Ladyboys, known as “katoey” in the Thai language, remain a deep fascination for those who travel to Thailand, which is seen by many tourists as a country totally devoid of homophobia. However, in Chiang Mai recently, a popular late night dance club posted signs which said, “No Ladyboys”. Rumors of different gangs of Ladyboys in Bangkok and Pattaya attacking foreigners and robbing them has created a new fear in recent years, along with a wary attitude towards what is often referred to in Thailand, as the “third gender”.
Undoubtedly, there have been occasional groups of people, who happen to be Ladyboys, who have committed illegal acts and are guilty as charged. Thailand also has seen its fair share of crime acted out by all genders and different elements of society, yet there seems to be a definite distinction when the perpetrator or accused is described as a Ladyboy, implying some inherent correlation between Ladyboys and violence.
Ladyboys are seen throughout the Kingdom in virtually all aspects of the workplace, in small rural villages and urban areas alike. Some are employed in restaurants, while others own their own cafes. Ladyboys work in shops, banks, spas, in the market and just about every sector of society. Some are teachers while others are students. Some non-government schools have even recently built a third toilet facility with a sign outside the door labeled as “Third Gender”.
But the question remains as to whether or not homophobia exists in the Land of Smiles. Many Thai people consider acceptance of Ladyboys quite different to accepting homosexuality. When asked, “Is your friend gay?”, they will often say, “No, he is a Ladyboy,” implying a difference, whether that friend exclusively dates men or not. Descriptions of Ladyboy friends, as well, often include giggles and remarks that are refrained from when describing straight friends. Jokes that might be deemed as offensive are also saved for a time when the person being spoken about is out of the room.
Not unlike some western societies, many parents of Ladyboys in Thailand feel a great sense of disappointment and shame but the topic may never be addressed verbally.
In 2009, the Gay Pride parade in Chiang Mai was blocked by the so-called Red Shirt protesters, declaring it did not represent Northern culture, essentially denouncing any reference to the acceptance of homosexuality. And yet gay men who do not ‘act’ like Ladyboys are often hired to work in government positions.
Ladyboys who are out in the Thai nightlife may have the most freedom of all as they are often seen as show girls and expected to be over the top. But one has to wonder if the need for being truly accepted is greater than the desire for attention. If Thailand truly accepted heterosexuals and homosexuals equally, would there be such a distinction between the two? If people were really comfortable with gender differences would there be a need to constantly announce that so and so is a Ladyboy? After all, how often do people introduce heterosexuals as a friend who is straight?
When compared to other parts of the world, Thailand is in many ways, far more tolerant in terms of the bigotry and discrimination gays and lesbians face on a day to day basis in other countries. Nonetheless, it is important to question whether or not people are truly free to be themselves, without the same protection as heterosexuals of a given society.
Though many gay westerners find Thailand to be a land of sanctity, local human rights groups still find themselves working towards equality under Thai law. Although Ladyboys are quite visible in pop culture and in everyday mainstream life, open discussion of homosexuality remains virtually nonexistent.
Thailand is indeed a country of great open-mindedness with regards to human sexuality, but until the government recognizes all of its citizens’ rights, under the law, it will never be as free and progressive as some visitors are led to believe. At the same time, maybe the mere acceptance of Ladyboys is the first step in conquering discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Degrees of homophobia exist, on different levels, all over the globe, including Thailand. Perhaps the Land of Smiles will one day also become known as the Land of Equality for All Genders, and it might be the katoeys that pave the way.