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The term kathoey or katoey (Thai: กะเทย, IPA: [kaʔtʰɤːj]) generally refers to a male-to-female transgender person or an effeminate gay male in Thailand. They are sometimes referred to as ladyboys, or as sao (or phuying) praphet song ("a second kind of woman"), or phet thee sam (third sex). The word kathoey is thought to be of Khmer origin
The term "kathoey" is not an exact equivalent of the modern western transwoman — it suggests that the person is a type of male, unlike the term sao praphet song, which suggests a female sex identity, or phet thee sam, which suggests a third gender. The term phu-ying praphet thi sorng, roughly translated as "second type of woman", is also used to refer to kathoey. Australian scholar of sexual politics in Thailand Peter Jackson claims that the term "kathoey" was used in premodern times to refer to intersexuals, and that the usage changed in the middle of the twentieth century to cover cross-dressing males. The term can refer to males who exhibit varying degrees of femininity — many kathoeys dress as women and undergo feminising medical procedures such as hormone replacement therapy, breast implants, genital reassignment surgery, or Adam's apple reductions. Others may wear makeup and use feminine pronouns, but dress as men, and are closer to the western category of effeminate gay man than transgender.
Kathoeys are often identified at a young age, and are considered to be "born that way". They may have access to hormones (available without prescription) and medical procedures during their teenage years.
The term "kathoey" may be considered pejorative, especially in the form "kathoey-saloey". It has a meaning similar to the English language "fairy" or "queen".
Kathoeys usually work in traditionally feminine occupations, in shops, coffee bars and restaurants, beauty salons and hairstylists. Many also work in entertainment and tourist centers, as dancers, in cabaret shows — Alcazar and Tiffanys in Pattaya are among the best known — or as prostitutes.
Kathoeys are more visible and more accepted in Thai culture than transgender or transsexuals are in Western countries or the Indian subcontinent. Several popular Thai models, singers and movie stars are kathoeys, and Thai newspapers often print photos of the winners of female and kathoey beauty contests side by side. The phenomenon is not restricted to urban areas; there are kathoeys in most villages, and kathoey beauty contests are commonly held as part of local fairs.
Some believe that this higher acceptance is due to the nature of the surrounding Buddhist culture, which places a high value on tolerance. Using the notion of Karma, some Thai believe that being a kathoey is the result of transgressions in past lives, concluding that kathoey deserve pity rather than blame.
Pattaya: Kathoeys on the stage of a cabaret show.A common stereotype has older well-off kathoey provide financial support to young men with whom they are in a personal relationship.
Kathoey women currently face many social and legal impediments. Families (and especially fathers) are typically disappointed if a son becomes a kathoey, and katheoy women often have to face the prospect of coming out. However, kathoey generally have greater acceptance in Thailand than most other Asian countries. Legal recognition of kathoeys is non-existent in Thailand: even after genital reassignment surgery, they are not allowed to change their legal sex. Discrimination in employment and lending remains rampant. Issues can also arise in regards to access to amenities and gender allocation; for example, a kathoey who had undergone sexual reassignment surgery would still have to stay in an all-male prison.
Kathoey working in a gogo bar in Bangkok's Nana Plaza entertainment areaIn 1996, a kathoey education student murdered a young woman. This was followed by negative coverage of kathoey in the Thai press; the Rajabhat Institutes (teacher training colleges) then closed their doors to all kathoey. The decision was reversed after protests by gay, lesbian and feminist groups.
Also in 1996, a volleyball team composed mostly of gays and kathoeys, known as the The Iron Ladies, which was portrayed in two Thai movies, won the Thai national championship. The Thai government, concerned with the country's image, then barred two of the kathoey from joining the national team and competing internationally.
Among the most famous kathoeys in Thailand is Nong Tum, a former champion Thai boxer who emerged into the public eye in 1998. She was already cross-dressing and taking hormones while still a popular boxer; she would enter the ring with long hair and makeup, occasionally kissing a defeated opponent. She announced her retirement from professional boxing in 1999 — undergoing genital reassignment surgery, while continuing to work as a coach, and taking up acting and modeling. She returned to boxing in 2006.
In 2004, the Chiang Mai Technology School allocated a separate restroom for kathoeys, with an intertwined male and female symbol on the door. The 15 kathoey students are required to wear male clothing at school but are allowed to sport feminine hairdos. The restroom features four stalls, but no urinals.
Following the Military Coup in Thailand in 2006 kathoeys are hoping for a new third sex to be added to passports and other official documents in a proposed new constitution. In 2007, legislative efforts have begun to allow kathoeys to change their legal sex if they have undergone genital reassignment surgery; this latter restriction was controversially discussed in the community
Revues and music groups
Following a similar group in South Korea, the first all kathoey music group in Thailand was formed in 2006. It is named Venus Flytrap and was selected and promoted by Sony BMG Music Entertainment.
The Lady Boys of Bangkok is a kathoey revue that has played at the Edinburgh Festival in 2006 and 2007 and also in several other cities in the UK.
Ladyboys is a 1992 documentary film made for Channel 4 TV and directed by Jeremy Marre of Harcourt Films. It relates the story of two teenage kathoey who prepare for and enter a rural beauty contest and then leave for Pattaya to find work in a cabaret revue.
The story of the 1996 Iron Ladies volleyball team underlies the humorous and successful 2000 movie The Iron Ladies and the 2003 sequel The Iron Ladies 2. The 1996 team and the movie inspired other kathoey in the nation to step up for themselves.
The 2002 Thai film Saving Private Tootsie tells the story of a group of gays and kathoey who need to be rescued after a plane crash in rebel-held jungle territory. The film explores anti-gay attitudes in various ways. It is loosely based on an incident in December 1998 when a group including a popular singer and his kathoey makeup artist survived a plane crash.
The life of the kathoey kick boxer Nong Tum is related in the 2003 movie Beautiful Boxer. Unlike The Iron Ladies 1 & 2, Beautiful Boxer used a serious tone.
In the 2005 Thai martial arts film The Warrior King or Tom yum goong, the main villain, Madame Rose, is a kathoey, and there are two references to this in the film (for the US release these were edited out). She is played by Jin Xing who is herself transgendered.
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