Where Thailand is known to be “the land of smiles” it is also known to be famous for another thing. Almost every guy that goes to Thailand for travelling gets “warned” for this phenomenon; the lady boys or as Thai people like to call them: Kathoey, which is translated as a person who is biologically born as a man but who takes on the female gender identity, gender expression or sexual characteristics. It is estimated that about 1 in every 166 men is a transgender here in Thailand, while in the United States this is only 1 in 2500, but these are estimates and there is a lot of discussion on these number. The general acceptance for kathoey however, does seem to be a lot higher than most other countries.
In this blog I will try to analyse why the Kathoey seem to be more accepted in Thai society.
In order to understand the reason why Kathoey are more accepted in Thailand, we shall first begin to look at the history. In Thailand, gender is more focussed on a social role instead of a physical aspect. Meaning that the role a person plays in society is more important than the actual gender a person has. In ancient Indian scriptures it was described, and in Asia in general, it was believed that people who had a “mixed gender” owned some kind of magical powers, old shamans and priestesses for instance, where often men who dressed up as a female to fulfil their role. There are no identical social roles like this in western countries, that is also why this topic is often hard to understand for western people.
One of the main reasons why kathoey are so accepted here in Thailand is the influence of Buddhism. Unlike the 3 other biggest religions on earth (Christianity, Judaism and the Islam) the existence of transgendered people is taken for granted and there are no moral judgments made in Buddhist literature.
Buddhism believes that a person is continuous “reborn” until he or she reaches the state of enlightment. Thus, it is also possible that a person can be born as a male while she is actually a female. Furthermore, Buddha teaches people to be compassionate, kind, gentle, wise and understanding, but also to look beyond the surface. This might be one of the biggest reasons why being a kathoey is socially accepted, because Thai people don’t feel that they have the right to judge another human being on who he or she really is.
Thai culture in general is an important factor of the acceptance of kathoey. A good indicator for analysing cultural values are the six dimensions by Geert Hofstede.
For the people who are not familiar with the six dimensions of Hofstede: His 6 dimensions model “describes the effects of a society’s culture on the values of its members, and how these values relate to behaviour, using a structure derived from factor analysis”
By looking at Thailand, it shows that they have a score of 34 on the masculine versus feminine index, meaning they are the most feminine country in Asia and also one of the most feminine countries in the world. The masculine part of this index means that the society focuses on achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success. While a feminine society focuses on cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak, quality of life and there is a huge feeling of unity among society.
Thus this would mean, that even though a parent could be disappointed, or a friend would have an opinion on the fact that someone decides to open up about being a kathoey, the fact that there is a huge feeling of unity, cooperation and especially the huge importance of a family as a whole are a couple of reasons why kathoey are accepted no matter the opinion people have about them.
Another important aspect of the Thai culture that leads to more acceptance is the language, the Thai language distinguishes two politeness forms to end your sentence, the word “ka” is used as the female form of politeness, while the word “krap” is used as the male form of politeness.
The reason why this is so important is the fact that if a male uses the word “ka”, he will usually be introduced as a “she” no matter his appearance or gender. While on the other hand, if a woman uses the word “krap” at the end of her sentences, she will be referred to as a “he”.
This is why a lot of kathoey use the word “ka” to being referred to as a woman, while a lot of tom-boys (women who dress and behave like men) will use the word “karp”.
The fact that western countries have never colonized Thailand is (in my opinion) also a reason why there is so much acceptance for kathoey. In neighbouring countries the influence of the colonizer was much bigger than the effect it had on Thailand. Given the fact that homosexuality is prohibited in both Christian and Muslim religions, and the fact that western people in general are way less open-minded about this phenomenon led to the disappearance of customs and values in neighbouring countries while this had little to no effect on Thailand.
Although the general acceptance of kathoey in Thailand is bigger than almost every country in the world, the Thai government is hesitant in their approach to change the rules regarding kathoey. Same sex couples do not have the same rights as opposite sex couples, they cannot be recognized as a couple and are not able to marry for instance. Also it is still not possible for transgendered people in Thailand to change their gender on their ID card after their birth.
Also, there are still a lot of company’s who refuse to hire someone simply because that person is a kathoey. On the other hand, last year, one of the oldest universities in Thailand, Thammasat University in Bangkok, got famous for being the first university in the country to hire a transgender lecturer (although she got fired a couple of months after that for “inappropriate behaviour”)
Even though this was a good development for the rights and general acceptance of the LGBT-community in Thailand, it still seems as if the government is dragging its feet in the development of LGBT-rights in general.
An interesting blog by one of my fellow students about the (not so) liberality of Thailand can be found by clicking this link: http://globalasiablog.com/2016/03/07/is-thailand-really-that-liberal-towards-lgbt/
Thailand can be seen as one of the most tolerant countries when it comes to kathoey and LGBT people in general. This is due to the fact that their (main) religion teaches people not to judge, but to be open-minded, understanding and tolerant since everyone is fighting “a battle of their own”.
Furthermore, the Thai in general are the most cooperative and united people in Asia, this can be seen in the Hofstede model, which analyses different cultural values and the influence this has on behaviour.
Also, the fact that Thai language can be used for people to express their own gender without being judged (by using “karp” or “ka”) is helping to gain more tolerance among people.
Another thing (which Thai people are really proud of) is the fact that Thailand has never been colonized. This means that most of the cultural values and their historical background has been preserved. Because of the fact that there are records of “mixed gendered people” since way back, this hasn’t faded away but rather stayed and laid out a foundation on how the kathoey are treated nowadays.
Although it seems as if there is a general acceptance for kathoey in Thailand, there is always a dark side to every story. The Thai government still does not give people the right to change their gender on their ID card, same sex couples are not recognized and the fact that they are not allowed to marry, still leads to a distinction of people purely based on their sexual preferences and their (own perceived) gender.
This is, in my opinion, also the reason why a lot of companies are still hesitant to hire transgendered people. The Thai government should be making a statement by being the first Asian country that does allow same sex marriage and the same rights for LGBT-people, only then, LGBT-people can be fully accepted by society (in the future) and this will set a great example, not only for their own people, but for all other countries in the Asian region on how all people should be treated.
Like Albert Einstein once said: “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others; it is the only means”