rate eachother, obviously part of Thai katoey oppose in making such a distinction:
Class A: Beautiful and no obvious difference from women.
Class B: Beautiful but noticeable difference from women.
Class C: Not beautiful, but no obvious difference from women.
Class D: Not beautiful, highly obvious differences from women.
Thai katoey will usually agree with the expression: "I may have been born in the wrong body – but at least I was born in the right country."
Note: The author happily lives with a katoey for over 2.5 years and as such has met many katoey people from around Thailand. Since my partner's length (1.80m) is not a usual sight amongst foreign/Thai couples, on the streets we are used to get curious looks mostly from tourists. I often hear the wannabe Thai experts wisper: "That's a ladyboy..". Our relationship helps us to meet nice people, since bigots usually stay away. One time a German expat who liked to see things in black and white, told me he considered my partner crazy. After I told him I loved her, he concluded that I had to be crazy too. Coming from him it seemed like such a big compliment.
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