Review: Male Bodies, Women’s Souls: Personal Narratives of Thailand’s Transgendered Youth
The narratives in this book belie Western assumptions that Thai society is relatively accepting of transgendered people. The authors asked 12 students from Chang Mai University to write an essay about their experiences “with the goal of educating others about their lives as transgendered people in Thai society.” The resulting stories tell of bullying, sexual assault, rejection by families and a limited choice in careers. A universal trans experience, in other words.
Thai transgendered people, however, are situated in a conservative gender system that differs significantly from ours and necessarily affects how they see themselves. In Thai society, it is generally believed there are fundamental differences between the sexes. Women are expected to be chaste daughters, faithful wives or caring mothers. Women who show an interest in sexual pleasure and have multiple partners are ‘bad’ women. They represent a threat to the values of chastity and monogamy (and ultimately to male control). Men’s sexuality, on the other hand, “is seen as an instinctive and uncontrollable drive”, although this somehow coexists with the other male role model, the celibate Buddhist monk.
In most of these narratives, the writers place themselves firmly in this virtuous concept of womanhood. Gender expression and sexual attraction are not regarded as separate concepts and so it is assumed that Thai trans women are attracted to men. Unlike gay relationships, which are frequently characterized as lustful, they emphasize their need for an emotional attachment. Unfortunately this often leads to a sad resignation that they will never find love, as a “real” man will always prefer a “real” woman. It’s interesting that while most of their families disapprove of their identities, they still encourage them to adhere to “traditionally normative gender behaviors for ‘proper’ Thai women”. The trans women themselves believe that if they do so they will be better accepted by society. Several of the narratives express disapproval for their sisters who “are not at all good”.
It’s a fairly elaborate sex and gender system that is reflected in the terms used to define Thai trans women. Although they are commonly called kathoey, this is an ambiguous umbrella term that can refer to sexual practice as well as gender identity. Consequently it is applied to feminine gay men as well as trans women, and can have negative connotations depending on context. The polite term for Thai trans women is sao braphet song.
I enjoyed reading these stories from my sisters in Thailand. Despite our many differences, there are similarities also, not least of which is their struggle to live as themselves. Which of us would not be moved by Phi’s words: “It’s just that acceptance would be the best thing for us. It would certainly make me feel comfortable and happy. I deserve this because I’ve never done anything to hurt another person.”
The other commendable thing about this book is the care the authors took to conduct their study in an ethical manner. It’s encouraging to see that anthropology has come a long way since the profession vilified indigenous nations for their Two Spirit traditions.