The third gender, aka Ladyboys (and sometimes called Katoeys) in Thailand are not in a privileged position. They are far better placed in general society than the equivalent Trans woman in Europe or the US.
It's sometimes quite hard to reconcile the general tolerance for T-girls in the country with the intolerance. And dogma of the leading religious institution. The Catholic church, about homosexuality and other non-hetero lifestyles.
Tolerated but not wholly accepted, Ladyboys can live and work in most professions. Yet, a myth abounds that all Transgender women in Thailand either star in one of the multitude of well-choreographed, spectacular cabaret shows or work in bars and nightclubs. Another myth is that most Ladyboys dabble in the sale of sex, or prostitution, on the side.
In reality, there are two extreme types of Ladyboys in Thailand. They can be visible, high profile people in the media for example. Or they can be low key and undetectable ladies working in an office or retail outlet, and living their lives as just another girl.
Well, as with Trans-pinay in The Philippines or “New-half” (T-girls) in Japan. Ladyboys have been around for as long as any can remember. This is particularly true in the ancient Thai Royal Courts or in the arts’ sphere (plays, performances, cabaret).
Indeed, one only has to look through the annals of history to find evidence of Transgender women in Thai society. And, indeed, throughout Asia going back centuries. Ladyboys are not a modern incarceration just to entertain and appease tourists.
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Another important reason for such tolerance is that Thailand has never been colonized (albeit occupied temporarily by the Japanese in the 1940s). Thai society is not tainted by so-called western ideals or views on gender and sexuality. Ideals which the British, Dutch and Germans and others brought with them when colonizing parts of Asia.
As an example, being gay was made illegal by the British in India, Hong Kong. But also in Singapore, Asian attitudes generally being at odds with such a position.
The third gender (many of whom were deemed gay) have always been well established in Thai society. In the past, some T-girls were revered for having greater spiritual awareness and the positive sides of both females and males.
Having said all of the above, Ladyboys in Thailand still face many challenges in society. These include discrimination when it comes to getting jobs or building careers. Or prejudice when, for example, looking to rent accommodation.
In fact, several notable discriminatory issues are either directly or indirectly related to the Thai Government. One main issue is that Transgender women are not allowed to change their birth marker on their National ID card. Which every Thai person has to carry. A child designated as male at birth but who has full gender confirmation surgery cannot change her ID card to show “F”. This causes great consternation when Ladyboys travel overseas. As her passport designation will follow her ID card designation. It also affects a T-girl when she is looking for a job or wants to enjoy government services.
Some skeptics say that certain young, attractive Thai boys opt to be Ladyboys to pursue a relatively lucrative (albeit short) career in cabaret. Yet, statistically, there are no more Ladyboys in Thailand than there are Transgender people in many western countries. It's a question of visibility and the way that such T-girls are openly allowed to be another diverse part of society.
The percentage of people who are Transgender (both male and female) tends to run at a consistent 0.6-0.8% in most countries. And Thailand is no exception.
Others argue that easy access to hormones and Thailand's status as the "sex-change capital of the world" does influence some Thai males to become Ladyboys. However, this is open to debate.
What cannot be doubted, though, is that Ladyboys in Thailand come in all shapes and sizes. Some have breast implants, some don't. Some have gender confirmation surgery, some don't. In fact, some don't have any surgery. But relying on their already feminine ways and appearance to live their life as they want.
Another constant in the discussion about Thai Ladyboys is their appeal to foreign men. You only have to frequent a night club in Bangkok to see men from Japan, the Middle East or Europe with Ladyboys. Or check out specialized dating sites such as iDate Ladyboy whose primary target is foreign men looking to date T-girls in Thailand. Or flick through YouTube and see the number of channels regaling viewers with tales of dating or living with a Ladyboy in Bangkok...
The bottom line is that Ladyboys are a fascination to many. But they are real people too and want to live their lives without undue prejudice and discrimination.