14 Questions

Recently I was interviewed by a writer for Time Magazine (Asian Edition) about the Thai movie "Satree Lex". This film is based on the 1996 incident in which a volleyball team from up-country won the Thai national championship, but was not allowed to compete internationally because some of its members were kathoey. This movie, which opened in March 2000, has been doing extremely well, and points to the continued popularity of anything transgendered in Thai culture. The journalist from Time, Robert Horn, asked me some great questions, but he used only a small portion of what I said in his article. Therefore, I thought I'd reproduce the interview in full here, so that all the info, in this conveniently structured format, wouldn't go to waste. For a look at the article in Time, click here.

1. There seems, on the surface at least, to be an inordinately high number of kathoeys in Thailand. Is that in fact the case, and if so why? Or is it a misperception?

It is difficult to say whether Thailand does in fact have a higher proportion of transgendered people in its population as compared with other countries. But I think there might be two reasons why Thailand's numbers appear high in comparison to those of western countries.

First, in a place such as the United States, transgendered people who venture out in public risk verbal and physical harassment. The potential for transphobic violence means that transgendered people often think twice about going down to the local mall.

Second, some transgendered people, such as heterosexual transvestites, cross-dress only in the privacy of their own homes, or with groups of supportive people - not in public. Accordingly, this segment of the transgendered population also remains invisible.

These two points lie in contrast with the Thai situation.The general lack of confrontational verbal or physical harassment against katoeys means they can be openly transgendered in public without fearing for their personal safety (unlike the case in many other countries). And, as far as I understand it, the notion of heterosexual cross-dressing for personal pleasure is a foreign notion in Thailand.

Accordingly, one can see that other countries might have transgendered populations equivalent to that of Thailand. It is just that the high numbers of katoeys attest to the freedom they have to express their transgenderism in public, in contrast to the numbers of western transpeople who are forced to live in the closet.

2. Are katoeys accepted in Thai society? If so, is it full acceptance? If not, what kind of limitations, discriminations or dangers do they face?

As I see it, the issue of the acceptance of katoeys operates at many different levels in Thai society. For example, in conducting my own research, I have found that an individual's attitudes towards katoeys can vary depending on age, ethnicity, class, gender and geographic location. People also tend to view transgenderism differently depending on whether a katoeys is a member of their immediate family, a friend, acquaintance or stranger. Attitudes run the gamut from full acceptance, to tolerance, to indifference, to hatred.

Comparatively speaking in terms of religion, it is easy to state that Judaeo-Christian belief condemns transgenderism because it is plainly written in the Old Testament. However, according to Thailand's national religion, Buddhism, transgenderism is not a sin. Rather, there is the belief that a person is born a katoeys because he committed adultery in a previous life. Thus, transgenderism becomes a question of karma. And to the extent that being katoeys means paying the debt for one's past immoralities, then that person is to be pitied rather than condemned for a willful act 'against nature'.

Legally as well, the Thai situation is vastly different from that in western counties. There are no laws in Thailand which forbid men or women from dressing in the clothing of the opposite sex in public. In America, for example, such laws, which differ according to state, existed until fairly recently. However, while transgendered people in the United States are able to change their sex on personal documents, such is not the case in Thailand. Katoeys who have had sex-reassignment surgery and are living full-time as women still can not change their sex on documents such as passports and ID cards. Legally katoeys are defined as males.

Finally, the Thai legal system does not provide recourse for katoeys to legally challenge employers who discriminate against them in hiring or firing decisions based upon their transgenderism.

3. Is there some sort of traditional role in Thai society or culture for katoeys?

We know very little about the 'traditional role' of katoeys in Thai society, because so little research has been done on this topic. A clue might be provided by the role katoeys play in northern Thai spirit worship. Many of the male spirit mediums are katoeys. However, it is difficult to say how far back into Thai history this spiritual role stretches.

4. What are some of the ambiguities or contradictions in the way Thai society deals with katoeys?

On the one hand, people generally view katoeys as being experts in the entertainment and beauty arts. In fact, many people I have spoken with greatly admire the 'natural talent' they believe katoeys have for singing, dancing, fashion design, hair styling, and the like. On the other hand, many of these same people would not want their son to be a katoey, because it would bring shame to their familiy.

It seems that there are two major stereotypes regarding katoeys. One is that they are talented, hard workers. Another is that they are loud, over-acting, and promiscuous. Students with whom I spoke at Chiang Mai University often held both points of view simultaneously.

5. Generally speaking, are katoeys accepted by their families? In the movie, one katoeys is accepted fully by his parents. If this is not usual, are there still families that do come to accept and love their transgendered children?

The attitudes of families are highly varied. There are katoeys who are fully accepted by their families, as well as those who get kicked out by their parents. Sometimes the father can't accept his son, while the mother can. I also know katoeys who felt that their parent's acceptance was conditional. One who identified as a transsexual told me that she felt her parents' acceptance depended on her success as a student.

