Thailand has the highest rate of Transsexuals throughout the world. According to some academics, the numbers differ from about 10,000 to (unofficially) 300,000. Even if the number of 10,000 is an accurate one, it would still represent an incidence substantially above that estimated for transgender people in most other parts of the world.
The terms ‘transsexual’ or ‘transgender’ are rarely used in Thailand. Instead, “Kathoey” is a common term. It was originally used for hermaphrodites (human being who have both sexes- male and female), but nowadays it is mainly used to describe the transgender male. Looking up the word “kathoey” in a Thai language dictionary, we get the following definition: ‘the characteristics of a kathoey is someone who cross-dresses (lakka-phet), a male who likes to act and dress like a woman and has a mind like a woman”. Ladyboys themselves favour the term, Ladyboy over kathoey, considering it a politer form of address. Interestingly they use the catch-all term to include males who behave in a feminine way that in the West would be described as ‘camp’ this regardless of whether the individual has undergone surgery or not, has long hair or not or wears make-up and female clothes or not.
The number of kathoey in Thailand is surprising to the American or European traveller and the reasons for their number may, at least in part, lay in religion and religious attitudes in Thailand.
The main religion in Thailand is Buddhism. About 95% of the population are Buddhists who follow the rules of this religion in their everyday life. Thai- Buddhism is called Theravada Buddhism and it is a localized form of Buddhism which has it’s origin in Indian Hinduism. The Thai form of Buddhism is not so much interested in the moral message of the Theravada as it is in auspiciousness, worldly continuity and the manipulation of saksit; supernatural or sacred power.
It is animistic and primitive and certainly pre-dates formal Buddhism. Animism encompasses the belief that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical (or material) world, and souls or spirits exist, not only in humans, but also in some other animals, trees, rocks, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment, including thunder, wind, and shadows.
Nang Tanee, the banana tree ghost, pictured below is sometimes depicted as a sexually voracious kathoey
According to practises in animistic folklore knowledge of a true name allows one to affect another person or being magically. It is stated that knowing someone’s, or something’s, true name therefore gives the person (who knows the true name) power over them. This explains a peculiarity of bullying amongst Thai children in the bully repeating the first name of the father or mother of another child. Thai children take this very seriously and can become very upset when this takes place.
Buddha and Ganesh images became seats of power because they are believed to carry a ‘tep’ or angel/spirit inside them and the practice of merit making has become a way ensuring prosperity and storing up ‘bhun’ or good kharma.
It is important to outline the beliefs of Thai-Buddhism to relate it to transsexuality in Thailand. Taking a look at he basic scriptural canon of Buddhism in consideration of the high number of kathoey, one already notices that it differs a lot from the Christian religion that denounces all kinds of non-normative gender behaviour.
In Buddhism, there are at least 3 genders, not only male and female, but also bhatobyanjuanaka or hermaphrodite. Two scriptures mention an original man, woman and kathoey. The appearance of these 3 genders in scriptures considered holy could explain the toleration of kathoey and gender ambiguity in Thailand.
Buddhism believes, that all doings of the individual have an influence on his Kharma. Kharma can be described as a form of spiritual bank account with entries representing one’s credits and debits that are the consequences of an individual’s actions. The aim of every Buddhist is to gain enough Kharmic credit, or bhun so he or she will reach Nirvana and be enlightened.
Buddhism believes in the system of reincarnation in which each individual is reborn many times (up to several hundred times), until he reaches the final state, the Nirvana. This concept of reincarnation and Kharma is adopted from Hinduism and has been newly reinterpreted by Buddhism. Another reason for the acceptance of kathoeys could be the fact, that there is a reason why people are born as kathoey. A person is re-born kathoey because they performed actions that violate sexual morals in their previous life (e.g. being a female prostitute or sexually abusing one’s children) or failed to fulfil an expected role in the reproductive process, such as a man not caring for a woman who is pregnant by him. Thai Buddhists believe that a person becoming kathoey is predetermined from birth and is the direct result of karmic debt or ‘gamm’ accumulated through misdeeds committed in a former life. Being born a kathoey is inevitable and is not a person’s fault, at least in the life into which they are presently born. Kathoeys are commonly believed to be the victims of karmic consequences, consequences that may befall all of us in other lives. It is very important to notice, that the common belief says that there is no escaping from the karmic consequences, and that everyone has been or will be kathoey. He should accept his fate since there are no further consequences arising from desire and actions that arise out of the state of being a kathoey. It might be acceptable for Buddhists to be born kathoey, because even Buddha must have been born as one at least once.
Homosexual activities are not considered sinful and do not affect a person’s kharmic account.
There exists a paradox between Theravada Buddhism and the original Buddhism as in Theravada Buddhism it is also possible for a kathoey to reach Nirvana in his/her present life. However the animistic Buddhism says, that for a person to be enlightened after his present life, he or she has to be a male? A paradox indeed!
A general Thai view on transsexuals says, that they should be treated with compassion and that they should rather be pitied than judged, because of the account of suffering they have to endure by being born a kathoey.
Thai-Buddhism believes in the existence of spirits. They believe in the communication between human beings and spirits. Normally, this communication is only two-ways- either a female human contacts a female spirit, or a male human being contacts a male spirit. Being born as a kathoey means that one comprises both sexes, hence, is a male and a female at the same time. This fact leads to the assumption, that a kathoeys spiritual, communication skills are superior. The transgender person can contact both- male- and female spirits. This leads to more prestige for the kathoey in the Thai-society as a mystic, witch or shaman.
I should be clear that anomalies exist within the general acceptance of kathoeys in Thailand as this article discusses: http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2011/07/16/monks-try-to-teach-maleness-to-thai-ladyboys/
Schools also often discourage young gender ambiguous boys from exploring their femininity further.
So there are several reasons to explain the large numbers of Kathoey in Thailand. Due to the belief in the existence of Kharma and ones helplessness being born in a certain way, those people who feel they are gender ambiguous are free to pursue the gender role that is fulfilling for them without persecution. This tolerance exists because of the general belief in reincarnation and specifically that every person is born a Kathoey at least once in his or her many lives. And lastly, although I would question the widespread belief, that Kathoeys can reach nirvana after the present life as well as the belief in the existence of spirits, leading to a greater reputation of ladyboys.
Although these ideas offer an understanding of the tolerant attitude of Thai’s towards transsexuals, it does not address their visibility in everyday life. Tolerance is not visibility. Even though the number of Kathoey is surprising, and they are broadly accepted, they could also be invisible. Globalization and information awareness has perhaps led to an increase in tourism, virtual or physical in this region. Entertainment centres in the tourist areas of Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket are key to an understanding of the Ladyboy profile.
The commercialization of Transgenderism in Thailand makes the phenomenon visible in a socially acceptable form. Thailand’s Tourism Authority lists Alcazar and Tiffany’s Ladyboy cabarets on their website and the novelty of seeing men who are even more beautiful than actual women is a major family friendly draw for tourists.
Prostitution, although illegal is highly visible and is a result of the economic disparity between the west and Thailand that despite the global depression still exists. Kathoeys are simply a part of the larger whole that is prostitution in Thailand.
So while Thai-Buddhism is the reason for the acceptance and tolerance of kathoeys, as well as the ambiguity regarding gender in Thailand, it is globalisation and tourism that have precipitated the visibility of kathoeys in the region.