In the city of Pattaya in Thailand, there is a palace of a theatre with a huge faux-marble lobby that mimics a grand opera house. It boasts a large, comfortable 1000-seat theatre with an enormous stage equipped with the latest audiovisual systems. It's called: Tiffany's. It produces it's own performance – a revue, a vaudeville, a classic cabaret theatre-piece, with dance, music, synchronized song, and complex staging. The sets are as lavish and well-designed as you would see anywhere. The costumes are expensive, even spectacular. But beyond this obvious entertainment lure is the main attraction: the cross-dressing actors, mainly men with a few women.. In Thai they are called khatoey, in English, Ladyboy. In most quarters they are revered and they are renowned in Asia for their beauty and talents.
Every night, two performances, packed houses, 1000 people, tourists and locals, stream into this theatre as they have for nearly 30 years. It is considered family theatre and families are abundant in the audience on any given night.
Unlike most other countries particularly in the West, Thai Ladyboys have been "out of the closet" for nearly 300 years. They are acknowledged, applauded and accepted with little embarrassment. Some have achieved great success in business, sports, music, the arts, education, and journalism even after making the surgical journey from men to women,. Much of this has to do with the Buddhist tolerance for difference and change: all things lack permanence—all things are part of transience and incarnation. Buddhist tradition teaches that from life to life one's elements may be incarnated as male or female and some writers suggest that all of us have been khatoey in earlier lives.
In Thailand, as in other Southeast Asian cultures, different gender and sexual categories form part of the indigenous cultural tradition: three original sexes the third being the male-female.
But it hasn't been easy. Many Ladyboys today are forced to work in cabarets and the after-hours life that comes with the business of show. Many have suffered strong personal condemnation from their families (especially fathers) as well as strong disrespect by segments of the society. And the law does not recognize transsexual khatoeys in Thailand. Even after surgery, they are not allowed to change their legal sex.
Last month, I went to Pattaya to see the 9th annual Miss Tiffany Universe pageant. It was a lavish, beautifully staged affair.
Thanyaras Jiraphatphakorn was crowned the new Miss Tiffany Universe. Judges awarded the 20-year-old Thanyaras—a Kasetsart University student whose real name is Disanee Jitrapajin—the Miss Tiffany Universe crown based on his 'charming ladylike appearance' and 'brilliant' answers to their probing questions.
She received a diamond crown, an A-Class Mercedes Benz and 100,000 Baht cash. She will also be the "lady of the second category" representative of Thailand in the forthcoming contest for Miss International Queen 2007
In her press conference, when asked whether it was possible for a khatoey to become a politician, Thanyaras answered, "Sure, it is. In the future, there might be prime minister who is a Ladyboy." However, he added that much depends on whether Thai society can change their negative views of khatoeys. "Society should judge people by what they do rather than considering what sex they are."
There are a number of Ladyboys with high profiles in professions other than cabaret theatre.
This is one of the most famous faces in Thailand. Nong Toom was a champion kickboxer—but that was six years ago before Nong had sex reassignment surgery. As a man Nong was a national hero, idolized for his mastery of "Muay Thai"—traditional Thai kickboxing. Within Thailand's professional boxing circuit, the boundary between male and female has always been clear. Women are thought to bring "bad magic" into the ring and are prohibited from stepping inside.
She was the winner of 22 professional fights with 18 knockouts and countless bruises that spanned a six-year career in the ring. Now, as a woman, Nong is barred from the ring. She can never compete again.
A few years ago, Nong Toom's extraordinary life was captured in the film "Beautiful Boxer." The movie rejuvenated Nong's career—she has appeared in music videos, advertisements, soap operas, and is pursuing a career in singing and performing. But the film also raised awareness of the issues faced by Thailand's many Ladyboys.
Nong's goal is to "have what every woman wants both now and in the future. I want to have a family, a husband...I think there must be someone out there who will love me for who I am."
As an old Thai proverb tells us -- men are the front legs of an elephant and women are the back legs. Since an elephant walks with the front legs first and the back legs follow, it means that a man is more honored and has more opportunity than a woman, a proverbial truth no matter what journey she takes to become one.
Photos and quotes courtesy of
National Geographic and Pattaya Daily News