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Can't Live with Him, Can't Live without Him Vol. 16 No. 5 May 2007


     While my blond Eagle Eyes Action Man and I gouged out the tarmac in the street with my dad's claw hammer, my brother would be playing with his female friends' dolls: Barbies, Cindys, and of course the innovative nappy wetter. He played the nurse, my mate played the doctor, and I, always the patient. I could beat him in a fight even though I had a three year age disadvantage, and as repayment for verbal abuse concerning my brother's feminine proclivities by older guys we both knew, I occasionally punished him by throwing his girly toys in the dustbin.

     Our parents came from working class backgrounds; from a small minded, provincial, Yorkshire that was not savvy to gender anomalies and certainly not tolerant of homosexuality - which I believe they thought was latent in my brother's behaviour. Needless to say, his virtuosic Arab springs and nimble cart wheels inspired more criticism than admiration. His acrobatics at school earned him many suspensions when his hair colouring and neo-gothic uniform proved a nuisance to uncompromising teachers. And when after caught stealing from a bus station newspaper shop a policeman mistakenly referred to him as "your daughter" when speaking to my aggrieved mother, she drove home furiously, then held him down and shaved his head with a buzzer.

     It seemed to me that being 'transsexual' (a word familiar to me from an early age - synonymous with transgender) was the worst kind of existence. A daily receiver of slander, prejudice, threats and sometimes physical abuse, I could not think why he didn't change. Of course when I asked him, he replied that he was a she and had been since birth. "A girl trapped in a boy's body."

     When it dawned on my parents that his "ways" were not going to change - they quite heroically, when I think about the mean and vindictive spirit of their contemporaries - arranged for gay men to come to the house to befriend my brother. Ironically, and confounding to my parents, my brother was not at all interested in gay men. The unfathomable abnormality became more or less an unspoken subject after time; my brother's femininity became more blatant and my parents tried to accept his "big sissy" condition - even though it was obviously embarrassing for them at times. I myself began to admire him for his imperviousness when arrested by a hopelessly small minded public; I think I felt more pain than him when hateful girls jeered at him in supermarkets. Not only that, he knew more about music, books and clothes than me, and even the occasional pub rebuke of "Your kid's alright, iz a fucking queer, but iz alright . . . He dunt try and shag yer, duzzi?" was bearable.

     Moving to Thailand, where gender can take on vague proportions, ladyboys are so abundant you might well think they were a third gender. Here cosmetic surgery is rife. Homo erectus' nose took millions of years to protrude into the proboscis it is today. In Chiang Mai, elongation takes less than an hour. With boob, nose, chin, cheek and eye jobs . . . Adam's apple shaving, body hair removal, tummy tuck and wrinkle nullifiers, all for bargain basement prices compared to the West, Thailand should be a cosmetic utopia for people not content with their physical appearance. A transgendered person wanting a full sex change: testis removal, colon cut vaginoplasty, scrotal skin graft vaginoplasty and sigmoid colon cut vaginoplasty, will shell out around B250, 000 compared to at least double that in the US. Sex changes are not uncommon, Dr. Preecha Tiewtranon, when working at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University Hospital, said that he did two male to female operations a week as demonstrations to medical students and around twenty operations a month at his former private clinic. At his new Preecha Aesthetic Clinic at Silom, he currently does about ten operations a week. Although he did say that a large portion of his customers are foreigners. Not only is the operation cheaper in Thailand, but there's no two year waiting gap (called the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care, formulated for trans people so they cannot make a decision in haste) applied.

     In Thailand, more than in any other country, men want to become women, but why? Why are boys born girls? Why was my own brother always my sister and why is Dr. Preecha inundated with men wanting to shave, cut and reverse their sex organs?

     Dr. Sam Winter, Associate Professor in the Division of Learning, Development and Diversity in the Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong and also Director of the TransgenderASIA Research Centre conducted a study on the prevalence of 'krathoey' in Thailand. Winter wrote, "It has been reported that there are now some 10,000 krathoey living in Thailand. This figure is almost certainly an underestimate. I have heard informal estimates as high as 300,000." And to get a more realistic figure, the doctor and his team, armed with some scrutinising Thai krathoey surveyed four middle income shopping centres in Bangkok and Chiang Mai in an attempt to find the numbers of transgenders walking through the doors during the months of June and August 2002.

