The second kind of woman

This is a picture of my best friend Kiki with some special ladies in Phuket, Thailand. It cracks me up for several reasons: one, I find it hard to tell my friend apart from the others; two, I love the wordplay on every American child’s favourite store; and three, I have no idea what Kiki is doing on a stage in Patong with a group of kathoeys.

Kathoeys are an integral part of the party scene in Phuket, Bangkok and Pattaya. On nights out, my male friends in high school always complained about kathoeys crowding them and grabbing at their crotch (a common pickpocketing tactic), but the sao praphet song fascinated me. I’ll never forget my disappointment when, stuck toiling at the local newspaper for my school’s work experience programme, I found out that a friend had been able to stand in on a sex-change operation at the hospital.

The kathoeys in Patong dress up in over-the-top ball gowns or skimpy bikinis, feather headpieces, several pounds of makeup, clear plastic platforms and more sequins than Liberace and Cher combined. Most of the time, they just looked bored – dancing apathetically on a platform, posing for pictures, talking to this or that sleazy sex tourist. What’s really interesting about kathoeys – especially for Westerners coming from supposedly more liberal and “advanced” societies – isn’t their sex appeal, but the degree to which they are accepted in Thailand. This isn’t to say that kathoeys don’t face discrimination (even after genital reassignment surgery, they can’t change their legal sex), but they are generally regarded as an unexceptional part of society. While many work in the sex industry, there have been kathoey kickboxers (check out the exceptionally hot Nong Thoom), beauty queens and volleyball players.

So, in the spirit of McGill’s recent V-Day festivities, I’d like to applaud Thailand’s famous ladyboys for being brave enough to take a highly visible stand in society, and good-natured enough to pose with my friend and other obviously inebriated foreigners.


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