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Kathoey in Thailand - the third gender

Kathoeys have probably had a permanent place in Thai culture for many centuries. Although the feminine men in Thailand have been omnipresent for a long time and are present not only in big cities but also in villages, they still have to struggle with social discrimination to this day.

What is a Kathoey?

The term kathoey, katoy, or katoey is a Khmer loan word used Thai, denoting a specific category of transgender people. The word, originally meaning “hermaphrodite”, is common in Thailand and Laos. Kathoey has no exact equivalent in other languages ​​and cannot be adequately translated due to the different conceptual content of similar terms.

Kathoey refers to a homogeneous and well-defined category of sexual and gender identity, sometimes referred to as the third gender. Most of the time, these are biological men who are characterized by feminine characteristics or a female gender identity and who desire masculine men. The precise degree of self-identification as a woman and of being a woman, ranges from occasional demonstrations of typically feminine behavior and wearing feminine clothing, to consistent and complete identification as a woman or as a woman of two kinds. Kathoey thus encompasses numerous different identities: the spectrum ranges from from the pure identification as a homosexual man with a feminine appearance to gender reassignment measures, which can include surgeries, hormone treatments and more. While some Kathoey strive to make their appearance as feminine as possible, others see no contradiction between their male body and their female identity.

The social role of the Kathoey

In the West, Kathoey and transsexuals are often treated in a rather disparaging manner and are still far from being fully accepted. Compared to Western societies, Kathoey in Thailand are considered more accepted and visible. The reason for this is probably the Buddhist culture, in particular the doctrine of karma. From this, Kathoey gained their special identity based on their actions in previous incarnations. It is often assumed that they committed a sin in a previous life and must suffer the consequences in their present life by being born in the wrong body. For this reason, it is believed within Buddhist culture that the Kathoey are destined to live in a different way. They should not be blamed for their behavior and rather than mocked, one should feel sorry for them.

Since a strongly patriarchal society prevails in Thailand to this day, the Kathoey still doesn't experience complete legal and social recognition. Only since 2012 have they been able to enter a different gender from their birth sex in their identity papers. Previously, not only were they denied that opportunity, but they were discarded at screening for perceived psychosis or insanity. Because lawful men in Thailand are required to submit their military service status form when entering employment or admission to college, this eviction could have serious repercussions for a kathoey and her career. To date, most kathoey can be found in the entertainment industry and in the red light district due to their difficulty in finding employment. Even today, they are often confronted with derogatory behavior, ridicule and discrimination. The suicide rate among kathoey is also significantly higher than among the rest of the country's population.

The historical background of the Kathoey

The term Kathoey was already common in patriarchal Thailand before the middle of the 20th century. Although some Buddhist origin myths mention the existence of three sexes, in the middle of the last century Kathoey were still not designated as a fully valid third sex, but referred to as various deviations from male and female gender norms. In addition to physical deviations, this also included various functional disorders such as erectile dysfunction and sterility as well as deviating role behavior. Since the 1950s, there has been an increasing differentiation between Kathoey and intersexuals as well as female and male homosexuals, which only became established in the 1970s.

According to some historical evidence, kathoey existed in Thailand before the spread of Buddhism in the 13th century. It is assumed that within homosexual relationships, one person always assumed the male behavioral role, while the other person played the female role. This gendered concept of sexuality also persisted in Thai Buddhist society. There were two gender categories for men: while "Phu-chai" referred to straight males, "Kathoey" probably referred to all those biological males who deviated from societal conventions several centuries ago. Unlike in Christian and Muslim societies, Kathoey were probably never persecuted or even executed. According to some historical accounts, there were even monks many years ago who lived outside of the usual gender norms and could accordingly be referred to as Kathoey.

Kathoey, ladyboys and femboys - differences and similarities

Ladyboy is the original English translation for kathoey and is common in many Asian countries, but also in the western adult industry. “Ladyboy” is often used synonymously with “Kathoey” and refers to both transgender women and homosexual men with feminine traits.

A femboy, on the other hand, is a person who is biologically a man but is characterized by feminine behavior or feminine appearance. While femboys have feminine traits, they can be of any sexuality.