I attend one of Thailand’s famous Cabarets
First, a few thoughts:
Before coming to Thailand, I had seen a lot of mention on Travel Blogs and websites regarding “Ladyboys.” Some articles had merely mentioned the term in passing, while others had gone so far as to write condemning “How to spot/avoid a T***ny in Thailand” articles. There is even an Anthony Bourdain travel episode where he interacts with some lovely Ladyboys at a colorful cabaret. With increased discussion happening all over North America about acceptance of the LGBTQPDIA+ community, I was really curious about what defines a Kathoey, and what the acceptance levels are in Thailand. I had heard of a third gender being widely accepted in India, and wondered if the same non-binary culture applied in Thailand. However, asking my friends in Gender Studies courses/majors didn’t produce any straightforward results.
Now that my insight has increased, it is my current understanding that there really is no way of describing the gender to an English speaker with the American mindset. The best way I can think to describe a Kathoey/ladyboy in ways that a United States resident can understand is “Not exactly a transgender woman, not exactly a dragqueen, not exactly a cross-dresser, but a combination of all three.” Some tourists use transgender and ladyboy interchangeably, but that is not the case, as some women in Thailand identify as “transgender,” and resent being called Kathoey/ladyboy.
Now that I have learned more through living in Thailand, I am a bit more confident in my understanding of the culture. The Thai language doesn’t use pronouns the way the English language does. In English, we typically use “he,” “she” to describe someone we are talking about. Alternatively, in Thai, we use “krop” or “kah” to describe ourselves. In this way, people can identify their own gender immediately, within the first sentence. For example, if I say “hello,” I must say, “sawatdee-kah,” but if a man wishes to say hello, he must say, “sawatdee-krop.” Pronouns in Thai to describe someone other than yourself are entirely gender neutral. In this way, I can see why it is more intuitive for Thailand to make a comfortable shift into recognizing people for the genders that they identify as, instead of genders that are assumed by physical appearance.
A guest speaker in our Humanities class while at Chiang Mai University briefly mentioned that there are no hate crimes in Thailand against those who identify with non-binary genders. The worst treatment that a kathoey will get is a jeer. For a country that prides itself on progressiveness, the United States really falls behind Thailand in terms of acceptance.
I was really excited to see a Cabaret show in Thailand, as they are said to be some of the best in the world. Luckily, I got my chance on our very first night in Chiang Mai, at the Night Bazaar.
Ladyboys walked in front of the Cabaret venue, dancing in high heels and inviting tourists to come see the show. Tickets were 200 baht (about $5) and included a free soda or beer.
We walked inside and grabbed seats at the far right of the venue, as close to the front as we could get. I had a great view of the stage, which currently displayed a shimmering sequined curtain with changing lights projecting on it, as well as a giant disco ball.
Loud music blasted through the room as people filed in to the seats, and I began to wriggle in my seat out of excitement and anticipation.
Just as my patience was about to wear thin, fog machines sputtered out a thin stream of vapor, and the curtains opened.
The entire performance was an amazing celebration of gender fluidity. Ladyboys in elaborate glittering costumes came out one at a time, or in groups, each performing one song after another.
Some lipsynched, some danced (in high heels!) and every performance was as high energy as the one before.
I was a bit uncomfortable with certain people around me discussing “where are his genitals?” as I thought it was very disrespectful and was missing the point entirely. In one of the final performances, two performers wearing slinky black lingerie came over to our group, grabbing a male student from our group and dancing with him on stage. They gave him sloppy lipsticked kisses on his cheeks, and the audience roared with laughter. I was a bit uncomfortable with this as well, as I felt like a lot of the westerners were making a mockery of the performers who were just enjoying displaying their identity and celebrating their genders.
That being said, I was pleasantly surprised with how progressive most of the performances were. One performer wore a split-gendered outfit, in which one side was a red dress with blonde wig, and the other side had a tuxedo with a black mustache. The dancer tango-ed both parts, and it felt like watching a magic show.
By far my favorite performance, though, was a Kathoey who was lip-synching to ‘My Way.’ The performer started out in full makeup and dress. Throughout the performance, however, she slowly began to remove all of the visual factors that culturally define a woman. One earring was discarded, and then the other. Bra inserts came out and were flung across the stage. Wig came off, and makeup was wiped off with two aggressive flourishes. Soon, she was left on the stage bare-chested, wearing a black jacket and pants, panting heavily at the audience. It was very powerful, and I actually started to tear up a bit, thinking about all the hardships that those in the LGBTQIADP+ community must go through every single day.
I stayed until the end, watching each dance/costume with overflowing respect. I’ve been avoiding commenting in conversations about the ladyboys, since a lot of students do make a mockery about the gender that they don’t understand. I won’t admit to ever fully understanding it myself, and I refuse to ever comment on genital reconstruction (gender affirmation surgery), which is something that should be private anyway. I’m excited to come back to California with some new insight to share.