By Jirada Phetlam.
Edited by Jessica Sutton.
Disclaimer from the author: this article is discussing what I have researched and observed as a cisgender Thai woman. I wish to acknowledge that I cannot speak to the experience of individual transgender women in Thailand.
In August this year, a Thai transgender woman, or ‘Kathoey’ in Thai, named June, applied for a job at SSUP Beauty and Wellness, a giant corporate behind famous local brands such as Oriental Beauty or Cutepress. Just like anybody else who worked in the tourism industry prior, she lost her job due to the COVID-19 situation. She came across the job posting as a salesperson for the beauty company, and thought it was perfect for her. She had a solid 7 years of work experience, a degree in communication, and an interest in beauty and makeup. She got her resume ready and told herself that she was willing to accept a monthly salary as low as 10,000 Baht ($485 NZD) “as long as I can survive”. However, as she submitted her application, she got an immediate response: ‘Sorry, we only accept women.’ “It felt like I got slapped,” she said when she shared her experience. “I felt so hurt I started to cry. It makes me question if I’m ‘woman enough’ for this kind of work.”
Unfortunately, June’s experience is not uncommon in Thailand. The world sees the Land of Smiles as a paradise for LGBT+ people; the country offers all sorts of cabaret shows, LGBT+ bars, Miss Tiffany’s Universe (a famous beauty contest for transgender women), LGBT+ films, TV series, novels, and more. However, in reality, the magical kingdom isn’t what it seems to be. In this article, I will discuss the landscape for LGBT+ people, particularly transgender women (Kathoey) in Thailand, the impact of stereotyped media representation, and the discrimination they experience.
What does Kathoey mean?
Simply put, Kathoey is a male-to-female transgender person. The term is also associated, and often used interchangeably, with the other Thai transgender term ‘Toot,’ although with some nuances. Since there is no direct translation or English equivalence, this article will consider Toot and Kathoeys as the same category since they both signify transgender women.
It should be noted that although some Kathoeys identify themselves as women and may go through gender affirming surgery, not all Kathoey identify directly as women. In many cases, Kathoeys prefer, proudly, to identify as trans, and therefore unique from cisgender women. The terms phet thi sam (‘third sex’) and phu ying praphet song (‘second-type female’) are also often used in Thailand to describe Kathoeys.
Kathoeys experience more acceptance in Thailand than other countries. According to the National Institute of Development Administration survey in 2019, more than 90% of people were comfortable with their friends and colleagues being trans. The high level of tolerance also comes with a level of media visibility. For the past three decades, Kathoeys began to gain a prominent presence in the media. Today, famous Kathoeys such as Poyd Treechada, Mo Jiratchaya, Jennie Panhan, and Rusamee Kae, are among familiar icons on screen.
Is thailand a haven for LGBT+ people?
The high level of tolerance and visibility for transgender people in the Land of Smiles is perhaps a distant dream for the rest of the world. However, there is a great contrast between how Thailand is perceived globally and the actual acceptance of LGBT+ people within Thailand itself. There are still persistent experiences of social and legal impediments, along with particular discrimination against Kathoeys. According to the report Being LGBT in Asia: Thailand Country Report by UNDP and USAID, Thai society tolerates LGBT+ individuals, as long as they remain within certain social confines. Arguably, the most important struggle for Kathoeys is family acceptance. Fulfilling the wishes of one’s parents and upholding the family reputation is the most fundamental principle in Thai culture. These expectations are difficult for someone whose gender identity does not fit into social norms. Additionally, the legal recognition for LGBT+ people is non-existent in the country, along with problems of discrimination in the workplace and other spheres of life, which will be discussed later in this article.
The problem with Kathoeys’ representation in the media
The discrimination and other struggles that Kathoeys are experiencing can be traced back to various origins, such as political ideology from the past military junta, or Theravada Buddhism’s belief that Kathoeys were “lower level spirits” (phi-sang-thewada) in their past lives, or that being a Kathoey is caused by their sins in their past lives. However, one of the most persistent and problematic issues that perpetuates discrimination against Kathoeys is the limited, stereotyped representation in the media.
