Lady Boys: remarked and remarkable

ladybi=oyStill adapting my eyes to Thailand flaming sun, I was struck by a vision coming right at me in a local bus at the outskirt of UdonThani. Another flaming thai character appeared in the shape of a young lady boy or to be precise a soon-to-become third sex person. The teenager, barely in his puberty, all dressed up in his male school uniform, boyish haircut, was wearing a shocking pink lip gloss and flowery earrings. His outfit was completed by a bright purple handbag.

As surprising as it was for me at the time, no one else in this confined and chaotic space seemed to bother his peculiar appearance. How open-minded!, I thought. How would people react if the same situation presented itself in a provincial city back home? I guess it wouldn’t have left them as indifferent. Some might have even scolded him. Or worst. But as for many social matters, things are so different here. Thailand is the leading country for sex-change operations. The land of smile gives an image of a healthy openness to transsexuality. But I always wondered if this avant-garde gender was that well accepted among very traditional thai society. Wasn’t it just another way to avoid conflict and not taking the risk to lose face?

If you have a closer look at the perceptions of katoeys in thai society, the situation isn’t as paradisiacal as it may look. In TV series and movies for instance, they are often –if not always- relegated to the funny roles. Lady boys characters are designed to make you laugh at them, and not with them. They are loud, extravagant, sassy, superficial and never stand a chance for depth in feelings or thoughts. Playing in a strictly third sex volleyball team in Sa-three-lek or scared to death by ghosts in Hor-thaew-thak, the image portrayed by those popular features isn’t flattering. Even though our Tootsie or The adventures of Priscilla, queen of the desert were heavily loaded with stereotypes, some movies such as the recent Kinky boots or TransinAmerica brought a more realistic insight to the difficulties of being a tiny bit different. If Ladyboys are often caricatured in thai medias, they have at least the chance to be presented to a large audience, which isn’t the case in most countries. Some of them even became superstars like TV host Ma, chef Yingsak or comedian Tong Tong. They are now a role model for those like this young man in UdonThani who aren’t scared to show to the world who they really are. Broadcasted beauty contests such as Miss Tiffany, achieve to prove them how fabulous they are.

Third-sex associations militate actively, trying to push further their rights by plighting, for instance, to obtain the installation of special restrooms in universities where only ladyboys could share the facilities. Actions are also taken to empower shemales through qualified employment -not every ladyboy desires to become an exotic dancer in Pattaya -. But those young professionals daring having other ambitions, often found themselves discriminated by employers who punish them for their unorthodox lifestyle. Hopefully, PC Air, a Bangkok-based new-coming airline, has publically announced that it would recruit ladyboys as flight-attendants. About 100 third-sex persons postulated but only four were hired, including former Miss Tiffany Universe 2007, Thanyarat Chirapatpakorn. The airline’s CEO, Peter Chan, explained to Reuters that the transsexual application process was more difficult than that for non-transsexuals, as they have to “spend the whole day with them to make sure they have feminine characters.” “We have taken the right decision by allowing transsexuals to be able to get this kind of job highly considered by the society”, added one of the founders, Piyo Chantraporn.

A good marketing plan for sure, but a laudable action nonetheless. It actually could have been a great project if it wasn’t for a small but disturbing detail. The flight-attendants will have to wear on their uniform a small tag identifying them as a “third-sex” cabin crew. If those qualified new employees don’t draw the attention on their appearance, why would the passengers need to be reminded of their sexual being? Wasn’t it discriminatory to identify people as “third-sex” and not simply “cabin crew”? Would gay people have to wear a tag mentioning their sexual orientation? I didn’t get it. The scheme was probably to transform those flight-attendants of a new kind into an upcoming attraction to travelers in need of a thrill. Newness is the best commercial aphrodisiac. Too bad, this noble cause –raising awareness on transsexuals’ rights- had to serve a financial purpose. But when the situation isn’t glorious, a step forward, even an awkward one, is better than no step at all. That sentence could also be true when talking about the perception of ladyboys in thai society. Even though there is still a need for improvement, Thailand is opening the path to the acceptance and integration of the third-sex gender not only in the country, but also worldwide.
As published in Out in Thailand

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