Girl at heart

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After the discussion that went on here with regards to katoey toilets at a Thai school and the subsequent talk over at Roger's blog, I asked someone whose opinion is perhaps a little more in touch with the issue than any of ours. This post was written by Nong Duu from Phet Ti Saam. — Matt

Basics first: there is no word in Western languages that really fits the meaning of the Thai word กะเทย (katoey). Western languages have developed words to describe a person's lifestyle and behavior (transvestite, cross-dresser) or self-perception (transsexual), but none of those is a sufficient translation for the word “katoey”, although almost all Thai-English dictionaries say so.

One doesn't need to walk too long through the streets of Bangkok to recognize the apparent variety of those people who are referred to as katoey: boys with short hair and men’s clothes, but a slightly effeminate behavior, boys with perfect make-up but men’s clothes and, last but not least, beautiful women who once were boys. All of them are katoey, yet all of them are different.

If you ask me for a definition I would say: katoey are males born with a female heart. How much of a woman they are ranges from 0 to 120%.

That also complies with the Thai saying “dua ben chai jai ben ying” (“the body is male, but the heart is female”). So the word “ladyboy“ is not so far from the truth.

“The third sex“ is just another alternative to describe most of us, although many of us (who would be called “transsexuals” in the West) really deserve it to be referred to as women – because that's what we are. To deal with that, Thai language evolved the expression “saao praphet song“ (“a woman of the second kind”).

With that basic knowledge of the nomenclature, it might be easier to understand, why there is a necessity for a third bathroom for katoeys.

It is not a lifestyle for which the additional toilet is set up, but a whole part of society. By the way, the sign at the ladyboy`s toilet at Kampang High School does not say “katoey toilet“ but “hong naam bandaw“. “Bandaw” is an ancient Sanskrit word that expresses the same thing as katoey, but sounds even more polite and sophisticated.

The reality at Thai high schools is that all boys have to have short hair, a rule that doesn’t exclude ladyboys. The young katoey often try to compensate that confinement by exaggerated effeminate behavior and lots of makeup, which makes it strange to see them walking into the boys' bathroom, but the girls' room doesn’t seem to be the right place, too. Besides, the fact that boys, girls and katoeys are in the middle of puberty with all its bashfulness and reservations doesn’t help much either.

So an own restroom for those who are stuck between a rock and a hard place seems the be just the right answer and also gives them acceptance besides the dancing shows that they perform at school festivals.

So there is no reason to speak of gender divisions or discrimination, because the most important thing about those new restrooms is that to go there is only a “can“ but never a “must“. I am pretty sure that there won’t be too much trouble if a katoey student still went to the boys' room and another more feminine one sneaks into the girls' room, which is hard to imagine, now that they have their own one.

If those katoey toilets become established throughout the whole country, the third sex would get the official recognition, that it already holds and deserves in everyday life.

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12 thoughts on “Girl at heart

  1. Mathew Crook

    I have good reason to believe you are making comments on your own blog from internet cafe's. to make it seem like poeple actually care about your crappy blog ( easily the biggest bore of all Thailand blogs)

  2. I just still can't understand what they do put in the water or air in Thailand to have created this population of katoyes in Thailand.

    Is there any kind of scientific measurements about the portion of population who would identify themselves with this? Ofcourse the certainity of these studies would be open for debate and would need further studies the same as all estimates about the population percentage of gay men and women in population.

    But just as this really really is something Very Thai. And this is not just something funny little Thai thing to put aside with a shrug but something I think seriously would need better context in society and human behavior.

    Why on earth other countries do not have this phenomenon in such big quantities. Or is it really "big", everything is proportional.

    Everyone for sure has heard many arguments that being gay for example is not something you choose but it is most probably genetic same as most of at teenage years didnt "make decision that from now on I like boys or girls" (and sometimes partly socially learned thing too, ref. gay behavior in ancient Greek for example where it was commonly practiced but those men also went for women later in life).

    So how about being katoy, how much of the prevelance can or could be contributed to genetics, and how much of it blossoms more "easily" because of its culturally more "acceptable" status in Thailand only (although this can be discussed too as katoyes have been in media for example always the stooges and still looked down upon in social order, their status in "royal and high influence houses" has been more of the jesters of the old courts in Europe and/or maybe temple prostitutes and entertainers of times gone by.)

    Just thinkin'…

  3. Well there is an argument that gender is a social construct. Gender is perhaps a reflection of the society around it.

    Coupled with this is the fact that katoeys are socially accepted (to a level). In many countries, people are not so open minded to this kind of gender matter. I think different cultures and societies play a big part in all of this, but I am no expert.

