I’ll be honest, this is a topic that still holds a lot of mystery for me. None of my immediate Thai family members are ladyboys (fantastically dressed men striving to be feminine) or ‘tom’ (for lesbians) as they say in Thai, but these are a few of my observations about the ‘other’ types in Thailand.
My first experience with Thai ladyboys was watching TV with my host mother in Ayutthaya. The news was on and they had a red carpet set up, taking photos of beautiful girls. Then they started interviewing them. My host mother could tell by the look on my face I was confused. I asked her if they were men or women. She giggled. That answered that question for me.
Ladyboys are some of the most beautiful and aesthetically pleasing women in Thailand. Their hair is done (not only done, but did), their outfits are girly to the point of looking like western clothes (ie skin baring), and makeup is done up perfectly. All to go to the weekly market. Or 7-11. They are usually far more feminine looking then most Thai women. It’s easy to do the double-take here for that reason.
Since that night of the ladyboy beauty show on TV, I’ve seen and met my fair share of ga-teuys (the word has a vowel that we don’t have in English, stick out your jaw and say uh, ish). They are an accepted part of society and work in all different occupations, but mostly in the more creative fields. There are some restrictions in these areas, remaining riap roy and all that jazz. Teachers for example, as well as students, have to keep their hair short and dress in pants. (I’ll sidebar a bit here though and say they find ways around that rule. At Reconnect, another Volunteer’s coteacher showed up with a bedazzled hot pink suit coat with a low-cut shirt, in full make-up. Everyone loved him.)
By the time they reach their mid-twenties, ladyboys are pretty well-practiced at what they do (in the girl perspective I mean). That’s because at very young ages, Thai kids know and declare their sexual proclivities. There’s a boy, not even sixteen, that regularly wears make-up and girls clothing outside of school and hangs out with the other girls of his school year. I went on a community field trip that he attended and I couldn’t believe how well-adjusted and accepted he was with the other teenagers.
The idea of a cross-dressing fifteen year old boy not being harassed for who he is seems kind of shocking itself. I can’t imagine that in America. With kids being bullied to a point that suicide seems like a better option than going to school one more day, it’s no wonder it does. That bullying seems more commonplace than acceptance for an individual is just plain wrong. Get out your notepads America, it may not all be sunshine and roses, but we need to take after Thailand in this arena.
There’s ga-teuys and then there’s gay, which they use the same word in Thai. I don’t want to sound stereotypical, but damn, these guys dress well. I know a little crowd from the community college (I was told by one guy I know the best, Pi-El, that gay men like to be teachers because they talk a lot, straight men don’t like to talk a lot… this was one of those ‘he’s just not that into you’ moments for me) and they are awesome. Unlike most Thai men, they have patience to talk to me and understand the whole not speaking at the speed of light and in a garbled mess thing. They compliment me regularly now that I’m dressing like a girl again, but also aren’t afraid to be critical when I try to extend the life of my flip-flops with my dresses. I think I’m in the minority knowing more gay men, that still dress like men, because ladyboys seem to be more in abundance in other places in Thailand.
Like I said before, Thai kids know and are usually ‘out’ before they actually become sexually active. I do feel for a particularly tall and chubbier boy who is known by the entire school as gay, playing and hanging out almost exclusively with the gals of his grade. Not that the boys outlaw him or anything, it’s more of a gender issue of women hanging with women and men with men. Gay men tend to straddle that line, but definitely hang well with the gals very well. I like that about them and that they have the strong women’s work ethic. I’m just so glad to be assigned to a host country that are open-minded enough to accept people as they are (for the most part), even six-foot white girls.
I remember in training another Volunteer was asked by her host family if another Volunteer in our village was ‘tom’ because she had a short, pixie haircut. Thinking they meant tomboy, this Volunteer said yes, I think so. Throughout training, we find out that tom actually means lesbian and our Volunteer friend set out to fix her boo-boo with her family.
Toms set themselves apart with short haircuts (most Thai women keep their hair long, at least chin length) and dress like most men would. Like their gay counterparts, toms take on some male attributes that most ‘riap roy’ women would never take part in- smoking, drinking openly with men at any time of the day, spitting, wearing sunglasses (I was told that I shouldn’t wear them/hide my eyes because it’s not ladylike, I told them my eyes are blue and the sunlight hurts them, I was pardoned), and other assorted male bits. A lot of this is up to the individual as I realized when two friends of Pi-Chaai’s came to stay with us while Bangkok was flooded.
Not to say all toms are the same, but in the village individuality isn’t exactly celebrated here and there are more similarities than differences. With the two city peeps coming in to the moo-bahn, it was a new perspective for me. One gal used the male forms of words (pom (exclusively male unlike other forms like chan)=I , krap (whereas girls say ka)=polite ending) and when we went to a carnival, dressed in the male traditional clothing of a sort of baggy pants and a towel-like thing wrapped around her waist. With the typical Thai male haircut (it’s awful, I hate it), most of the time she dressed very mannish in polos and cargo pants. The other gal still used the female words and though she had short hair, it was much more stylish. She also dressed much better, though still boyish. This might have also been an age issue as the more manlier gal was much older than the other.
I’m not sure why, but toms seem to be a little less accepted than gay men. I think it might be another gender issue in which men are free to live their lives however they might choose, drunkenly stumbling through life or can-canning on a Bangkok stage. Women are still expected to get married early and have some babies, then care for them until their kids repeat the cycle. Often, the higher a position a woman reaches, the more likely they are to be single and whispers about them being tom or not. Sometimes I wish double-standards were only an American plague. This brings me to the next part about Thai sexuality that I think is important to putting the pieces together in how they live so harmoniously with each other.
As Americans, we tend to put people in two and a half categories. Straight, gay, or bisexual (which for many is just a hop skip and a jump to homosexuality), very cut and dry. That’s not really the case here. I’ve heard plenty of stories about husbands leaving wives and babies around to become their ladyboy selves or leaving tights and skirts behind to get married and have a family. Many of tale about girls marrying bad men and never being with one again because of it. The younger gal I mentioned in the tom section was previously married and Pi-Chaai’s explanation for their break-up was he wasn’t a nice person and she got tired of men. And it’s perfectly acceptable.
There’s no debate whether they’re different because they choose to be gay and/or transgendered or if they were born that way or if they’re even different to begin with. It just doesn’t matter. Thai people would rather welcome a person into a group of friends or their community than make them an outcast. People have the freedom to love whomever they choose whenever they choose. Not to say there wouldn’t be a minor scandal about it. A man becoming a ladyboy leaving his wife behind would be major news in the village. Then again, when I painted my nails hot pink it was pretty news breaking stuff too.
In this way, I think Thai people are less repressed than Americans. One of my Thai friends told me that she didn’t want to date a man because of the expectations he would have (getting married and having kids) when she didn’t want that for herself. So she’s been dating girls since she was a teenager. She mentioned though, if a nice farang guy came along that understood her desires (having a career, traveling, and shopping), then she’d be perfectly fine switching teams if you could even call it that here.
The U.S. is changing though. With New York legalizing gay marriage, I’m sure there will be more states reshaping the requirements of legally bound togetherness. Not that things are perfect here, I once heard a Thai person say Thais are fine with ladyboys as long as it’s not their son, but overall, Thailand seems to have found a better solution and attitude towards sexuality. I think though, once we stop seeing people as the label we’ve affixed upon them, but rather parts of the social fabric of society, it’ll make life a little better for everyone.
And yes, I was listening to Lady Gaga’s Born This Way for the entirety of this entry. You should too.