Thursday, 4 September 2008
In Touch With My Feminine Side
The Bangkok Post of 25 August has a short photo feature with the headline, ‘In a class of their own’.
The picture shows teenage boys in school uniform checking their make-up in mirrors in the special transgender toilet that has been built for them in their school. One of them in bright lipstick shows off a limp wrist and gaudy rings on his fingers,on the wall behind him the familiar gender symbol, this time half skirted and half male.
The school is not far to the east of us in Si Saket province and is in a typical rural area. One might associate such openness with the cities but it seems it’s not uncommon anywhere in Thailand.
The Thais seem quite readily to accept that a man can be born into the wrong body and so readily tolerate male transvestites. Ladyboys or katoeys as they’re called can thus be seen everywhere. They work as waitresses and entertainers and in a narrow range of service occupations and nobody gives them another glance. An obvious role is as air hostesses but so far I don’t think they’ve made it that high.
Sadly while tolerated they’re also seen as figures of fun. As camp as can be, they often play the jester. Their role is to be ridiculous, to make everybody laugh and this way they gain acceptance.
In stark contrast, there’s a further strand of opinion here that homosexuality is an illness, a disorder and that sufferers need treatment. A formal survey of public opinion quoted in my book, MY THAI GIRL AND I, concludes that ‘mental disorder is the cause of homosexuality’.
This view is strongly opposed to tolerance of transsexuals and I wonder if it could be derived from the Chinese element in urban society. Bangkok for instance is substantially a city of Chinese immigrants and their stricter views are likely to remain strong among the urban middle classes.
If there’s money to be made though, anything goes and gender reassignment is a major industry in Bangkok and is freely advertised. For example on the front page of the Bangkok Post of 23 August is a price list for a polyclinic in Bangkok offering ‘sex change’ for US$1,625, as well as breast enlargement and liposuction. “Foreigners are charged the same as Thais.”
There has been some controversy though recently about clinics that have been accused of castrating minors which apparently is contrary to the law. Elective surgery of this sort certainly needs strong regulation.
So how convincing is the handiwork of the gender reassignment clinics?
By world standards it’s remarkably good, though many a Thai male in a short skirt sticks out like a sore something or other. A chunky man can never be the ideal of feminine beauty and even waif-like Thai boys who cross the divide often give themselves away. The ratio of hip to shoulders is usually wrong, the feet and hands are too big and of course there’s the voice. When they open their mouths, immediately the game is up, whatever game that might have been.
When paying for breast enlargement, as big ones cost the same, they often go for value for money, so these too are often wildly overstated.
Following a slim and pretty girl along the Bangkok soi you can also tell by her exaggerated sexy wiggle or by her simpering affectation that not all is what it seems.
Many katoeys pay for their operations in the obvious way and despite these clues many a western male is deceived by the darkly flashing eyes and the slim figure on the Sukhumvit sidewalk. Such farce is the stuff of urban legend, though some punters don’t find it a problem. There is nothing in the world, nothing you can name that is anything like a shemale.
All of which brings me swiftly back to the transgender toilet in the local school.
In our village it’s very much the same and boys are quite open about being in touch with their feminine side. An attractive young woman who was at school with Cat came round to see us recently. When at school she was a boy. She played with the girls and was more interested in feminine things and, says Cat, had a pretty tough time of it. Now she’s convincingly feminine, poised and dignified and I wish her every happiness.
There are no transgender toilets in our school but there are some very feminine boys around. Sometimes little boys dress up as girls for the school performance, which probably means very little. At a school down the road though, mid-teenage boys of that bent were allowed to dress up as women in lavish and garish costumes and to join the school parade. One of them showed me his pictures. ‘I’m beautiful, aren’t I,’ he said to me proudly.
Thailand is non-judgmental and tolerates ugly farang and gender benders equally. This is a melting pot where nothing is what it seems, where everything is changeable and unsatisfactory. I’ve even seen a monk in a remote forest wat carefully applying his eye liner.
Life for ordinary people can be tough at the best of times and I can think of no greater confusion for a young person than this one. While Thailand may seem a paradise for those who wish to discard their allotted sex, it must be a difficult road indeed. Sex change is costly and agonizing in every respect.
Anguished and tormented, these boys are on the outside and as everywhere are discriminated against. They are ridiculous, tainted and only a few I think will enjoy anything like a normal life.
Thailand can be amazing but it’s the sheer numbers of ladyboys that still surprises me.