Spending a moment in a bookshop in Bangkok’s airport Suvarnabhumi waiting for my connecting flight to Singapore, I spotted this book that immediately caught my attention, The Third Sex, by Richard Totman.
The book is a study of the kathoeys of Thailand, boys that from an early age know that they want to grow up to be women, not men. Not the first sex they were biologically equipped to be, not the second sex they socially identify with, but a third. Totman lived with the family of one of these kathoey boys for some time so the study is even empirical.
Nobody bullies these kathoey boys at school, nobody calls them sissies, except some fathers. Kathoey boys create their own kathoey idols and are mentored by older kathoeys already in their ‘careers’, that accept the role as a big sister for a younger boy only developing his feminine or kathoey identity. Kathoeys typically pursue a career as dancers and performers, sometimes as prostitutes.
Only judeo-christian cultures seems to have this obsession with and insistence on exclusive binary gender, most other religions seem to at least to some extent include and accept more than just two genders. The hijras in India, the berdaches in nearly 150 indigenous North American tribal cultures, the mahus in Polynesian cultures are other examples of tolerant attitudes towards fluid or elastic gender systems. Very interesting is that the tolerance of gender fluidity seems to correlate with how close or tolerant bonds a culture has succeeded to maintain to its heritage of pre-civilized animistic beliefs.
Could it be more than a thought that with ancient ‘primitive’ pre-christian (animistic) beliefs like urban shamanism experiencing a reneissance among young people in search of cultural roots, gender fluidity and relativization – gender deconstruction, metrosexuality – is on the rise ?
Totman makes an interesting comparison to monks. Young boys aspiring to become monks and young boys aspiring to become kathoeys have one thing in common – refusing / abandoning the practice of male heteronormative sexuality. In almost every other aspect they are each others’ diametral opposites. Monks are revered, kathoeys scorned, monks meditate, kathoeys perform, monks are ascetic, kathoeys hedonistic, monks live in celibate, kathoeys in promiscuity, etc. But the monks accept the kathoeys, they considers their life a punishment due to bad karma they have gathered in a previous life.
Interestingly, kathoeys are statistically taller than average boys or men.
Kathoeys represent an ancient, archaic tradition in Thailand, a third gender. Only very recently, since the sixties and the tourist boom, have they become ‘ladyboys’, and a leading tourist attraction when performing and dancing in cabarets. Born a boy, the gender identity of a kathoey is, since very early, not a man’s but a woman’s. Most of them also want to undergo full sex reassignment surgery, if they only can afford it. Some of them even marry (heterosexual) men. Many more are dancers, performers, lovers and prostitutes.
Extremely interesting reading, from a gender equality point of view. And a profeminist one. Is there more to gender equality than just equal opportunities for men and women ? What about the other genders ? And what about masculinity – how many of us really want to be men ? Have we ever dared to ask ? And even if so, what kind of men ?