I was delighted to read this article in such a “popular” magazine as Time:
Where the ‘Ladyboys’ Are
Monday, July 7th, 2008
By Hannah Beech
Life can be complicated enough for members of the transgender community — the last thing they need is to hesitate between two bathroom doors: Male or female. Luckily for students at the Kampang high school in rural northern Thailand, there’s now a third option. Introduced in May, the symbol on this bathroom door is of a human figure divided vertically, with the blue side wearing pants and the red side sporting a skirt. The Kampang school’s principal says he decided to build the new bathroom after a poll found that nearly 10% of the school’s 2,500 students identify themselves as transgendered.
Buddhist-majority Thailand displays what may be the world’s most tolerant attitude toward what locals call kathoey, loosely translated as “ladyboys.” The term, which does not have an exact counterpart in English, refers to people who are born male but, as one Thai saying goes, “have a female heart.” Kathoeys include everyone from occasional cross-dressers to those who have completed gender-reassignment surgery.
Although kathoeys do face some stigma and bureaucratic hurdles in Thailand — even those who have undergone sex-change operations, for example, are still listed as men on their national I.D. cards — they are also a normal and visible part of society. A Bangkok travel agency I use is staffed by kathoeys, and a cashier at my local grocery store is rapidly transitioning toward womanhood. One of the Immigration Department officers who helped me renew my work visa last year had both an adam’s-apple and lavish mascara. Kathoeys star on T.V. soap operas and grace the catwalks, while an all- kathoey pop group called the Venus Flytrap plies the airwaves. Notable kathoey athletes include a kickboxing champion, who liked to plant kisses on her vanquished opponents, and a volleyball team dubbed the Iron Ladies that won a national championship in the mid-90s.
The Kampang school isn’t the first one to accommodate its kathoey pupils. Several years ago, a technical college in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai unveiled what it called “pink lotus” bathrooms, reserved for kathoeys. Now, Thailand’s Education Ministry is considering whether to introduce similar bathrooms and dormitories on the university level, even though many colleges require “ladyboys” to wear male clothing on campus. (For the most part, kathoey students can, however, choose feminine hairstyles and wear jewelry, nail polish and makeup.)
Some kathoeys say they don’t need specially designated bathrooms, arguing they should be able to use either male or female toilets. Others would rather educational funds go to combating stereotypes that the only jobs kathoeys can expect to excel in are in the beauty or entertainment — read sex — industries. Certainly, career prejudice is a lingering problem: one Thai teachers’ college, for instance, refuses to enroll kathoeys. Nevertheless, Thailand is a far more open-minded place than even the United States. And the tolerance isn’t just a liberal, urban phenomenon. Kathoey beauty pageants are popular in Thai villages; the Kampang school is located in one of Thailand’s poorest and most rural regions. As one Thai hill-tribe creation myth goes, in the beginning, there were three sexes: female, male and an intertwining of the two — just like the image on the Kampang bathroom door.
“Now, Thailand’s Education Ministry is considering whether to introduce similar bathrooms and dormitories on the university level, even though many colleges require “ladyboys” to wear male clothing on campus. (For the most part, kathoey students can, however, choose feminine hairstyles and wear jewelry, nail polish and makeup.)”
This is the kind of thing that would have confused the bejeezus out of me when I was 17, EVEN THOUGH THE ARTICLE MAKES NO RECOGNITION OF TRANSGENDERED PEOPLE WHO STARTED OUT FEMALE. I identify as a woman, and I am sexually attracted to men. But I prefer to wear men’s clothing and I’m repulsed by makeup, nail polish, jewelry, and any hairstyle that requires more than washing and combing. When I was 17 I only knew about gay and straight, not about transgendered, but if I had known, it would have confused me further. I didn’t feel like I could identify as a heterosexual woman and not like any of the things that “women” are supposed to like (on top of being intellectual and all of that).
I completely agree with you, Alice, that it’s a big problem that the article doesn’t address in any way transgendered people who start out female. Nevertheless, I think the fact that Time magazine, which is not known as a bastion of liberalness, can speak openly and effectively about male-to-female transgender and effectively chastise the US for lack of tolerance of transgender is astounding. Which is not to say, in any way, that there is not still work to be done. In fact, even Time magazine admits there is much work to be done in this arena in the US. Hopefully they’ll continue to look at themselves as well, and open their eyes to the other ways of being transgender.
Yes, Karen, I agree with you that it’s great that Time magazine is speaking about this issue. It just brought up a bunch of thoughts and memories about how confused about gender issues I was when I was 17 (and had to read Time from cover to cover every week for a class I was taking).
I hope to catch up with you soon. My blog is about teenaged alcohol and drug use. I’d love to develop a dialogue some day.
In the meantime, a quick anecdote. There is a restaurant in West Philly that has its restrooms assigned to Democrats and Republicans. I find this remarkable, since I am from DC and I’ve never seen it here. Too conservative a town for that.
I enjoy your blog.
Kate McCauley, MEd, LCSW
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