The one-sided portrayal of Kathoeys is based on common stereotypes; Kathoeys have to be grossly comical, fierce, fabulous, extremely emotional, openly sexual, a great dancer, and a lover of makeup. In TV shows and in movies, Kathoey characters are usually added to spice up the scene or to be the object of ridicule for the audience. Additionally, the mass media also heavily emphasizes Kathoeys’ appearances, which are either conventionally beautiful and very feminine (in order to impress the audience since Thai people deem Kathoeys as a ‘second-type woman’), or ridiculously ugly (in order to function as an object of ridicule and comedy). Due to these stereotypes, people often have a skewed view of Kathoeys, prioritising their appearance and stereotypical personality traits rather than their complex identity as a person.
Due to this one-sided representation, Kathoeys are pressured to behave in a certain way to be accepted as Kathoeys. As the famous Thai phrase goes: ‘Kathoey is a lifestyle, not a gender.’’ The repeated stereotypical representation ends up dehumanizing them in Thai culture, since it ignores other dimensions of their identity. Rather than seeing Kathoeys as complex people with different talents, career goals and unique personalities, people automatically see Kathoeys as characters with scripted behaviour as seen in the media.
“It’s a character that society forces us to perform. People say they love Kathoeys because they are funny and sassy, but they refuse to believe that there are Kathoeys with other personalities. For us, we know that being funny is the only dimension that we know society will accept, therefore, we try to act funny.”
“It feels terrible for us (Kathoeys) to be the clown of a group or just to spice up things for other people. We are equally capable and diverse in so many ways.”– Excerpt from an interview from a local magazine.
As a consequence of these problematic media representations, there is a public misunderstanding of LGBT+ people that causes discrimination, whether it is from family, education and media, or legal, government, economic and religious structures. One of the clearest examples is discrimination in employment. Despite the large population of Kathoeys in Thailand, it is very unlikely to find Kathoeys working in careers such as a lawyer, a teacher, a pilot, or a politician in the country. They usually only find work in the entertainment, beauty, or sex industry due to stereotypes precluding their employment elsewhere. Last year, Worawalun Taweekarn, a graduate of the Faculty of Education, Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University, and a second runner-up of Miss Tiffany’s Universe (a beauty contest for transgender women), was denied teaching positions because she is transgender. According to the local news channel Prachathai, once when she was being interviewed for a position, the interviewer said to her: “You’re the second runner-up Miss Tiffany. Why don’t you go and be a showgirl or work for a cosmetics brand? We’re a Christian school, so this might not be appropriate.”
These experiences shed light on a far larger issue in Thailand, which is lack of legal recognition for Kathoeys and LGBT+ people more generally. Thailand’s constitutions do not contain any specific laws or protections that refer to sexual orientation or the gender identity of a person. Kathoeys cannot change their gender on identity papers, cannot get legally married to date, and are not allowed to serve in the military due to what is classed as “Gender Identity Disorder.” Kathoeys are also prevented from accessing facilities for their gender, for example, Kathoeys must stay in all-male prisons.
Looking at the issues facing LGBT+ people within the country, and despite the fact that Thailand might appear to be doing better than other countries, the magical kingdom is far from a haven for LGBT+ persons. Thailand’s constitutions are deemed sacred and therefore are not subject to change easily. Problematic representation of Kathoeys still persists and the concurrent discrimination, which forces Kathoeys to struggle to be treated fairly and respected, are not going away anytime soon. However, this doesn’t mean that it has to stay this way. Luckily, newer generations have been discussing issues facing Kathoeys and other LGBT+ people, circulating them on their social media, and have set up many initiatives through organizations or media outlets such as Transgender Alliance -Thai TGA, Spectrum, The Matter, ThaiSameSexRight, and Sister Foundation towards improving LGBT+ rights in the country. Thanks to these powerful voices and actions, Thailand is slowly but surely on its way to becoming a real haven for people to be themselves without fear.
Image from Wikipedia Commons.