Coming of age, your favorite game was always “Guess the Gender.” You would first play this game, which you knew better than to openly discuss, as you walked the streets of New York’s Lower East Side, smiling at yet another lesbian who looked like Justin Bieber. You would pick it up again at the annual San Francisco Pride Parade, marveling at that drag queen with her floral hat and face paint. She’d rendered herself almost indistinguishable from the Matisse painting you once saw in the nearby MOMA.
Oh, you had such fun.
Arrive in Thailand and your favorite game is thrown entirely out the window, like that student in your last-period English class whom you just couldn’t wait to get rid of.
“If you don’t stop, I’m going to have to defenestrate you!” you threatened, half facetiously.
Huh? The student paused. Even in the inner city, reprimanding students with words larger than they knew would afford you some semblance of respect. Or at least silence.
It’s your first night in Thailand. You’ve eaten the food forever, in college dorms and copy-pasted restaurants; you’ve heard tell of the nightlife from your friends abroad; you may even have an inkling about the thriving sex industry. You know for sure there are “ladyboys.”
Walking the streets below the violently vibrant Khao San Road, where backpacking students and white people with dreadlocks party in a bubble of predigested affordability, you see them standing on street corners.
Walking the streets below the violently vibrant Khao San Road, where backpacking students and white people with dreadlocks party in a bubble of predigested affordability, you see them standing on street corners. The ladyboys. Some look expectant, others bored. They typically have a cigarette in hand, and always a cell phone protruding from either a bra or a barely there butt garment. They’re curious, awesome in a larger-than-life sense, and, if you’re being honest, a little scary. They exude this confidence that you can’t quite put your finger on. But you do know for sure: you would never want to end up in a brawl with any one of them.
After your first shock—it’s okay to admit this—you greet the day with a fresh perspective. You’re in a new place, after all, and must try to reserve judgment.
As you wander the temples of old Bangkok, through herds of Chinese tourists led by guides who sound more livid than helpful, you lose yourself in wonder. You ogle, of course, at the mosaics and blinding amounts of gold on the Wat Phra Kaew, but you can’t help people-watching along the way. You even see one Chinese tourist, a middle-aged man with a beer belly like so many soccer coaches you had as a kid, wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Hip Hop N**** King, Brooklyn New York.” You lose it.
As the sun goes down, you ascend the Golden Mount, a temple atop a hill overlooking the city. The sun before you looks more wax-wrapped cheese than egg yolk, burning bright red in the hazy distance. Observing in tranquil awe, you perch on the outskirts of a large group gathered for prayer. You’re transported.
Out of the corner of your eye, you see a monk sneaking a peek at his smartphone before slipping it back into his orange robes. There is no escape.
After dark, Bangkok is dressed to the nines. The city has a refined appreciation for colored decorative lighting, and it dances around you like you’re nineteen and dropping your first tab of acid. Standing out is a particular shade of pink: bright, sexy and optimistic. You saw it during the day on taxis and T-shirts, but now it’s alive on neon signs, restaurant awnings, even the ramshackle light show that illuminates the back of your rickshaw, or tuktuk. It’s omnipresent, and makes the whole city feel like a candy wonderland.
As you bump along in your tuktuk, you close your eyes and relish in the warm (albeit mildly rancid) air. Bangkok is an intensely aromatic place, and even when the durian fruit and canal grime overpower the lemongrass and chili, the olfactory stimulation is never-ending and somehow wonderful. You need a break, though, so you open your eyes, only to find a sardine can of a street, packed end to end with drunken tourists hailing cabs, painfully hip teenagers riding motorcycles, and your favorite pink-lit tuktuks. You’d never have guessed it, though, as the roads are silently cooperative in a way that you can’t quite comprehend. You’re used to flocks of yellow cabs honking like bloodthirsty geese. Here, despite arguably more-crowded streets, there’s a decided lack of animosity. It’s almost peaceful.
You make your way to Soi Cowboy, curious to see what your guidebook calls a “real flesh trade.” There’s no doubt about it: the soi, or side street, is overflowing with scantily clad ladies luring customers into such clubs as Spice Girls and Déjà Vu.
Bewildered, you perch with a beer outside a schoolgirl-themed joint, put on your anthropologist hat and observe. The trade before you is alive, well and jarring. You watch as men walk by, engaging to varying degrees. Some look hungry, others bored. Still, you can pinpoint the vibe: the solo-dude type, perusing for prey. He’s white, gray or graying, slightly forward-leaning and overweight in a top-heavy way. The ladies know this, and he is given the utmost attention. They smoke and they chat, exuding this same confidence that you’ve seen before. In the mix, you begin to notice a blend of both born and trans women. There’s a Cockatoo Ladyboy Bar down the soi, but it appears to be less busy. Here, the ladies are separated only by outfit and workplace. He, the solo dude, values discretion over discrimination.
Day again. You’re less overwhelmed, more attuned to the city’s movements. It always takes at least a day to get your bearings. As you stroll the less tour-group-heavy parts of town, you notice idiosyncrasies in the locals’ gender presentation. You see a businessman walking down the street in a fitted suit, briefcase in hand and a full face of makeup. Turn a corner and you see a group of boys in uniform, clearly the dudes of their school, jostling about as if they need a good defenestration of their own. A head honcho turns and you see his bright-pink lipstick, glistening like he’s in a Nicki Minaj video. As you cross paths, he and his friends give you the same teenage eye you know so well. You know your place: on these streets, it is you who is the other.
