If you’ve ever heard someone describe their trip to Thailand, they likely told you about the food, the beaches, Buddhism, elephants, and perhaps they’ve also mentioned, with a wink, going to a bar to meet a “ladyboy.” Yet why has Thailand become so inextricably linked with the term “ladyboy,” and what does it mean?
To many transgender people, “ladyboy” is seen as exclusively pejorative. While living as a transgender woman in the United States, I avoided using the term and admonished anyone who used it. Yet now that I am living in Thailand and studying Thai culture and language, I’ve come to appreciate the nuanced nature of the term “ladyboy,” and begun to understand why so many people here love to use it.
So where did the term “ladyboy” come from? While “ladyboy” is a term often used in Thailand to refer to transgender women, it has a unique meaning and history that is closely tied with the Thai word katheoy. Kathoey is a term first used hundreds of years ago in the Thai language, which, like many Thai words, was imported from the Khmer language originally spoken in the region. Kathoey is used to refer to someone who is assigned male at birth, but expresses their gender in a feminine way. Kathoey can even be traced back further to being a translation of the Pali term pandaka. The word pandaka was first recorded in the first Century BCE in Buddhism’s main scriptural text, the Titipaki. In the Titipaki’s origin myth, there are four genders — male, female, pandaka (a person born male who takes on feminine characteristics), and ubhatobyan-janaka (a person born female who takes on masculine characteristics).
Today, Thailand is 90% Theravada Buddhist, and the Titipaki origin myth continues to influence cultural understandings about gender. Thai people generally believe that it is a normal state of existence for a soul to be born as a kathoey at some point in the Buddhist cycle of rebirth, and that such a soul, in this life, will have a feminine gender unique from that of either a cisgender man or a cisgender woman.
What makes Thai culture fascinating to me though is not solely that katheoy is a gender category outside of man/woman — countless cultures throughout the world and throughout history have more than two gender categories. What I particularly love about Thai culture is that there seems to be a widespread belief that there is something uniquely beautiful about kathoey femininity.
In my experience in the transgender community US, there seems to be a certain resistance to the idea that transgender femininity is somehow unique from cisgender femininity. Transgender women seem to be constantly afraid of feeling invalidated if they’re seen as anything different than a “normal” woman. There’s a certain “ick” factor assigned to a person who claims to find transgender femininity particularly attractive, and even prefer it over cisgender femininity; such a person is often called a “transgender chaser” and is to be avoided.
People do not seem to have the same compunctions in Thailand, perhaps because of the concept of kathoey itself as its own unique gender. In fact, there seems to be a widespread cultural fascination with transgender femininity. Beauty pageants featuring kathoeys and transgender women from around the world are televised nationwide. Winners of the two biggest, Miss Tiffany’s Universe, which is for Thai contestants, and Miss International Queen, which invites contestants from around the world can expect lucrative sponsorship deals from the cosmetic industry and the larger beauty industry. This year’s winner of Miss International Queen was Jazell Barbie Royal, a Black transgender woman from the United States, and she’s far more widely known here than in the US.
In addition to pageants, kathoeys are also widely sought out as beauticians, hairdressers, and fashion experts. Extravagant kathoey cabaret shows like Tiffany’s Show, Alcazar, and the Calypso Cabaret bring in combined audiences of thousands of people each night, both Thais and foreigners. And finally, kathoeys have a key role in the Thai service industry, from bartenders to gogo dancers to sex workers. Also unlike the US, where many straight men may find it shameful to admit they are attracted to transgender women, in Thailand it’s very common for straight men to openly admit their attraction to kathoeys, and in fact, many will tell you that they believe kathoeys are even more beautiful than cisgender women.
But where does the term “ladyboy” fit into all of this? My hypothesis is that the initial use of the term “ladyboy” and its popularization has to with clever marketing by kathoeys themselves. Decades before the popularization of the term “transgender,” business savvy kathoeys in Thailand were able to use the seemingly exotic term “ladyboy” to market Thailand’s obsession with kathoey beauty to an international market. Ladyboy merges the idea that kathoeys are first and foremost, beautiful ladies. But it also references the idea that they are something more, combined with a youthful, androgynous beauty too.
Historians have often traced how Thai people for many decades have used Western colonial ideas about the East — Orientalism — to market Thailand to tourists. To Western colonial powers, the so-called “Orient” was characterized as mystical, exotic, feminine, and “submissive” compared to the “dominant” West. As problematic as the origins of these concepts may be, nevertheless many Thais however were able to use them to their advantage to convince tourists that Thailand was the “Land of Smiles” with beautiful, exotic Thai people ready to serve you. For many kathoeys, marketing the idea that “ladyboys” are a gender unique to the submissive, feminine Orient turned out to be a lucrative business proposition.
Today, when cisgender, straight men from the US and around the world come to Thailand, by and large they seem to be able to let go of their compunctions that being attracted to transgender femininity is somehow shameful or un-masculine, and they openly seek out the company of “ladyboys.” Large nightlife areas of Pattaya and Bangkok are home to countless bars, clubs and cabarets advertising “ladyboys” to tourists looking to meet them, watch them dance and perform, and maybe seek out personal services from a kathoey sex worker. One such club is Katoeys are US, whose sign advertises “Lady Boy Gogo Shows” in English, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese. There are also countless websites devoted to sexual liaisons with “ladyboys,” in addition to escort agencies and porn sites. Many of these businesses are fully or partially owned and managed by transgender people, and employ countless feminine transgender people who are able to live modestly while also sending money back to their families. Their families in turn have a sense of pride that their kathoey children are financially secure and able to help support them, and are generally accepting of their children’s gender and don’t judge their source of income.
I’d propose that rather than see “ladyboy” as just a poor translation of kathoey or as a pejorative term, I feel we must give credit to generations of Thai feminine transgender people who used the term to successfully promote kathoey beauty beyond Thai culture. By simply dismissing “ladyboy” as an outdated, dehumanizing term, as many of my transgender peers in the US do, it takes away the agency of thousands of Thai transgender people whose livelihood depend on ensuring ongoing international demand for kathoey beauty. I used to completely avoid the term “ladyboy,” but now in a way, I love it, because to me it speaks to the idea that there is something inherently attractive and beautiful about transgender femininity.
This is largely my hypothesis, although it’s been informed from years of study of English-language scholarship on Thai culture gender and sexuality. However, books are one thing, and experiencing culture firsthand is another. My journeys for the next year or more will help me flesh out this hypothesis, especially as I learn the Thai language and am able to better grasp how transgender people in Thailand understand themselves by talking directly with them.
In this inaugural blog post for Trans in Thailand, I wanted to focus on the positive reasons I love Thai culture. But as I’ll continue to explore, even though kathoeys are seen as having a place in normal Thai society, they still do experience extensive discrimination at the same time. There’s so much more to explore, and I hope you’ll continue with me on this journey, and help support my work through becoming a member of the Trans In Thailand Patreon for as little as $1 a month.
With your support, I can continue to travel the country to talk with transgender people here in Thailand about their experiences, and directly include their voices in this blog. Thank you! Or as they say in Thai: Khap khun khaa!