By Pierre Moessinger
First of all, let me rephrase this question and give it a larger scope. The problem of the large proportion of ladyboys in Thailand is a question often asked, but should be rephrased into “why so many ladyboys in SE Asia?”, or even “why so many ladyboys in Asia and in South America?” My argument here is that if you make it a specifically Thai question, you will not get a good answer. Of course, you may react by saying that the problem is specifically Thai, adding that Thailand has more ladyboys than any other country in South-East Asia. You may be right. Although there are no reliable statistics, we can surmise that that the largest percentage of ladyboys is found in Thailand and The Philippines, that it is somewhat smaller in Malaysia, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and definitely smaller in Indonesia and Myanmar. Such differences could be accounted for by the role of Islam in Indonesia and in Malaysia, and by the role of political and legal intolerance in Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Yet the role of religion and of politics should not be overestimated, such factors may act mainly on the visibility of the ladyboy phenomenon. In any case, there is no one single factor for explaining it. For example, religion cannot be considered as the explanation : Thailand and The Philippines have different dominant religions and a large number of ladyboys; Thailand and Myanmar have the same dominant religion and very different proportions of ladyboys. As to political intolerance, it does play an important role in repressing the ladyboy social fact, but not really in explaining it.
In the articles I read about this phenomenon in Thailand, I found mainly 3 kinds of explanations.
1) The boys who become ladyboys are already very feminine, and thus, it is a kind of an easy change for them.
2) Thai society is very tolerant towards ladyboys, and towards sexual minorities in general.
3) These people are gay anyway and just want to attract more males, and possibly trade sex.
As to genetic explanations, they can be discarded at the outset, since if there were a gay gene, it would probably have been eliminated by natural selection (since gay people and ladyboys tend to make no or few children, not enough to maintain the gene in the population). Let us now examine each one of these 3 explanations.
1) The easy change argument supposes that changing gender identity is a bit like a fashion change, like – say – adopting a punk or a hip-hop style. That might be true of some teenagers in search of their identity. But then it is not a real identity change, it is more a kind of regular teenager problem. Let me say here that I do not define a ladyboy by his or her appearance only, a ladyboy is not just a cross-dresser, for fashion or for fun or whatever. It is someone with a gender identity problem. A ladyboy may dress like a boy and look like a boy, but still be a ladyboy. The gender problem is usually expressed in words like : “I was born as a boy but deep inside I am a girl”, or something like this. Try to imagine what this means. It’s not just a mistake to correct; it’s not like having the wrong job, or not doing what you really like to do. It’s not just like saying something like “I am a cook but my real life is playing the trumpet”, or “if I would start my studies again, I would choose another course”. It is having the feeling to be the wrong person, in other words, not to be oneself. I mention this because I often read articles mentioning ladyboys as if they were just another category of people, like tailors, youngsters, people who wear glasses, or, for that matter, fashion freaks. But people in such categories do not share a similar psychological problem. Let’s take an example and imagine a 70-year old lady always wearing a miniskirt, with her hair plaited into two braids, like a 12-year old girl. You may be stunned, you may think this is funny or you may feel indignant, but the point is that this lady has some psychological problem. You can always blame society for being intolerant in not allowing 70-year old people to dress like 12-year olds, but it’s a fact that she is off the norms (at least in our societies), she knows it, and since there is not much reward for dressing like this, to say the least, she probably cannot help doing it. Psychologists would speak of fragmented identity. Ladyboys are in a situation similar to this old lady, yet only worse: adopting a ladyboy lifestyle does not go without discrimination, integration problems and misunder¬standings. The psychological problem, often hidden behind a certain exultation, does not always appear clearly. But if you look closely, you will notice that ladyboys, probably like this old lady, are fascinated by themselves, their appearance, and lack the attention to others that would allow them to enter in meaningful relationships. Of course, I don’t want to reduce the problem to a psychological one, but it is one component of the equation.
I find the use of the word “problem” in the first sentence of your final paragraph curious. Is it really a “problem” that there are so many ladyboys in Thailand? Personally, I don’t think so. Live and let live, I say.
I agree with the conclusion you reach that contrary to popular opinion, Thailand is actually not that tolerant of ladyboys. This tolerance is superficial as Thai society tolerates ladyboys only to a certain extent. This is evident in the fact that most ladyboys only work in one of a relatively small number of fields and industries.
As to why there are so many in this part of the world, it’s easy to list a few contributing factors but the main reason? I really don’t know.