     This in itself is proof that Thailand has a very high number of transgenders. Winter states, "If our combined figures for Bangkok and Chiang Mai are representative of Thailand in general (1998 population 61,466,178) then we have a national incidence of around 3 in every thousand people (say 6 in every thousand males), extrapolating at nearly 180,000 krathoey nationwide." This, however, may not be news to you. After all, you've seen for yourself the large numbers of krathoey. What is far more perplexing is why the prevalence is so high in Thailand compared to other countries. Winter's research into transgenderism shows that transgenders are not just doing it for the gig at Simon's Cabaret or to make a buck in Nana Plaza, in fact, the numbers of krathoey performers and sex workers is only a small percentage of the total number - and also they are often forced into these kinds of jobs because employment elsewhere is difficult to find due to their predisposition. Even in Thailand, a (mostly) transgender tolerant country, there are certain occupations unattainable regardless of ability.

     There are a few popular hypotheses as to the Thai krathoey phenomenon. Some researchers have postulated that the recurrence of a hermaphrodite in Thai mythology has a bearing on the Thai perception of gender today, while Thailand still has a strong tradition of transgendered shamanism in some rural areas. Winter adds to this by expatiating on the relevance of transgenderism in the Buddhist religion, "Arguably, additional themes of gender blending arise from Buddhist teachings on transience and incarnation. Buddhism teaches that all things lack permanence, even to the extent that there is no soul. What is reborn is not a soul as such, but rather the result of one's lives, current and previous. From life to life one's elements may be incarnated as male or female, or 'krathoey'. Indeed, certain Buddhist writings suggest that all of us have been krathoey in earlier lives" Winter explained that while many Thais see transgenders as a non-normative pattern of behaviour that deviates from the ideal, they also see it as quite natural. The krathoey's condition is often viewed as her fate; a karmic consequence (punishment in this life) for a sexual misdemeanour in a previous life.

     And rather than the demeaning sobriquet 'sissy' given to the effeminate boy, Thai parents are usually quite accepting of their sons' fates. Winter's research shows 40% of fathers and 66% of mothers to be encouraging about their krathoey progeny.

     Speaking to Oat, a 29 year old krathoey from Chiang Mai, who in June, will be having a sex change, she told me that her parents were not too concerned when as a child she favoured dolls and pink bikes over footballs and wooden guns. Oat added, "Although when I reached my early teens my parents pushed me to be more masculine. I felt as if I was doing nothing wrong, there were five or six of us at school and we hung out together, dancing and singing." Oat explained that when she reached the age of fifteen or so she became sexually motivated, though the stark intonations of teachers at school inculcating the idea that HIV was a mostly gay disease and not only spread by a carrier but could be manufactured by a couple, kept her away from sex. "The only time we met boys was at scout camp when they would come to the krathoey tent to feel us up and stuff - some of my friends had full sex with the other scouts. Guys weren't really shy about messing around with a krathoey," says Oat candidly. "I was always a girl, I don't like my body as a man . . . Even though I don't act or dress like a very feminine woman - or over-dramatic like some krathoey, I still want to change my body. I can go out with the guys drinking and whatever, I even go to the male toilet (cubicles), but I feel I am a woman."

     Oat told me that the imminent sex change is not a cause for worry. She has seen a psychologist and thought about it for some time. "I won't enhance my breasts, I'll just change my genitalia. It's really for sexual, lovemaking reasons - it's not comfortable to have sex with my boyfriend now. I think some krathoey do it to look like a woman, but I am happy the way I look, it's really just for sexual reasons." Laughing and somewhat abashed, she points out, "I am looking forward to turning around 360 degrees!"

