Confronting Reality in a Transgender Paradise

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Thailand is widely considered a paradise of transgender acceptance. But the realities of life as a so-called “ladyboy” don’t always reflect that reputation. We spoke with three members of the transgender community there to get a clearer picture.

It is a hot, sunny midday in May and Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, 45, is standing on an overgrown lot in her hometown of Nakhon Ratchasima. The house where she grew up once stood here, and she begins crying quietly. They are tears of sentiment. And they are tears for her mother, who is in a hospital not far away and for whom Tanwarin is full of gratitude.

When she made the decision to transition, her mother immediately supported her, Tanwarin says. Later, her mother even recommended that she wear more stylish dresses.

Tanwarin is wearing a laced skirt and Chucks, a digital watch and lipstick. She has also — again, thanks to her mother’s support — managed to work her way up to become the first transgender member of Thailand’s parliament. And in many ways, she embodies a culture that is seemingly the envy of many in the West.

The Buddhist kingdom appears to have achieved something that remains something of a distant dream in Europe. Whereas in the EU, every second transgender person says they have been the victim of verbal abuse or violence, kathoey and ladyboys, as members of the transgender community are referred to in Thailand, encounter relatively few problems in public.

There is likely no other country in the world where transgender people are so visible. They work in hair salons and massage parlors, they are a frequent sight on the buses and trains and many work in the tourism industry. There are men in women’s clothing while others have had breast implant surgery or take hormones. There are also quite a few who have completely rid themselves of all obviously male features.

Television programs are likewise full of members of the transgender community, particularly in soap operas and spy thrillers. The Bangkok Post, the largest English-language daily in the country, runs full-page ads for clinics offering sex reassignment procedures while the transsexual Thai boxer Parinya Charoenphol, famous for her perfect makeup as she knocked out her opponents, is still seen as something of a national hero for some despite having retired in 2006.

Even the Tourism Ministry has recently begun presenting the country as a place where all manner of gender identities and sexual orientations are welcome. It operates a website showing happy gays, lesbians and transgender people vacationing in places like Bangkok, Pattaya and Krabi. “Thailand welcomes every color under the rainbow,” it reads beneath the glossy photos. “Go Thai. Be free.”

The government’s proactive marketing campaign didn’t come out of nowhere: Many companies in Thailand cater to the international LGBTQ scene. In addition to the sex reassignment clinics, there are also plenty of clubs, hotels and other service providers who focus their efforts on gays, lesbians, intersex people and sex reassignment tourists. Taken together, the industry generates hundreds of millions of bhat in revenues each year.

It is a business segment known as “pink money,” and it benefits mightily from Thailand’s reputation for tolerance. And it’s the ladyboys who tend to be the posterchildren for this branch of the tourism industry.

Still, Thailand isn’t the paradise for the transgender community it may seem at first. Local transgender people do say that they are generally treated with respect in their day-to-day lives, but they also complain that they are frequently discriminated against on the job market, aren’t always accepted by their families and are sometimes disadvantaged by outmoded laws.

We spoke in depth with three members of the transgender community to learn more about whether Thailand really is a paradise of gender tolerance, or whether it has merely benefited from clever marketing.

Family: Love for Sale

If her father would see her like this, in this golden dress with its very low-cut neckline, the large earrings and bright-red lips, he would likely be shocked. He knows that Thanaporn works as a so-called ladyboy in the party town of Pattaya — as a transsexual prostitute, in other words. But he surely wouldn’t want to know all the details.

Thanaporn Phromphron, 37, is at her place of work, a dimly lit bar not far from Walking Street, Pattaya’s notorious nightlife hub. The music is full of bass, the cocktails are brightly colored and at the neighboring table, a (non-transsexual) woman in an extremely revealing dress is seducing an overweight, ponytailed American.

The contrast to the village where Thanaporn is from could hardly be any bigger. She grew up in a farming family as the youngest of five children in western Thailand. She says that she first realized that she was a woman at age six. But it was only at 19, when she left the family farm for university, that she began wearing dresses and taking hormones. Initially, her father didn’t accept her gender identity, in part because he wanted to keep his son. Her mother, though, gradually became accepting of Thanaporn’s transition.

After completing her studies, Thanaporn worked a series of odd jobs back at home, but she was unable to earn enough to pay off her student loans. So she decided to take advantage of the financial opportunities provided by her gender identity: Thanaporn moved to Pattaya, a place considered by many to be the global capital of sex tourism, and became a ladyboy like so many Thai transsexuals before her.

In good months, Thanaporn says, she can earn six times the salary of a private school teacher. As a result, she says, she is financially independent of her parents, which makes her feel more liberated.

Thanaporn’s story is similar to the one that many kathoey have to tell. Thais tend to be polite with members of the transgender community that they don’t know personally, but if someone from their family or close circle of friends is interested in expressing their transgender identity, they are frequently unaccepting. There seems to be two spheres: a public one and a private one, each with its own etiquette. The public sphere, moreover, is defined largely by two cultural particularities.

