What We Talk About When We Talk About Ladyboys

 | Fri 28 Mar 2014 14:48 ICT

Waves were made recently when a video was snapped of an individual taking off their clothes in the Mae Wang River. The video is thirty seconds long. There is nothing inherently sexy about the clip – the individual makes a quick change of clothing on the bank of the river in front of a small hut where their friends are gathered. We briefly see the front of their body (with exposed breasts) and then their bum. It doesn’t appear as though the individual asked for the video to be shot, nor do they appear to have been asked whether or not the video could be taken. In fact, as soon as the individual realises the video is being shot, they turn around to face their friends, shielding their face in a large sweater that eventually covers their entire naked body, after which point the voyeuristic videographer loses interest and shuts off the camera.

This is not news, and one of the only reasons why I can imagine it has garnered such buzz (and upwards of 150,000 hits on YouTube) is because many news sources have claimed the individual to be a “ladyboy,” an allegation which may or may not even be true (hence my use of the technically grammatically incorrect but gender-neutral pronoun “their” in the introductory paragraph).

The main argument for the ladyboy claim (when hardly anything, let alone a penis, is visible from such a far distance) is that no self-respecting Thai woman would ever strip like that in public. It must be a ladyboy then, that second-class citizen of Thai society who’s just as sexy (and has all the parts too!) as a “normal” girl but is free (encouraged, told) to be brash and loud and erotic about this sexiness. Their physical bodies become placeholders for straight Thai male wet dreams about the quiet, gentle Thai ladies they’re hardly allowed to touch.  Whatever guilt someone might feel at watching a “natural” woman with a beautiful, bodacious figure strip in a river is entirely erased when the English term “ladyboy” is tacked onto the individual as if it were some large, glowing sign that reads IT’S OKAY TO OBJECTIFY ME BECAUSE I’M NOT A REAL PERSON ANYWAY!

Though there are many terms in the Thai language used to refer to transsexual women (sao praphet song and phet tee sam in particular), the term ladyboy seems to have been born out of a, perhaps botched, interpretation of the term kathoey, which unlike the aforementioned Thai phrases, is used to describe a man who dresses like a woman but still identifies as male, an identity that westerners might describe as a cross-dresser or even a drag queen. The term Ladyboy, then, as it is used in modern, every-day language, is linked to an expression of identity that is performative as opposed to an expression of identity that is innate. To call a Thai individual who has completely transitioned to being a woman a ladyboy would be equivalent to calling an American individual who has completely transitioned to being a woman a drag queen. In these connotations, there is an implied sense of impermanency, that as soon as the show is over or the night is done, they might strip off their wigs and their boobs, their high heels and make-up and be a boy once more. This return to being a boy keeps things “safe” in that it doesn’t disturb the cisgendered paradigm in which individuals are either male or female.

So when news reports use the term ladyboy in their reporting of the aforementioned video, the usage is loaded. It turns the entire subject of the video into a spectacle. A probing of a creature who lives somewhere in the grey space of societal moral code. We scold the immodesty, but watch in wonder as something male takes on the form of something female. During the Christmas pageant at my school this past year, in which several of my ladyboy students donned bikinis and swivelled their hips and humped the ground to loud pop music, the front row of old Thai male directors sat in similar wonder, rapt by the spectacle unfolding on the stage. In a traditional system in which female sexuality is kept on lock, ladyboys are thrust into the limelight to fill the void.

This fact seems to taint the pervasive acceptance of ladyboys in Thai culture. Because acceptance of a minority group for their entertainment value, without accepting them as true beings with beliefs, struggles and a set of identity politics, is not acceptance. It is a twisted oppression in which ladyboys are lauded for their contributions to tourism, but jeered at in public, celebrated in the darkness of cabarets and back alleyways, but entirely ignored in the light of day. Bless the ladyboy who is not funny or beautiful or particularly good at singing because she will most certainly be a ladyboy who is unable to safely navigate the murky world of Thai society. Beauty and femininity are valuable assets – the more beautiful and feminine a transitioning individual is, the higher their seat of privilege in this world will be. For example, one of the most famous khatoey in all of Thailand, Parinya Charoenphol (better known as Nong Toom), is a skilled boxer. However, in media coverage and in the sports biopic made about her life, she is referred to as the Beautiful Boxer. Her skill as a boxer, then, is secondary to her beauty and her femininity, and one could posture that her wide acceptance in Thai society is inherently linked to these modifiers.   

I, for one, salute this notion with a juicy middle finger. A ladyboy is more than her body. A transsexual woman is more than her body. You, reader, are more than your body and so am I. And so, too, is the individual who for thirty seconds decided to take off her clothes while standing in a river. To criticise and sensationalise that simple act is to reduce her (and all of us) to nothing more than the vagina or penis we might have. When we focus on and vilify the body simply for existing, we never get around to asking the big questions about what identity is and who we as individuals truly are. Because it’s all an act: the straight boy who decides to wear cargo pants and a ratty t-shirt is performing just as much as the ladyboy in a mini skirt or the straight girl in hers or the transsexual woman who decides to wear loose-fitting jeans one day and a flowy dress the next. The most natural thing about us is the skin we choose to live in, and no one has the right to take that away from us.