  4. Well, for one thing, in my humblest of opinion, to my knowledge, I was never thought in school that there is anything wrong with gays or katoeys in Buddhism. Since this is not a religious taboo, that's one hurdle we already crossed.

  5. I know that most foreign people like to explain that "phenomenon" with buddhism as it is soooo tolerant. That`s only part of the truth. I talked to our author Victoria who was raised in a western country and she says that there is a huge transgender population in western countries, too – but they live it "stealth", they don`t out themselves. The opener the society towards Transgender, Gay, Lesbians etc. the more people will out themselves. So Thailand is 90% open, which means you can consider 90% of the katoey population as "outed". In the West it might be open towards gender issues just 50%, which is the reason why only 50% out themselves or at least allow themselves once in a while to live the way they really are.

  6. I don't think I've heard anything so silly "katoey toilets". After all it's a toilet, it is a place to relieve yourself, it has urinals and cubicles. If someone feels uncomfortable going in front of others use the cubicle. If you feel embarrassed when someone who looks slightly female walks in to the toilet, just look over at the female toilet attendant standing watching you, what is more embarrassing?

    This is all a fuss about nothing, go to the toilet you desire, do what you have gone there for and move on. Don't get hung up on silliness like this, the rest of the world has gone pc mad is Thailand following now? I hope not!

  7. I love Thailand, this story isn't about Thailand being politically correct. If you think that you don't know Thailand. Thai culture is the least politically correct you could imagine.

    What this is about is how much more advanced Thailand is when it comes to accepting that human sexuality and gender is not monolithic but a fluid and diverse. Thailand can teach the West a lot.

    I am not a transsexual but I am sexually feminine/passive/submissive.

    I don't find men attractive and I find women sexually boring, I was born to love guys who are like girls.

    At home my sexuality is a perversion that must be hidden but in Thailand I can have a katoey lover without being seen as a freak.

    God bless Thailand, long live the King.

  8. As for Thailand being some kind of phenomenon it is not. As a closeted cross dresser from the UK I can tell you there are plenty of transgender people in the UK, Europe and the US but we live in the shadows due to the societal taboo.

    Thailand is not unique. Check out Brazil.

    The deeply religious and right wing society of Iran has an interesting attitude to transgender issues.

    Do you know about the Indian Hijira community. Google it.

    Also have a look at attitudes to gender and sexuality in Suriname.

    Thailand is not unique.

  9. Having said that I still find Thailand frustrating for more than one reason.

    Thailand's acceptance of transgendered people makes my sexuality more open to the bigotry of my fellow westerners.

    In the west it's easier for us t-girls/admirers to avoid homophobic idiots.

    When I leave my straight friends at home and head out to express my cross dressing needs and desires for transsexual lovers I'm leaving the straight world and entering another world where I will only bump into a 'straight' person I know if they are not strictly "straight" wink wink.

    In the UK the tg community is usually closely tied to the gay community but due to the open acceptance in Thailand a ladyboy is almost always seen as a woman and those who like them are seen as straight so most of the ladyboys are to be found in areas full of a bunch of straight drunken tourists in Red Bull vests and flip flops. lol

    For westerners it's a simple equation, if you fancy someone who has a cock or used to have one you are gay but for Thais if you fancy someone who looks every inch the woman whether they have a cock or not you are straight!

    I hate being gawped at by drunken idiots, I spose that's why I'm still in the closet. I much prefer meeting t-girls in a gay setting when my choice of lover wont raise an eyebrow than meeting in a straight setting where just talking to a katoey will get idiots giggling over their beers.

    At home my sexuality can be kept private and separate from the straight world, out here that is much more of a challenge.

    Another frustrating thing about Thailand and something where I think Thailand is truly unique is the lack of sexual adventure.

    Yes Thailand has plenty of openly gay, lesbian and transgender people but they are almost all sexually vanilla.

    Sex in Thailand is either about love or just the mechanical act of 'boom boom'

    There are almost no kinky dominant women or katoeys.

    In the West there are straight, gay, lesbian and transgender people who love to mix dominance and submission with their sex.

    At home I have no problem finding t-girl lovers with wild kinky imaginations who were more than willing to play the dominant role but in my experience Thai ladyboys are much more like genetic women, boring and conservative in bed.

    They want a masculine man for vanilla boom boom not kinky subdom adventure with another t-girl.

    I love Thailand but sometimes it can be frustrating!

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