An Insiders View of Thailand's Ladyboys
by John Cooke
Thailand's Ladyboys (LB) are a much maligned group. Called Kathoey (unusual) by many Thais and foreigners, there is another side to their story which is rarely told. I hope the following story and information, the first on my new blog, might give you a better understanding of the Thai LB, their lives and their many problems.
I''m a Londoner, and have been living in Thailand for 6 years, or so. I am "married" to a Thai LB, a Thai/Lao/Mon person from Nakom Pathom province, just west of Bangkok. This was only a simple ceremony, nothing fancy, just the two of us and obviously not an ''official marriage.''
Marisa is my wife''s LB name. She is 35, went to a good school and university in Bangkok where she gained a communications degree. Unable to find a proper job in Bangkok, as is the story with most LBs, Marisa, with the help of some LB friends found work in Bangkok''s famous Patpong red light district in a go-go bar, before moving to Singapore for a year where she worked as a street prostitute and ''card-sharp.''
She returned to Thailand after a year, overstaying her visa, and having to get back into Thailand hiding under the floorboards of a truck. Marisa then went back to Patpong as a street prostitute and that is where we met about 5 years ago. We''ve had our ups and downs since, but we have stayed together. She lives in the Thonburi area in south west Bangkok, and I stay central close to Patpong. We spend 2 - 3 days together each week, socializing in Patpong and sometimes Nana; Bangkok''s other western orientated nightlife area. People in Patpong and elsewhere have gradually accepted us as a couple, including my small group of western friends, who also live in Bangkok.
I have been to Marisa''s Thai village outside of Nakom Pathom twice now - she had stayed away from the village and her family for 8 years - not a normal thing for a Thai person to do. On returning to the village, Marisa had a tearful reunion with her mama and papa; this about 18 months ago. We also visited for Songkran, the Thai New Year, and had a great time. Marisa''s brother and sisters have accepted her back into the family; 2 sisters still harbour some resentment about her staying away so long, I said to Marisa, give them time to re-accept you.
We still get puzzled looks and occasional abuse, usually English tourists, but try not to let it bother us. The staffs in the bars we frequent are now used to us and in some cases are quite friendly. The locals in my apartment block have also accepted Marisa coming and going, after being initially suspicious, so progress on the acceptance front. Some people find it hard to believe I prefer the regular company of a LB to a pretty Thai girl. I have had comments hurled at me, ''Are you blind,'' ''Get a new pairs of glasses,'' ''That''s a bloke you are with you know, "Pity you," etc. Some Thais look on us with disdain, disbelief as well. Even those who know us can give us funny looks at times. I try not to let it bother me. After all, I am with my wife, so why should I care''
Many LBs walk the streets of Patpong until the light comes up, looking/waiting for a possible customer; 1000 baht per time (about GDP15 , USD30), and hope the customer is not staying too far away from Patpong so they can get back for another customer and more money. There are ''short time'' places in Patpong, as well, where sex and money can be exchanged. Some LBs go home in the early hours out of luck and penny-less, so beg , steal or borrow so that can go out again the next night '' a vicious circle. Others are locked out of their rooms by landlords as no rent money, or the electric is turned off as no money to pay the bill. They can be fined just for walking around the Patpong and other areas. Easy targets, they get taken to the local p.station and have to pay 100 '' 500 - 1000 baht fines to be released or a night in jail awaits them.
Some LBs can be more fortunate and find work in go-go bar in Patpong 1 or Nana. These are usually post-op. There are a few working as waitresses in Patpong 2''s small beer bars, also. Amusingly, many adopt western names to work under '' Shirley, Jasmine, Samantha, Nathalie, Odette and others that make them sound English.
I know many LBs in Bangkok. They are not all violent and irrational, as some people make them out to be. Some are quiet, sensitive, intelligent, and like most of us, just looking to get on with our lives and survive in this crazy world we all live in. Some are difficult, I agree, but a smile and no thank you will be enough to avert their attention elsewhere. Most LBs are just stuck in the same rut that many Thai people find themselves in - little or no money, limited prospects and opportunities short and long term, and worried about their future. Most save for their parents like most Thais do - difficult if just working the streets, however. This is why LBs in some cases steal. They know that they are on the bottom rung of the ladder. There is no prospect of a marriage '' with a foreigner of a Thai for them, no children to support them in later life, little or not much in the way of job prospects. The future is something that LBs don''t like to think or talk about too much '' they fear it.
