Gender is the most fundamental part of one’s identity as a human being. The very first question everyone asks about us is “Is it a boy or a girl?”
Important though it is, most people never think much about gender. They have no idea what causes their sense of being a boy or a girl, a man or a woman. Having never suffered mis-gendering, they take their gender for granted like the air that they breathe, never giving it a second thought.
But some apparently normal boys aren’t boys at all! They feel they should have been girls. Although they have normal XY genes, normal male genitalia, and are raised as boys, they nevertheless have the gender feelings, body feelings and gender identity of girls.
Perhaps once in every 200 to 400 births something must go amiss in the early stages of pregnancy so that sex hormones do not have the usual action on the integration of the fetus’s brain. In these cases, children are born having a brain-sex (neurological sex) and innate gender identity opposite to that indicated both by their genes and their genitalia.
Since these infants look normal, they will be raised in the wrong gender for their brain-sex (neurological sex). Being raised in the wrong gender causes them profound gender dysphoria or disequilibrium and mental anguish as they grow up. In many more cases, perhaps as many as one out of every 50 children, it appears that the “transgendering effect” is less pronounced but still present to some degree – and this occurs in both boys and girls.
Many of these transgender children will have major adjustment problems if forced into too strict a gender role. In the west there is no social script for such a boy to tell someone “I feel like I’m a girl”, and to get active assistance with their gender problem. Instead, transgender youngsters often pick up the idea from parents and school-mates that they are “going to be gay men”. Some may later even try to “become gay” and be accepted in the gay male community but gay men seek men as partners, not people whose gender identity is female. The last thing in the world that an MtF youngster could ever become is a gay male who is into his masculinity and his male parts even more than the average guy.
This is not always the case where Thai ladyboys are concerned however.
Many other transgender youngsters will secretly find ways to cross-dress in girls’ and women’s clothes as a way of exploring and enjoying their feminine gender feelings, often starting to do this well before puberty. The denial of opportunities for openly expressing their gender longings and the need to maintain complete secrecy about their crossdressing are often the source of tremendous angst, anxiety and depression among these kids.
A few MtF transgender and transsexual teenagers will try to appear openly as pretty girls, and may attract straight boys as love partners (i.e., boys who will love them as girls). This is generally the case in Thailand. However, many transgender youngsters in the west will become so ashamed and humiliated by their female tendencies that they will hide their “terrible secret longings” from everyone, sometimes even from themselves, for a long, long time.
On spending a week or so in Thailand a transgender person who may have suffered as a result of her gender dysphoria is likely to feel at once delighted and profoundly jealous of the large numbers of openly feminised and feminine native transgender people she sees around her often arm in arm with straight, western men.
Young, genetic Thai men are not constrained by their gender in the same way that westerners are forced to ‘act out’ gender roles. High school students are often tactile and affectionate with each other and sometimes sexual without being judged or branded ‘gay’.
It is generally accepted by adults however, that this is only a phase from which they will move on into a more normative role. Great importance is placed upon the family in Thailand and a man’s role of providing himself and his parents with children who will grow to take care of their family as they in turn grow older. The failure to provide children and an ongoing source of income ( how some people view children) or fulfill the male role of provider is possibly a greater source of the anxiety and guilt experienced by ladyboys than their actual transition from male to female.
Superficially, ladyboys are accepted in Thailand and yet this is not an entirely accurate picture. The Thai government does not allow changes of gender to inform any important documentation like passports or the identity cards carried by all Thai nationals. Nor does it allow same sex marriage.
When young, many ladyboys dream of being beautiful and fulfilling their desire to be ‘completely female’ but relatively speaking few actually opt for full, surgical gender reassignment. This is due in part because of the cost, which although cheaper in Thailand than the west, is still prohibitive for most poor Thais.
That’s not the whole picture though and many ladyboys actively choose to ‘hang on’ to their male genitalia. For a fairly large minority this is because of the money they can earn as prostitutes favoured by men who are drawn to ‘chicks with dicks’.
A lot of ladyboys simply do not want to risk such major surgery which could result in their inability to experience orgasm or they are simply comfortable with their uniquely gendered bodies.
Most ladyboys or kathoeys, to use the Thai word or sometimes the affectionate ‘thoey’ are perfectly happy to have breast implants and other more minor feminising surgery; to be beautiful and feminine, as indeed they are.
Of course there are several famous ladyboys who have opted for full sex reassignment surgery.
Nok Yollada appeared in the first series of Sky Living’s, ‘Ladyboys’ along with Annie and I and spoke eloquently about her feelings of being trapped in the wrong body prior to SRS; ‘My mind is right, my body is wrong’.
Nok, a former member of the all ladyboy pop group, Venus Flytrap is now the owner of a well known Thai shopping channel as well as being successfully elected to parliament.
In contrast to Nok and many others like her, some Thai ladyboys do not want sex reassignment surgery.
Annie puts it this way, ‘ When I was very young, like all kathoey noi (young ladyboys) I dreamed of being a real woman; a princess, and being loved as a woman.
When I grew up a little bit I felt more comfortable with myself and happy to be a kathoey; a special person. Not a man, not a woman but a Ladyboy; a member of the third gender. I am happy with my body and don’t want to lose that essential part of myself.
In my view, transgender people are unique, beautiful and interesting people in their own right, not an alternate woman, a feminine man or any kind of variant of male or female but a true, third sex.
In fact it is said that if a woman you see in Thailand is breathtakingly beautiful, she probably isn’t!