Zoe Mendelson is traveling the world, talking to friends and strangers about the messy, wonderful business of love. This series tracks her journey, highlighting the best of her encounters.
There are few things as challenging as talking to Thais about homosexuality. Thailand has a reputation as an especially gay-friendly country, so why, even when language was not an issue, did my interviewees seem so utterly confounded by my questions? Well, because it turns out I was the confused one. Turns out, in fact, there’s very little homosexuality in Thailand, so to speak.
In Thailand there are a lot of ladyboys, or katoey, and toms, as in “tomboy.” Without official data, the only way I can describe this is to say that, at least in the big cities, it’s noticeably common; you see them everywhere, even portrayed in popular media. Ladyboys are more common than toms, who have appeared on the scene more recently.
Ladyboys are men who dress as women and toms are women who dress as men. To say either group identifies as “men” or “women” would oversimplify the issue. The polite term for katoey in Thai literally translates to “third gender.” Thai has no gendered pronouns, but when Thais refer to ladyboys and toms in English, they consistently used “her” and “him” respectively in such a natural way it seems to reflect the way they think of the people rather than an effort towards political correctness.
Maybe it’s because Thais do, to a large extent, consider ladyboys women and toms men, but neither men who date ladyboys nor women who date toms are considered “gay.” Anecdotally, it seems that ladyboys don’t date ladyboys and toms don’t date toms. When I asked about this, Thais looked at me like I was crazy or stupid. I spoke to Pang, a woman in a relationship with a tom, and we had the following conversation:
Me: Do toms ever date toms?
Pang: No, never!
Me: If a girl dates a tom is she gay or lesbian?
Pang: What? No! Not lesbian, not gay. No no no. In Thailand not use the word “lesbian.”
Me: In the U.S. toms date toms and girls date girls. It’s very common.
Pang: Girls and girl together just friends right?
Me: No they are dating, like a couple. And toms with toms!
Pang: [cracking up with her hands over her mouth] No no no! Not match!!! Not match!!!”
In Thailand, it’s not common for girls to date girls unless one is a tom. Only one Thai person I spoke to had ever heard of this arrangement. There really is no common category called “lesbian.” I even asked if there are some girls who exclusively date toms. I generally received a response in the realm of “sure… maybe?” I later met a Thai lesbian in Vietnam who told me she “left Thailand because there were no lesbians there. Lesbians there have a big problem.”
One available but confining category for lesbians in Thailand is called “dee,” as in “lady.” Dees dress extra-feminine, wear makeup and heels, and carry handbags. A relationship between a tom and a dee involves a kind of hyper-hetero role-play in which toms provide for and tend to their dees. Toms take dees shopping, carry their purses, and walk around holding their hands. Holding hands is not even a common practice among heterosexual couples in Thai society, as they keep public displays of affection to a bare minimum. Common knowledge has it that toms only pleasure their dees and never let them see their own vaginas, although I never had the guts to verify this.
Men who date men have only begun emerging in the last 10 to 15 years. Although fairly well-accepted by general society, gay men still face difficulty because pleasing one’s parents is of paramount importance in Thailand, and the pressure to have children continues. I heard many stories of men who date men when they are young, but who eventually marry a woman and have children. I also heard stories of men who marry, have children, and then go and find a boyfriend. But even within gay relationships between men in Thailand, a sort of male-female structure exists in that they self-identify as either a “king” or a “queen.”
As Pang explained it, “Gay and ladyboy is not the same. Sometimes ladyboys date gay guys. But really, there’s not many gay men who are men in Thailand.”
I asked my Thai friend Meauw if straight men date ladyboys. “Yes!” she told me, “Everyone knows that! It’s very common. Also married men will have a ladyboy on the side as the gik [mistress].” She explained that when a straight man dates a ladyboy she acts as a sort of sugar mama, paying for everything for the man. Similarly to the tom-dee setup, ladyboys pick up checks at meals, take their men shopping, and – according to one ladyboy I spoke with named Goff – even pay their rent.
Meauw and Goff both explained to me that ladyboys typically have lots of money. Subsequently, I asked many Thais about this and though not all could explain why, it definitely holds true in general consensus. Meauw explained ladyboys have a fairly easy time getting work because they can do the work of both a man and of a woman. Goff explained they have a reputation as good workers. She asked if I hadn’t noticed how many bargirls and waitresses were ladyboys. “People think we are interesting, and smart and strong,” she said. I heard this over and over. Contrary to popular imagination, only a small portion of ladyboys work as prostitutes.
I also asked Goff how early in life men become ladyboys. “Very young!” she told me, “I knew who I was when I was three!” It made me wonder if ladyboys face the same adversity in school as young gay boys often do. When I asked a woman named Bhorn if katoey are bullied in school she said, “No! Ladyboys are like the most popular in the school! They are really cool.”
I asked Goff how parents generally felt about their sons becoming ladyboys. He told me at first, 20 years ago, his own parents were scared for their son’s future, but that now they’re more than happy about it, because he sends home so much money. Pang explained that in her generation — she is in her late 20s — parents are not as accepting as peers, but that young parents now have different values than her generation’s parents.
Gay marriage is still illegal in Thailand. Gay politicians generally keep their sexual orientation to themselves. Even after gender reassignment surgery, Thais cannot legally change their gender. But cultural acceptance continues to grow.
To deem Thailand more or less progressive than the U.S. in the “gay” rights department is to apply a set of standards based on a completely different perspective. It would be a real square peg, round hole situation (pun intended). But the differences are interesting to recognize. Thai culture has vastly greater gender fluidity than American culture. But it’s hard to say whether Thailand has a greater tolerance for homosexuality, at least as we see it. By American standards, Thailand could probably be considered more tolerant, considering the widespread acceptance of relationships Americans would consider “gay,” such as those between females and toms or straight men and ladyboys. But by the Thai’s own definition of “gay,” in which two people of the same sex who identify as such have a relationship, Thailand still seems to think, “not match.”
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