Jessica was one of the Thai “kathoeys” that our volunteer friends ended up partying with in Thailand.

Ladyboys, what’s the deal? This is a question that I’ve been wondering ever since our trip to Thailand, and the query resurfaced when we recently had dinner with two other volunteers who were in Thailand over the April break. I’m aware there are people that transcend the traditional definition of gender everywhere in the world, but I’ve never encountered so many nor seen them so glorified as they are in Thailand.

I am not up on my terms for the transgendered so you’ll have to bear with me as I try to make sense of things. I do know that cross dressing does not necessarily mean a person is homosexual. I have also learned that marriage in Thailand between ladyboys (men who dress like women) and tom-dees (women who dress like men) is legal while gay marriage is illegal.  After all, it is still marriage between a man and a woman (although it took me a while to get my head wrapped around it).

We spent Songkran in Thailand surrounded by ladyboys who were extremely popular with the crowds. In fact, people were dressed in all sorts of flamboyant outfits for the occasion. Most of which showed a lot more skin than would be typically Thai. There were guys dressed in bad drag, beautiful ladies dressed to the nines (who I later figured out were men), women dressed in mini skirts and halter tops and women dressed like men. It got to the point where I really couldn’t tell who was which gender, and in the end I wondered “Does it matter?”

Gender is something that we have grown up with in the West as being clearly defined. Check the appropriate box – male or female. It’s one of the few things we’ve believed to be black and white. I hate to shatter this world . . . but there’s a big grey around here too. In fact, humans can be categorized into a third gender.

“To different cultures or individuals, a third gender or sex may represent an intermediate state between men and women, a state of being both (such as “the spirit of a man in the body of a woman”), the state of being neither (neuter), the ability to cross or swap genders, another category altogether independent of men and women. This last definition is favored by those who argue for a strict interpretation of the “third gender” concept. In any case, all of these characterizations are defining gender and not the sex that biology gives to living beings.” (

I also learned that some scientists believe that many animals have more than two gender within their species and some lizards have as many as five. Confused yet?

Back to Thailand . . . what fascinated me the most, was the shear number of men who seem to like dressing as woman in Thailand. Some of which make very beautiful ladies. Why is this the case here? Especially since my experience of Thai culture otherwise has been one that keeps matters of sexual preference and displays of affection private. I tried asking the Thais, but this isn’t something they’ve ever questioned. It would be like asking a Canadian why we say “eh”. It’s just the way things have always been.

My extensive research (Google) didn’t yield any certain results. One hypothesis suggests that the Thai emphasis on beauty  is simply expressed this way be males that are effeminate. Others suggest that there is a huge demand for kathoey shows, so cross-dressing might be based on a financial decision for some. Or maybe it has something to do with being able to be in the spotlight. For certain, the community is welcoming and it’s a viable alternative for those that don’t feel they fit in. All I know is that I don’t have the answers.

In India, eunuchs (hijras as known in India) can also be seen as auspicious (lucky). This is partly due to the fact that one of the incarnations of the Lord Shiva was a hijra. Many of the gods in Hinduism are seen as having both male and female traits; therefore, being more powerful. In contrast, I haven’t seen evidence of beliefs such as this in Sri Lanka.

The more I look into this issue the more fascinating and complicated it becomes. Perhaps sometime in the future there will be a third box to check beside gender.


P.S. If you find these issues at all fascinating and haven’t already read Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex, you must.