"When I hit puberty, I became afraid of my own body," says Shauna Pugh. "I had always identified as female, so I was shocked when my body wasn't changing like a woman's."
Now 51 years old and living in Chiang Mai, Shauna co-owns the popular Soho Bar and Guesthouse with her partner, Shattida Jaima, a slim and vivacious 27-year-old Thai woman whose friends call her Rabbit. Shauna is tall and elegant, with strawberry blonde curls and smiling blue eyes. The couple wear matching iridescent blue skirts and crop tops as they sip wine, munch on gumbo and flit about their second Soho anniversary party, stopping to give hugs to each of their guests. Rabbit clutches a tiny, squished-face dog named Shasha ("the baby"), who seems quite complacent about her role of the evening _ being cute and quiet.
At first glance, Shauna and Rabbit seem like your typical May-December, biracial, lesbian couple...er, well maybe "typical" is not the first word that comes to mind, but it's impossible to understand quite how unique Shauna's relationship _ and life _ truly is until you sit down and listen to her story.
Born and raised in a poor fishing family in the swamps of southern Louisiana, Shauna knew from a very young age that she was different. Despite being biologically male, she never had any question in her mind that she was supposed to be female.
"Everyone had hopes it was a choice and that I was going through some sort of phase," Shauna recalls. Her parents were God-fearing Southern Christians. "They always loved me, but they couldn't deal with who I was." She left home at 16.
Three years later, Shauna got married for the first of three times _ to a female who "never identified as lesbian." Remember, at this point Shauna was still (at least on the outside) a straight male. The couple gave birth to two children, but eventually it became clear that things were getting too complicated to be sustainable. "We remained very close friends, but eventually started sleeping in separate bedrooms," Shauna recalls.
Shauna began taking hormones in her early 20s, and continued dressing and living as a woman. She attended college in Louisiana, studied to become a nurse, and eventually relocated to the considerably more open-minded city of New Orleans. The transition into adulthood was not easy, but during this time Shauna managed to attract the attention of two unrelated individuals who would become some of the biggest influences in her life: a lesbian professor and a gay businessman. On their own, separate terms, these two people provided the love, support and guidance Shauna so badly needed. She eventually came to consider them her "adoptive parents."
Long before the time for gender reassignment surgery came, Shauna was already very clearly feminine _ and quite beautiful, with long blonde hair styled like Farrah Fawcett. "Lots of people couldn't even tell I wasn't actually female!" she laughs. Shauna had her first lesbian lover in her mid-20s, an American tomboy who eventually became her second wife.
Around the same time, Shauna began doing serious research on surgery options, but found herself unimpressed by the selection available Stateside.
"In America, gender reassignment surgery can often be a racket for money," says Shauna. "There's no basis in proving gender identity. The criteria for surgery includes hormones for a year, psychological testing and therapy for two years. I can understand why, but for me it was a total waste of money and time _ I'd already been taking hormones for years and knew I was ready. So I got on a plane and did it myself."
Where to? Thailand, of course. After some more research, Shauna found the perfect surgeon: the world-famous Dr. Suporn, who runs a clinic in Chonburi with his wife and clinic manager, Aoi.
"Dr. Suporn fully understood," says Shauna. She estimates that before her, the clinic had probably done about 300 gender reassignment procedures. Now that number is probably in the thousands, most likely the highest in the world, with a long waiting list of future patients.
While most doctors require several surgeries in order to complete the process (top and bottom transformations are typically done separately), Dr. Suporn is different. "He does everything all at once," says Shauna. "That's what makes it so special."
The Other Side
"The day I woke up on the operating table, I felt human. I felt finally born," recalls Shauna. "The anaesthesiologist kissed me on the forehead and said 'Happy Birthday.' It was the greatest moment of my life."
At 29 years old, Shauna had finally become the person she always knew she was.
As a result, Dr. Suporn and his wife Aoi became like family to Shauna. "I call them my Thai parents," she laughs. "Part of the reason I stayed in Thailand was to be near them. They gave me a sense of belonging."
For five years, Shauna settled in Pattaya, mainly because it was close to her doctors. There she had another female lover. They got married, but things were not exactly happily ever after.
"She thought she could change me back into a man," says Shauna. "I felt sorry for her...she was a money girl who drank alcohol by the gallon every day."
When the marriage inevitably collapsed, Shauna returned to New Orleans for a few years, but couldn't get Thailand out of her system. She returned in 2009, and soon after that, she met Rabbit.