First, Thais are eager to avoid conflict to the extent possible, which makes public displays of hostility something of a taboo, even against transsexuals. Second, the country is predominantly Buddhist, according to which transsexuals committed sins in a previous life and as punishment, they were reborn in the wrong body. As such, one should pity them rather than insult them.

Yet despite the largely polite treatment of the transgender community in Thailand that results from these two particularities, it is a far cry from a more deeply rooted acceptance. An anonymized study completed by the University of Hong Kong found that around 60 percent of fathers and more than 30 percent of mothers disapprove of their offspring’s desire for sex reassignment. Transsexuals who grow up in such families, kathoey like Thanaporn, frequently move away to a larger city once they complete school or college.

Thanaporn used the first money she earned as a ladyboy for breast implants: extra-large ones, she says, showing them off proudly by pushing them together. She says she still has a penis, though she would like to change that as well, but sex reassignment surgery is simply too expensive. Plus, there is enough work the way she is.

Thanaporn isn’t interested in working as a ladyboy forever and is saving her money to open a small cosmetics store, which she plans to open in Pattaya once she hits her mid-40s. She says she has no desire to return to her home village, even if her relationship with her father has improved.

Not long ago, her father hurt his knee while working and has had trouble cultivating the fields since then. The farm’s revenues have noticeably dropped as a result. Thanaporn says that since she began sending money back home to help her parents out, her gender identity has mostly become a non-issue.

Work: Too Beautiful to Teach

Worawalun Taweekarn always wanted to be a math teacher and she completed the necessary university degree fully two years ago. Yet there is still something standing in the way of her dream job: Her gender identity.

Worawalun is sitting in a cafĂ© in central Bangkok, wearing an elegantly pleated skirt, a thin, silver bracelet and is perfectly made up. Men constantly turn around to look at the 25-year-old — which proved to be an issue at her first job interview shortly after completing her studies.

“You are so attractive,” one of the teachers told her, Worawalun says. “The boys will constantly be flirting with you.” Her response, she says, was: “I can deal with it. Please give me a chance to show what I can do professionally.” But the school declined to offer her a job.

Because most other schools that year were no longer hiring, Worawalun worked for a time as a tutor and also decided to take part in Miss Tiffany’s Universe, a well-known beauty contest for transgender women in Thailand, and ended up in 11th place.

As part of the contest, she was interviewed by the jury about her life, during which Warawalun told the story of the absurd job interview. She also spoke of an internship she did while at university, during which she had to wear a men’s wig over her long hair.

The video of the interview went viral and Worawalun received a lot of support. But also a fair amount of hatred. “Some of the most hurtful comments came from other trans women,” she says. “They wrote that I should look for a more appropriate job, like cosmetician, for example.”

The transgender activist Prempreeda Pramoj says such reactions are rather standard. “In the beauty sector, entertainment or even sexual industry, it is easy for trans women to have a career,” she says. “In other fields, career options are quite limited.” Thais, she adds — kathoey included — have “rather rigid ideas” regarding what jobs are suited for trans women.

In Thailand, as elsewhere, many companies are reluctant to employ members of the transgender community. A lawyer named Wannapong Yodmuang conducted an experiment in which she sent two identical applications to hundreds of companies, the only difference being that one of them was always from a transgender person while the other was from a man or a woman. “The response rate for kathoey was much lower,” she says.

Starting in 2018, Worawalun began applying for jobs as a teacher again. One school director, she says, told her: “You almost won Miss Tiffany. You’ll get much richer as a drag queen than you will working for us.” The head of a girls school told her she could have a job, but only if she came to school as a man.

After several more frustrating experiences, Worawalun sought out legal counsel. But her lawyer wasn’t particularly encouraging. Thailand does have an anti-discrimination law, but as is the case elsewhere, it is often difficult to prove discrimination in a specific case to the standard needed in court.

Nevertheless, Worawalun filed a petition with the Committee on the Determination of Unfair Gender Discrimination in mid-May. “I don’t want to force anyone to hire me,” she told the committee. “I just want the same chances in the application process as everyone else.”

Politics: The Gender-Neutral Society

Go Thai. Be free? According to Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, the marketing slogan used by the Tourism Ministry tells only part of the story. “The other part is: Be Thai. Not so free.” And that’s what inspired Tanwarin to run for Thai parliament, winning a seat in the March elections. She is the first parliamentarian from the transgender scene and one of four from the LGBTQ community.

Tanwarin is strolling through her hometown of Nakhon Ratchasima, a loud, busy place four hours by car northeast of Bangkok. She is visiting her old school and other places that shaped her as she was growing up, helping her turn into likely one of the most progressive lawmakers in the world when it comes to gender identity and sexual orientation.

Tanwarin identifies as non-binary, a term referring to people who consider themselves neither masculine nor feminine, and who, like Tanwarin, reject the division into masculine and feminine categories. Behavioral patterns, fashion accessories, skills, colors and pretty much everything else in life are gender neutral, she says. It’s only societal conventions that have led us to believe that pink is feminine and DIY is masculine.