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Ladyboys (Kathoey), Transgenderism & Buddhism in Thailand

Thailand is often cited as a country welcoming of transgenderism, due to its long acceptance of the 3rd gender known as Kathoey (กระเทย). Kathoeys are popularly known in the West as ladyboys. They are men (usually quite effeminate in build) who choose to live as a woman. Some sources claim that effeminate gay men are also called kathoeys in Thailand, but this actually doesn’t happen much. And when it does occur, it is usually in a joking manner.

One of the main reasons kathoeys have been accepted in Thailand for 100s of years is that they do not claim to be actual women, as so many transgender women in the West try to assert. Instead, Thai ladyboys are identified as a 3rd gender: not male, and not female. Therefore one doesn’t have situations where kathoeys attempt to play on girls sports teams, nor are Thai boys ever put on puberty blockers if they think they might be a ladyboy.

In other words, because kathoeys are a distinct 3rd gender (different from biological females), none of the transgender activities that cause heated debate in the West are occurring in Thailand. A ladyboy’s identity is closer to that of the 20th century transvestite in the West (but more effeminate), with elaborate kathoey dance shows being hugely popular in Bangkok during the 1980s and 1990s. These ladyboy cabaret shows continue to exist in Thailand, but to a lesser degree than during their heyday.

Transgender men is a phenomenon that doesn’t exist in Thailand (to any recognizable degree), so that also reduces the friction around transgenderism in Thailand. Lesbian relationships are quite common though, with one woman usually taking on a more masculine role, and the other a more feminine one. More than a few Thai women will experiment with a lesbian relationship when young, as a safe method of learning about physical intimacy without the risk of getting pregnant (because many young Thai men are loathe to use condoms).

The Buddhist View of Transgender Ladyboys in Thailand

Another reason that ladyboys have been widely accepted in Thailand (although not always nor by all Thais) is that their transgenderism is thought to be a result of bad karma from a previous life (and thus something beyond their control). According to Thai Buddhism, a person becomes a kathoey due to a serious breaking of the 3rd precept (ศีลข้อที่ 3) in a past life. The 3rd Buddhist precept is: I shall refrain from sexual misconduct.

Thai Buddhists have said you run the risk of becoming a ladyboy in your next life if:

1) You engage in repeated adultery, especially public adultery that causes deep suffering and loss of face to your spouse.

2) You are “jao choo” (เจ้าชู้). That is, very promiscuous and have many “giks” (กิ๊ก) or casual sex partners, especially if by doing so you ruin someone else’s existing relationship.

3) You become the “mia noi” (เมียน้อย) or second wife of a Thai man, thereby ruining the man’s marriage.

4) You participate in incest, rape, or any other violent sexual act.

5) You are addicted to pornography to the extent that it ruins the sexual life of your marriage.

It’s been correctly pointed out that many kathoeys in Thailand have ended up working in the nightlife sector in Bangkok and Pattaya due to fewer employment opportunities. However, one reason why ladyboys work in Thailand’s bar scene often is overlooked. It is the belief that “life is spoiled already, why not spoil it altogether” (ชีวิตเสียแล้ว ทำให้เสียสุดๆเลยนะ). Since bad karma from a past life has caused their current transgenderism, some kathoeys decide to go full libertine. This pessimistic attitude has thankfully grown less common over the past decade, as the transgender community has watched Thai ladyboys become successful in a wide variety of careers.