“Mary,” a Thai woman I was working with the other day goes, “what you call it when woman trapped in man body?”

“Transvestite,” someone in the car says.

 “Right, right,” she goes. I wasn’t satisfied with that.

“Transgendered, I think transgendered.” I was surprised by how confused I was getting, not able to peg it down. After all I have a pretty solid gay history. Going to those Bigayla meetings with Baker freshmen year. Celebrating Gaypril for the entire month of April, I always brag about that in
Ithaca, how huge and loud our gay community was. 

“Because, is transvestite just dressing up like a woman? Can’t you be a transvestite one night and then go to work as a man the next? Or can’t you? If you dress in drag once are you a transvestite forever?” (If that’s the case lets take a little look at those 9th grade pictures taken in Caroline Moore’s bedroom. Where dressing in woman’s clothes, was the thing to do on Friday afternoons for my entire group of friends, should I not have mentioned that?)

“Yeah, maybe, I don’t know, but everyone calls them transvestites,” the other Volunteer says.

“I think they are transgendered, but I don’t know,” I confess. And feel stupid that I don’t know.

The Thai women who is asking me this is driving Christy and I to a high school to work with her students who are working on a presentation for a group of officials who will be visiting the school in the month. The only reason we agreed to it, since it isn’t at either of our schools, is because “Bob,” will be there. Bob is 17. We worked with Bob at our English Camp in April. Bob is the make believe English name we gave him. I can never remember his real name. Bob’s the best. Everyone loved Bob because he was so damn funny and good-natured. Bob, like most of the boys at our camp, is a lady boy. Walks and talks and dresses (minus a skirt) like a girl. All the Thais are indifferent to this, it’s completely normal. Some boys are boys, some are lady boys and that’s that.

“As long as they have good heart it doesn’t matter,” my supervisor, a forty year old man, told me.

At English Camp we were going over personal autobiographies one afternoon. They would have to present them to the entire camp on stage with a microphone. Everyone was nervous.

“Why are you unique?” Christy asked the class while they were writing their speeches. No one understood. Their Thai English teacher, who was there, said, “Christy, don’t understand unique, what unique?”

“Something special about you,” she said, “something that makes you different.”

He didn’t get it. Didn’t like the sound of it. The old generation is collective, the young kids now, being bombarded with everything western, are beginning to appreciate the individual. Buying the individual through clothes and jewelry, at least. Because that’s what Western consumerism is teaching them, like it has taught us. That day Bob was wearing a front ponytail with a pink elastic that matched his pink shirt that matched his furry pink pencil case.

“See Bob,” Christy goes, walking towards him, “is unique because he has a front ponytail.”

Bob giggled. And that is what he used for his presentation. “My name is Bob. I am unique because I have a front ponytail.”

Lady boys, as they are called here, are everywhere. They are fully accepted in the society. They work at government offices, stores, restaurants, anywhere, dressed as women. Their hair grown out long and brushed straight. Giggling and laughing and often acting outlandish and eccentric which everyone likes, is amused by.

Oddly enough, though lady boys are publicly accepted, gays aren’t. Neither are lesbians.

“She’s lesbian, no good,” a friend told me pointing to a girl who was friends with her daughter. “Do you know lesbian?”

“Yeah,” I go and decide not to get into it.

 It’s cheap to change your sex here. I mean it’s startling cheap. Go to
Bangkok and you can have a sex change for 10,000 baht. That’s like less than 300 U.S. dollars. People from all around the world come to do it.

"Becoming a woman in Thailand is easier and cheaper than almost anywhere in the world.”

Yet as accepted as lady boys are they do not have any legal rights in
Thailand. “Sex change is not legally recognized, so women like Ball (the lady boy profiled) are still legally men. That means she and her husband have no legal relationship, even if they held a religious ceremony with their families. Neither does Thai law have a provision for prosecuting men who rape men. That leaves a keyhole with no legal recourse if they become a target of a sexual attack.”  Lady boys are everywhere.

“Thailand is believed to have one of the largest transsexual populations in the world. Academics estimate at least 10,000 live in Thailand, though many think it is more than ten times higher.” It is for sure higher than 10,000, in my opinion.

So it’s all interesting, you know. Thailand, for reasons I have never been able to nail down, totally accepts this one other gender. Girl, boy, ladyboy. Pick one. And with this third option many Thais squeeze into it. That’s the niche closest to who they are. But if they are gay they are out of luck. If they’re a lesbian they’re out of luck. If they are anything else that doesn’t have a name yet, they’re out of luck. Still hiding and acting and hiding.If the lady boy wasn’t accepted Bob would just be another guy trapped in his body that he doesn’t fully identify with. Trying to hold back the natural parts of himself that show so beautifully today. His laugh and his little run when he is skipping quickly up to Christy and I, as we get out of the car at his school. “Christy! Mary! Christy! Mary,” he squeals running up to us clapping. “You’re here!”

We never told him the only reason we came. Woke up early and spent the afternoon with his class was because we wanted to see him. Because his presence is so refreshing.

“Bob,” I go smiling, pointing at his school uniform. He was dressed all boys in
Thailand, brown shorts and white shirt. “What are you wearing?” He scrunches up his face as if he just smelled something bad. “I know,” he goes quietly, “I don’t like.”

I was at an AIDS conference a few months ago in the north. A group of HIV patients performed for us. The traditional Thai dance with long gold fingernails and high gold hats like the Buddha, which symbolizes reaching enlightenment. The dance moves slowly. It is a turn of the wrist and ankle. Slight moves of the body. They were all lady boys, dressed as the traditional Thai woman. “They like doing this,” the doctor whispered to me, “performing for you like this. Just as they are.”

Griffin Shear, “Life and Love As A Ladyboy”