Week 5: Thailand and Ladyboys

I have wanted to go to Thailand for a very long time. All over social media and in travel books, I have seen photos of the beautiful islands and temples in Thailand. So when we needed to go on a visa run this week, it only made sense we took a trip there. 

My roommate here in Laos spent her most recent semester in Laos taking social justice courses and learning about the issues faced by Thai people living in more rural areas. As a result, while I still wanted to go and explore what Thailand had to offer, I was aware of the political climate and the struggles that real people were facing in Thailand. And before I continue, I want to put out there that I loved my stay in Thailand. People were generally very nice and I met some really amazing people. The landscapes are just as beautiful as the pictures and I felt very at peace for the most part. However, there was one thing that caught my attention.

The Ladyboys.

I will admit that I am not well-versed in the lives of transgender persons nor do I have a complete understanding of gender fluidity and non-binary persons. But coming from a US context, my understanding is that the non-cisgender community takes their identity and other’s perceptions of the identity they themselves have chosen very seriously. When Laverne Cox came to our school she talked about her fear of being recognized as a transgender woman in her earlier years and the violence she could have experienced as a result. The non-binary persons I know and follow really emphasize how they do not conform to a singular gender and would like to be recognized as such and taken seriously. During my time in Thailand, I unfortunately did not have the opportunity to speak with a ladyboy so I do not have their perspective on what it means to be a ladyboy or how they feel about their role in Thai society. But I did speak to other backpackers and the way they discussed ladyboys felt very belittling.

I love that some of Thailand has a culture of accepting these fluid gender identities and that socially transgender and gender fluid people are more accepted it seems in Thailand’s city centers and culture than in the US. However, it seems that the acceptance only to go as far as entertainment purposes. Whether they are performing in a cabaret or prostitutes in Pattaya, it feels as though these people seem to be treated as a spectacle. It allows for tourists to be amused by pretty faces and costumes but takes away the responsibility of having to understand the complexities of life as a ladyboy. While I know that there are ladyboys who are happy performing for audiences and that some find a community and identity confirming space in ladyboy bars, full acceptance in my mind comes when there is no more discrimination and the presence of free choice. When I was reading about the laws in Thailand regarding transgender persons, the government does not have legal gender recognition and does not allow you to change your gender even if you have undergone gender re-assignment procedures. Furthermore, transgender persons are diagnosed with gender dysphoria, a “permanent mental disorder”, which advocates have been fighting to change. There is also job discrimination that keeps transgender and gender fluid thai persons from obtaining jobs outside of entertainment, restaurants, beauty salons and massage parlors, and stores. They have limited job opportunities and can face harassment and lower salaries just for their gender identification or lack of. Furthermore, some find themselves turning to prostitution for income leading to high rates of HIV/AIDS among ladyboy prostitutes and not enough adequate or targeted health services to protect them. In an interview with Jetsada Taesombat, the director of the Foundation of Transgender Alliance for Human Rights (Thai TGA) she spoke about how families will refuse to accept their transgender children for fear of the difficulties they know their children will face causing many to be kicked out at a young age. She also addressed how discrimination hinders the economic, social, and psychological development for trans and gender non-conforming persons. Unfortunately, activism is difficult because the current government is not receptive to protests and demands for policy change from civil society.

With that said, the struggles of the trans and non-binary communities are intense in any country and the community is working towards a better future. Thailand’s Gender Equality Act of 2015 has provided LGBT persons with more protection from discrimination but not everyone in society knows about the law and there is still room for improvement. As a result, this experience has been a great reminder of conscious and responsible tourism. While I did not attend any ladyboy cabaret shows or take pictures with someone, I know that giving a generous tip is important to the livelihoods of the performers who have worked hard to put on a good show. I am aware that these people are not just a spectacle or a nuisance to be annoyed by but rather people who are doing what they can to make ends meet in the environment they were given.