When I told my friends that I was moving to Thailand there was a fairly standard response – not about the richness of Thai culture or the beauty of the landscape, rather that I was going to live in a country full of cross-dressers. Even my Gran, bless her, responded by saying, “That’s where them men-girls come from, isn’t it?’
It was quite a shock, therefore, when I began my new teaching job to find out that what I had thought was just a stereotype for cheap gags was, in fact, a very camp reality.
Standing in front of a class of 60, 15-year-olds I found that the eyes fluttering flirtatiously at me from the first row were more likely to belong to a boy than to a girl. In every class I taught there were at least three or four boys who were so incredibly effeminate that they made Julian Clary look like Chuck Norris.
The one-in-10 statistic that we’d been told in sex education classes seemed to prove correct. It was not hard to spot which boys either: A plastic hair clip, nail varnish, a handbag or a fake, fur shawl. Even on the days when they had military training, it was not uncommon to see two boys, in camouflage gear and army boots, skipping down the corridor, hand in hand.
As the novelty of seeing this sort of behavior wore off, I was then struck by how tolerated it seemed. In my school days every suspected one-in-10 was systematically singled out and bullied; in the Thai classroom, they were treated like virtual celebrities. Where was the Nazi-like teenage tolerance I was used to? Why did every innuendo and theatrically raised eyebrow meet with applause and delight from classmates?
In the West we are told that in the beginning there was man and woman. A creation myth from the northern Thailand tribe, the Yuan, says that there were also hermaphrodites.
The definition of katoey is “both male and female” and refers to homosexual, transvestite, transsexual, and hermaphrodite. It seems that all these forms of sexuality that I didn’t even know existed until I got the Internet in my bedroom, have been around in Thailand for eons.
“What a tolerant and inclusive society,” I thought, when I heard that the Chiang Mai Technical College had opened up a special toilet block, dubbed “the Pink Lotus Bathroom,” fitted with stalls but no urinals and catering to the needs of the 15 or so katoey students who are too girly to use the men’s but too manly to use the girl’s.
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