You proceed toward Chinatown, knowing that this form of personal expression would never fly back home. You’ve seen instances of gender bending before, but they were always novel, always somehow pointed in their manifestation. Remember that large drag Cinderella, whom you saw hours past her midnight curfew, parading down 8th Avenue the morning after Halloween? Of course you do.
In Bangkok, though, you sense some subtlety. You remember your students, raised in New York City foster homes and housing projects, who would never be caught dead in this liptastic look. And yet here was this student, and there was this businessman, going about their days. You tell yourself you’re not fazed—you’ve always been down with freedom of expression—but you’ve also never seen anything like this before. It’s simple, it’s confident, it’s everywhere.
Thai gender bending, you’ve realized, goes far beyond smoky street corners and sexy sois. It’s not just for the “sexpats,” for that solo dude with what you assume to be his pocketed wedding ring.
Thai gender bending, you’ve realized, goes far beyond smoky street corners and sexy sois. It’s not just for the “sexpats,” for that solo dude with what you assume to be his pocketed wedding ring; it rather seems an integral part of personal expression. You think back to that Philosophy & Feminism class you took as an undergrad, to those readings about gender. You look up Judith Butler on your phone, and remember her writings on gender as nothing more than performance. Why do men present the way they do anyway? Women? Isn’t it all just imitation?
You meet your first ladyboy working behind the counter at a store in the amulet market. You’re struck by her kindness, her unassuming beauty, amongst the piles of religious trinkets you wish you understood. Her brunette hair falls delicately in front of her face. She’s not as imposing as the ladies of the night. You welcome this, and relish this opportunity to engage. You have so much you want to ask, but would hate to be rude. She’s just a person, like you, after all, just going about her day. So instead, you smile. She sells you a midnight-blue dragon pendant and teaches you how to say thank you: kop-khun-kha.
As you leave the store, you are overcome with one thought: Judith Butler would love Thailand. You remember the steadfast distinction she drew between sex and gender. You’re born with your genitals, but the rest, she argued, was just “imitative.” Men act and dress the way they do because their brothers, dads, uncles and hip-hop icons taught them to. We learn by example and are expected to act, dress and behave in a certain way based solely on what’s between our legs. This is how things are, how you’ve always known them to be. There are moments of rebellion—Butler would certainly smile at San Francisco’s drag queen in her hat, would wave at Chelsea’s hungover, hairy chested Cinderella—but here, in Thailand, the standard seems entirely different. It’s fluid, it’s accepting, it’s a non-issue. You can’t help being impressed.
You meet your second ladyboy taking your order on a train’s dining car. She smiles relentlessly throughout the interaction, sticking out her tongue every few seconds with a joy that’s just too big to keep inside. Why can’t everyone be this pleasant?
Returning to your smartphone with uncontrollable curiosity, you learn that the term “ladyboy” is considered a slur and quickly remove it from your vocabulary. Never to disappoint, Wikipedia provides a whole host of English translations to describe the kathoey, from “trans woman” to “second-type female” to “third gender.” They have been an integral part of Thai culture for generations, but you’re still at a loss as to how to formulate your understanding. What would Butler say?
As you go about your trip, sipping on freshly squeezed passion-fruit juice and having your feet nibbled at local fish spas, you savor the pace and openness of this life. You understand you’re a tourist and having a sugarcoated experience, but you also sense that this Thai friendliness is too genuine to be false. Then you walk into a 7-Eleven and receive what is quite possibly the worst customer service of your life from the trio of sassy kathoey working behind the counter. The bubble is popped. But hey, maybe it’s for the best. Up until now, you had seen them, the members of Thailand’s “third sex,” as one group. Your favorite game wasn’t gone at all; it was just differently manifest: find the ladyboy. You’re embarrassed. How could you have been so essentializing?
In the West, pink has always been sort of a “gay” or girly color. Even when it popped up in hetero-man fashion several years ago, in that ridiculous “real men wear pink” fad, it was always ironic, a statement. Here, though, it’s just a color.
And the kathoey are just people. But like the omnipresent pink, shining bright against the others, they seem to proudly pronounce Thailand’s refusal to conform. Only no, it’s not a refusal. It’s a new conception altogether—a different outlook, a different culture, a different reality. It’s like those packed streets, with the motorcycles, pink cabs and tuktuks. They were diverse like no streets you’d ever seen. And yet still, what resonated wasn’t the crowd. It was the calm. The patience. Peaceful coexistence.
You meet your final kathoey at the airport, working the customs counter. You smile. Not about to reciprocate, she reaches out for your passport, and looks at you only to validate the photo. Standard interaction. You hate airports. You run through the linguistic possibilities of how to describe this customs agent, but, with Judith Butler still on the mind, wonder if any of this is even necessary. We all have a sex, you suppose, but does the rest really matter?
Safely home, and back in the monotony of heteronormativity, you wonder why the rest of the world can’t be as accepting as Thailand. You know you’ve only scratched the surface, and might even be uncomfortable bringing it up for fear of appearing ignorant. Still, you feel changed. Something’s different over there, and it’s beautiful.
Andrew Wailes is a writer, special educator and urban enthusiast currently based in Hong Kong. His work ranges from travel writing to memoir to screenwriting and focuses on themes of queer identity, social justice and self-discovery. Wailes was a finalist in the 2016 Nowhere Spring Travel Writing Contest.
Image by Alex Janu.