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The Third Sex

Kathoey, Thailand's Ladyboys

Richard Totman

Many years ago, when in the forces, I was hearing stories from colleagues that had visited Bangkok, that many of the beautiful girls were not all that they seemed to be. In the early nineties, a television documentary entitled "Ladyboys" described "transvestite cabarets." More recently, not altogether to the Thai authorities' wishes, tourist leaflets invariably describe, in small print near the end, the shows featuring "drag acts." Can we really impose a Euroamerican concept such as transvestism on another culture? Moreover the shows are an art form in themselves, with nothing 'camp' about them, derived, as they are, from the village and temple festivals. When 'ladyboy' in fact, is not a literal translation for the Thai word kathoey, it is clear that any interpretation of the culture from a Western viewpoint is likely to be misleading.

After a number of field trips around the villages, after which he set out to learn the language, Richard Totman was invited to spend a number of months living with a Thai family, the relatives of one of the three kathoey, whose lives he describes.

Accepted so completely as one of the family, that they became visibly upset if he conversed with another farang (Westerner) he was able to listen and observe as they talked among themselves, with family members and others. He found he was able to avoid resorting to interviews with questions that inevitably bias the answers - so much so that his little tape recorder remained virtually unused. For several days of the week, the author was able to visit the local university, and the book describes in detail the historical place of katoey in Thai culture, and their relationship to Buddhism, the national religion. It contrasts the village festivals with their commercial incarnations in the big cities, and the place of prostitution in city life.

The central theme, however, is the progress of Lek, Daeng and Malee, from their days at school as members of a kathoey sorority, to their adulthood as cabaret entertainers and winners of beauty pageants and, for one, a career in engineering. The result may be a carefully researched anthropological study, but it is also a wonderfully human account.

Published by
Souvenir Press, 2003
Hardback, 181 pages,
ISBN 0 285 63668 5
GO TO TOP Copyright GENDYS Network. Page design Jed Bland. 28.07.03 Last amended 20.10.03