     When you contrast Oat's sentiments on growing up transgender and my own brother's, they are infinitely different. While my brother had an embattled youth, Oat says that being a krathoey was a great way to grow up, explaining that she was closer to her mum as a result and not in all sorts of trouble (fights, sex, girlfriends having abortions, etc.) like her male cousins were. She also said, when talking about hereditary transmittance, that in every generation in her family there was at least one krathoey. "Finding a partner isn't hard at all. Of course I don't like gay or feminine men . . . I want a real man. I am not gay, even though I have heard of some krathoey that go with gay men - this is only because they can't find a straight man. Many men are attracted to me, they say I make them feel more comfortable than some women . . ." and with a wry smile she admitted ". . . but many of my boyfriends have had wives and girlfriends . . . they come to me because they feel I can understand them better."

     Oat explained that being transgender is not all romance and ensconced comfort, many of her krathoey friends are not financially dependent and because of their fervour to have a sex change, they borrow money from unscrupulous establishments that put them in the sex trade until they can pay back the debt. "It's also hard to get a job," says Oat, "In many jobs you need to be respectable, and we can't achieve respectability. I'm not angry, I accept this." And strangely, contrary to what she had told me so far, Oat admits that she shouldn't be given a respectable job - why? - because she would give the wrong impression to children. It is obvious that even though society seems tolerant, it is innately prejudiced. "I don't want to give kids the wrong idea; some kids want to become krathoey because it's cool, not because they are transgender. If they see me as a role model it will influence them." . . . My brother would be bowled over hearing this.

     Nevertheless, Thailand's tolerance to transgenderism makes England look almost dark ages, Dr. Winter, in conclusion to Thai tolerance and beliefs explained, "In short, males and females are seen by Thais as far more similar (each to the other) than in other cultures. This raises the intriguing possibility that, however great the step towards womanhood may be chemically and anatomically, it is, in Thailand compared to other cultures, a relatively small psychological step. Aspects of Thai culture, social attitudes and society itself - play a part in contributing to the krathoey phenomenon." When I asked both Winter and Andrew Matzner (Independent researcher and Adjunct Professor in Women's Studies and author of the book - Male Bodies, Women's Souls: Personal Narratives of Thailand's Transgender Youth) about the biological correlation to transgenderism they both agreed that there is more than likely a genetic, neurological link - Winter: " Nowadays I am quite sure that there is a biological basis for gender dysphoria - a lot of recent evidence suggests that it may arise from the pre-natal hormonal history of the developing foetus." Matzner: "As far as the causes of transgenderism, the jury is still out. There is a lot of research done on brains and genetics, but it is all inconclusive at this point. Some people believe that instead of focusing on the causes, it is more important to try to change societal beliefs so that transgendered people can be more accepted."

     As Winter also explained in a recent letter to me, the low prevalence in other countries surely has to relate to the acceptance and history and psychology of the people. It was disconcerting as a teenager, walking through Tescos, that the wickedest and most profuse verbal abuse thrown at my tranny brother was always hurtled from female mouths. Girls seemed rancorously bitter, while many boys seemed fascinated by the phenomenon. Who knows, maybe a large percentage of our Yorkshire male population sheltered a tranny within, but everything around them, the encompassing and strangulating minds of the intellectually bereft mob, were a firm and constant reminder that any form of deviation from the norm would merit a solid kicking and a lifetime of invective. Who knows who we'd be if it weren't for the irksome obstruction of conventional thought - that backs us into a corner and locks us down.

     The final words are from my brother, my sister, my Tranny Angel - no longer called Craig, and now thirty something. "Over the last 5 years I have become very comfortable with being me. I no longer feel the need to categorise myself. As a recalcitrant I have always strived to de-compartmentalise myself in all ways. Basically, I see myself as me, and like most people I am made up of conflicting idiosyncrasies and paradoxes. I have kind of always felt like this but due to pressure and inquisitiveness I used to have to use the label to describe how I felt. I find that most people accept me as me. Most of my friends do see me more as a woman though. I am comfortable being me."
by James Austin Farrell
Can't Live with Him, Can't Live without Him      Q&A with Andrew Bond
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