By Susan Aldous with Pornchai Sereemongkonpol
Published by Maverick House
Available at leading bookshops
Reviewed by James Eckhardt
A recent newspaper story reported that a high school in Loei has set up a separate bathroom for kathoey students, 200 out of an enrolment of 1,200. Two hundred? In Loei?
As in American movies about high school, there are similar factions in Thai schools: the jocks, the brains, the nerds, the cheerleaders. In Thailand you also have the kathoeys.
Given their great numbers, there's been several academic studies about ladyboys. But reading them would be like chewing marbles. A few years ago, a readable account called "The Third Sex" was published. The author followed three friends from high school in Chiang Mai through their respective careers: cabaret performer, prostitute and bank clerk.
"Ladyboys" casts a wider net. Subtitled "The Secret World of Thailand's Third Gender", the book presents intimate profiles of nine kathoeys ranging widely in age and occupation. Authors Susan Aldous (who wrote "The Angel of Bang Kwang Prison") and Pornchai Sereemongkonpol spent many hours in interviews with the nine and have written their stories in the first person. Of their impressions about their interview subjects, they write:
"There were certain outstanding qualities that never ceased to amaze and delight us, and they were the willingness, warmth and openness shown to us by all the ladyboys we met. They often seemed way ahead of their Thai nontransgender counterparts in their ability to openly discuss such sensitive and personal issues. We were truly humbled to have been admitted onto what felt like sacred ground - the naked and vulnerable hearts of our subjects."
The first is Mali, a Patpong gogo dancer and prostitute. She grew up as a buffalo herder in Isan but as her sexual life bloomed, headed for Bangkok and a job as a waiter and, eventually, a dancer in a bikini and high heels. "Kathoeys are like trees that grow wild," she concludes. "I don't know what else lies in store for me, but I'm proud of this: I'm my own gardener, watering, pruning and shaping my own tree - my own life. How could I ask for more?"
On the other end of the social scale, Mimi is a fashion columnist. She grew up in a supportive SinoThai family in Bangkok and graduated from a prestigious university. Her first job was as a translator for a woman's magazine and she began taking hormones and dressing as a woman full time. "Whatever the term, I'm proud to say that I've finally found myself," she reports. "I see myself as a psychologically heterosexual female. I know physically what I am, but in my mind I am absolutely female and desire a romantic relationship with a straight man."
Pui is a star performer at Bangkok's Calypso Cabaret, a profession that demands a great deal of talent, practice and discipline. "Being a part of Calypso is a privilege," she says. "Not only have I learned to be an artist instead of a mere imitator, but I have also gained a family. Here, we help and accept each other."
A sadder case is Lily who has been a Bangkok streetwalker all her life and now at age 60 is still plying her trade handtomouth on Khao San Road.
Patchara is unique among the others who became aware of their sexuality young in life. "My story is different to that of the other ladies because my desire to become a woman does not come from within. I regret having my penis removed." He moved from Ubon Ratchathani to live with his mother in Bangkok and fell into a relationship with a gogo boy who encouraged his feminisation. Under peer pressure from fellow kathoey dancers, Patchara had the operation: "It took two months for my body to recover from the operation, but my mind was a different matter altogether."
Sarah also had a sex change and ran a gay hotel in Pattaya. Nicky became the first transgender air hostess. Nong Toom became famous as "The Beautiful Boxer".
With fame and fortune, however, Nong Toom became disillusioned by sponging kathoey friends. "In my opinion, ladyboys need to start listening to each other before we can expect others to do so," she says. "We've already been isolated by the first two genders so we need to unite and work together. We have enough obstacles to overcome as it is."
Finally, providing a sense of history is Auntie Nong, who was born in 1934. Kathoeys were a rougher looking lot in her day before the era of hormones and surgery. Many were well educated and held day jobs as men, only venturing out as woman at night. Nong rose from streetwalker to traditional Thai and Bolllywood dancer. She has retired in the care of the gay and transgender community.
Ladyboys succeeds as the first comprehensive portrait of a determined tribe that marches, or sashays, to the beat of a different drummer.