A few LBs I know are well over 30. The competition from the younger set is growing all the time. Some I know have worked the streets for 10 '' 15 years. There are a few in the Patpong area who are 40 plus. Most work every night, walking around until 6 A.M. looking to find the elusive customer, whose money can keep them going for a few days, or a week. Many LBs live in communities, sharing a room. Some support other LBs who have become too depressed to work the streets. Others just fade away back to the village or commit suicide '' a knife to the stomach, jumping off a roof, or a drugs overdose the preferred ways to go, when it all gets too much to stand.
Many LBs take hormones, amphetamines and valium to make them more feminine, stay slim and awake all night, and relax and sleep after work. A few I know have been caught dealing or buying and have been arrested, only to pay a fine and be released, or the ultimate humiliation, be caught and have their long hair cut short '' a nightmare for any LB. Thai jails are unpleasant places. I have paid for several LBs to be let out of jail over the years. Of course, the real fear is from HIV/AIDs.
In my opinion, LBs are just like normal people, different in their own way, but aren''t we all'' I have has countless arguments with Thai people about LBs. They say all LBs are bad just for being a LB and they should accept themselves as a man. I argue back that you cannot control how you are born, and denying your true self can be difficult, almost impossible. All the LBs I have ever met have just wanted to be a normal women. Through no fault of their own, they have been born into a man''s body, a real life problem that most people, understandably, cannot get to grips with. LBs are not a new phenomenon; they go way back in Thai history, 200 years or more. There are supposed to be about 100,000 LBs in Thailand, currently. There have been some positive developments over the years, but LBs are still considered outsiders in Thai society.
Transvestites and Transsexuals are seen all over the world: the UK, where London has two exclusive nightclubs, Italy, where She-males are popular, Japan, India and many countries across Asia. Also, Transvestites were even present in 19th century North American Native culture. Ladyboy is the universally accepted term now. I even think that the Oxford Dictionary officially recognized the term a few years back.
Even qualified LBs have problems finding a normal job. I have met several with university degrees, and real ideas and talent who cannot find a job. Some I know have been successful and have found a career '' beauty '' sales and marketing '' promotion and of course, the stage. Thailand is far more accepting of LBs than other parts of the world, but their reputation goes before them, and judgments, some unfair, are made.
Virtually all the LBs I have ever met knew from an early age '' 2 - 5 years old '' that they were different and that they were going to be LBs when they grew up. My wife''s cousin is a LB, at 13 years of age. His mother wants him to finish his education before setting out as a fully fledged LB '' a sensible mum, for sure.
Thailand has a world-renowned reputation for sex-change ops. People come for all over the world to benefit form the skills of local surgeons, cheaper prices and a greater understanding of the problem. I know a few LBs who have problems with silicone in-plants, but overall the quality of treatment in Thailand is very good, if you can afford it, of course.
No grey areas for me. In my mind, LBs are a third sex. To consider them in any other way is a mistake, I think. Enigmatic '' exotic '' mysterious - dangerous at times - but a sex apart they are. Nearly all the LBs I have know have no interest in a gay man for a partner. They want a straight man, either as a partner or a customer. Sadly, some LBs seem to be as homophobic as many straights I have met. Some LBs have gay friends, but none I have met want a gay man for a partner.
Yes, it is hard to be a LB, even in the Land of Smiles. I tell my LB friends they are lucky they were born Thai and live here. In the west, it would be much harder for them to exist and live the life of a LB. Although still difficult for them, at least they can survive in some way. I go out of my way to understand them, I know they appreciate that, I wish more people would do the same, both in Thailand, and worldwide. LBs don''t deserve to be looked down on; they are human beings, and have feeling and needs like the rest of us. Prejudices run deep, even in Thailand, but there is a growing, if slow, acceptance of Ladyboys - which I for one greatly welcome.