THAILAND: Kathoeys and Toms

Thailand is well known for being one of the most open Asian countries for trans and queer people. Why it stands out compared to its neighbours is largely chalked up to traditional Thai culture, which includes third genders, mixed with Buddhism’s focus on the inherent earthliness of all matters of sex and gender. That being said, legal equality for the LGBTQ community isn’t there yet, discrimination definitely still exists, and many people end up either choosing or needing to work in the sex industry.

I was looking for interviews with Thai kathoeys – the trans women who often are the face of discussions on sex and gender in Thailand, and oh boy, I had to wade through a LOT of weird exoticizing and fetishizing “ladyboy” crap first.

I’m not going to share any of that, instead, I want to start with an interview with Sirikanya Julalukkun (Sauce), and entrepreneur and actress about her experiences as a trans woman. What’s very interesting is that she herself draws a distinction between trans and cis women in a different way than we do in the West.

The term kathoey can also be a bit broader in Thailand – it mainly means trans women, but can also include intersex people, other gender expressions, as well as drag performers or feminine gay men.

Less talked about internationally when looking at gender and sexuality in Thailand are Toms – gay women who present in a very masculine fashion, while still identifying as a woman. They’re very similar to butch lesbians (and have corresponding femmes, called Dees). However, they usually don’t use the term lesbian, which in Thailand instead generally refers to feminine gay women who are attracted to other feminine women. There’s a lot more complexity and subtlety to these identities and they don’t fit exactly into a lot of Western ideas of queerness – I’d strongly suggest the below video for more details on Toms.

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