6. Is there a considerable amount of violence against katoeys in Thailand?

Unprovoked violent attack against katoeys does not seem to commonly occur in Thailand to the extent that it does in western countries. Certainly Thailand's social norm of non-confrontation means that it is considered in poor taste to show anger or displeasure in front of other people. This means katoeys are rarely verbally or physically harassed in public. However, members of the community express disapproval against katoeys in other, no less damaging, ways. For instance, gossip and ostracism are powerful social mechanisms.

I must add that, regarding violence, I have heard stories of fathers who beat their children who were katoeys. Additionally, sexual violence is not rare. That is, katoeys are vulnerable to rape, either by adult family members and friends. Likewise, some people view katoeys in the same way they do female prostitutes - as sexual objects who are fair game.

7. How do non-katoey gay men generally feel about katoeys?

There hasn't been a lot of research done on this, but from what I've heard, a good number of the more masculine gay men would like to disassociate themselves from katoeys, because they feel katoeys call undue attention to their sexuality with their dress and behavior. After all, Thai social norms frown on attention-getting actions, and certainly many gay men feel that they can be accepted in society if they behave and dress like regular men. In this sense some feel that katoeys, whom most Thai people associate with gayness, give gender-normative gay men a bad name.

8. Thailand has at times been portrayed as a paradise for gay men, in that the culture accepts them. Is that the reality?

For gay Thais, Thailand has a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. Gay men are not stigmatized as long as they don't draw attention to the fact they are gay. Westerners, however, see Thailand as a 'gay paradise' for a number of reasons. First, sex is easily and cheaply available here. Second, due to the Thai social norm of non-confrontation, a western gay man can openly express his sexuality in Thailand without fearing harassment. Stares, perhaps, but no verbal or physical violence. After living in a country in which homophobia and gay-bashing are facts of life, Thailand really does seem like a dream. But as I mentioned, for Thai gay men who are out of the closet, employment and social discrimination, as well as familial disapproval do exist.

9. Why do there seem to be so few gay rights or katoeys rights organizations in Thailand?

This is a great question! I wish I knew. When Rajabhat Institute banned homosexuals from entering its teachers colleges several years ago, it was the Thai lesbian group Anjaree, along with other national and international women's and human rights groups, which challenged the ruling. Why weren't groups of gay men or katoeys galvanized into action to fight the ban? I don't know. Some people say these groups don't exist because there is no social oppression to fight against. This is obviously untrue. For instance, gays and katoeys are frequently the objects of journalistic slander, yet it is Anjaree - the lesbian group - which continues to lead the fight against such discrimination and journalistic sensationalism. However, I do think the situation is changing. For example, more and more transsexual katoeys are becoming fed up with their male legal status, and I can definitely hear the rumblings of a movement to fight to change that law.

10. Is the situation changing at all for gays and katoeys in Thailand?

I think that as more and more gays and katoeys reach levels of higher education, social movements will begin to form. Likewise, as katoeys graduate from higher education and attempt to enter into a diverse range of professions, society will have to begin to view them other than as entertainers or beauticians.

It is also noteworthy that Thailand's first ever gay pride parade occurred this past October. The gay and katoeys (and lesbian) communities, both together and separately, are continuing to expand and galvanize.

11. How are katoeys portrayed in the Thai media?

The Thai media sensationalizes transgenderism. Stories about katoeys are newsworthy because of their shock value. Katoeys have been frequent characters on television dramas, but these roles are typically either comic or tragic, and superficial.

12. Does the film 'Satree Lex' represent a breakthrough or milestone in Thai cinema and media in the way it portrays katoeys?

Any film which portrays a katoeys not as a one-dimensional stereotype but rather as a thinking, feeling human being represents a breakthrough.

13. Something that you would like readers to understand about katoeys and gays and their place and significance in Thai society?

I think it is important to realize that the Thai word katoey actually refers to several different kinds of transgendered people, from pre- and post-op transsexuals to drag queens to effeminate gay men.

I also believe it is important to realize that tolerance does not equal acceptance. For those of us from western countries, Thailand really does seem like a utopia for homosexual and transgendered people. However, this doesn't mean that negative social sanctions against sexual minorities do not exist. Perhaps it is difficult for us to notice them because they are different from those we are used to in our own countries. What is present is a wide range of attitudes towards gays and katoeys. And it is this complexity which makes the study of this topic such a difficult, yet fruitful endevour.

14. Based on question 13, what does this lead you to conclude about Thai society?

I feel that Thai society is unique in that it provides a space for people who are openly homosexual or transgendered. Certainly, disapproval and discrimination do exist. But there are very few countries in this world which provide for even the possibility of the full expression of one's identity. Thailand is one of them.


Andrew Matzner, copyright 2000