"I was quite fat then, and went to the, er... slimming place," Shauna recalls, laughing. "When I got there, Rabbit was the person in charge of all the crazy machines and she approached me. She was fascinated by me. I had no interest at first because she's younger than my youngest child! But I kept going back, for what I'd call the 'fat shaking procedures' [another laugh] and she kept insisting on assisting me. Then one day I went out to dinner with her and some of her friends. I asked her, 'What do want from me?' I'm used to people asking me for money and stuff like that. A big tear came to her eye and she said, 'I like you.' It broke her heart. From that day on we were together 24 hours a day. She is one of the most amazing people I've ever met in my life."
The "slimming place" wasn't exactly a success, according to Shauna, but when she talks about Rabbit, it's clear that she's finally found her life partner. It's a strange relationship, Shauna admits, but perhaps it is that very strangeness that makes it work so well.
"I'm sort of like her parent but it pisses her off when I tell her that," says Shauna. "We've been together four years now and I tell her she can branch out if she wants, but she's dedicated to taking care of me when I'm old. Which seems crazy to me, but in Thai culture it's different than in the west _ younger people feel blessed to have someone older, because of the knowledge and security."
One of a Kind
Since the surgery, Shauna has become quite vocal about her experiences, in the hopes that her own story will help and inspire other gender variant individuals going through what is quite possibly one of the most difficult experiences imaginable.
"Gender identity has been proven as a psychological thing _ a certain part of the brain identifies as female," says Shauna. "This is why a high percentage of transgendered people commit suicide if they can't get surgery _ often because they can't afford it. It's very expensive."
The statistics back her up. According to a 2011 study by the National Centre for Transgender Equality (NCTE), transgender people attempt suicide at 26 times the national average.
"I'll be honest with you," adds Shauna. "If I didn't have the money for surgery, I probably would have offed myself by now."
Today, most of the issues surrounding transgender acceptance come from a lack of education, leaving many with a rather blinkered view of gender identity in general. Just look at the response of Fox News anchors to recent California legislation entitling transgender students to choose their own bathroom ("I just can't get my head around this!"). But when it comes to the intricacies of gender variance, it's not only the uneducated majority that falls back on false assumptions.
"In America, doctors couldn't accept that I identified as a woman and also loved women," says Shauna. "It's stereotyping, and it kind of pissed me off. The general public believes that gay and transgender are the same thing. They're not. Gender identity and sexual orientation are two very different things."
Shauna's case was a particularly unique one in that her change actually took her from an ostensibly heterosexual orientation (male attracted to females) to a homosexual one (female attracted to females), making it even more difficult for her to find support.
"I've never been with a gay man," she adds. "I never wanted to. After the reassignment surgery I had relationships with two different self-professed straight men, but found it was not right for me."
Interestingly, Shauna maintains that she doesn't know a single other straight male who transformed into a lesbian woman.
"I feel like one of a kind!" she says. "Most men who go through gender reassignment want to be with a man afterwards. I guess it has to do with stereotypes and also the fact that once you have a gender change your hormones and brain chemistry often change too, so transgender people who were with women pre-surgery may be attracted to men post-surgery."
When she was young, Shauna says she did join a few community support groups, but "it seemed like just a bunch of old men dressed in drag looking for a fun time."
"I realised I'm far different than them," she says. "For me, it's serious. I always knew what I wanted. A wig and some makeup were never gonna do it for me."
Trans Chiang Mai
This brings us to the topic of ladyboys. I ask Shauna how Thailand's ladyboy culture has affected people's attitudes toward her here.
"Thai culture has a lot to learn about gender variant people," she replies. "There's a lack of exposure. They don't always realise there are so many levels. For example, a transvestite is a straight man who dresses up in women's clothing, while a drag queen is a gay man who dresses up in women's clothing. Neither want to actually change genders; in fact, they're often repulsed by the idea."
That said, Shauna has developed a deep connection with the LGBTQ community in Thailand _ something that becomes quite clear upon stepping into her bar, which has grown into a haven for gay men, both Thai and expat.
"My customers are all very respectful and respected and I love them," says Shauna, with inspiring fierceness. "I wouldn't allow anyone to come in here and offend them."
Shauna says that in Chiang Mai she has found a general sense of acceptance, especially from Thai people, but that there are still certain pockets of the expat community that just don't get it.
"Some people are barbaric and living in the stone age. The ones in Chiang Mai generally know Soho by reputation so they don't come here, but I see their faces when they walk by, like 'Soho's gonna jump out and grab my penis!'" she says. "My advice to them is, get a book. Educate yourself."
And as to her advice for those who might be struggling with their own gender identity?
"Don't be afraid. Don't be afraid of surgery. Don't be afraid of the people who do not understand. Some people can handle it, some just cannot. But if you know you're a gender variant person, you just have to do it. Make the change. Life's too short."
For more transgender information and support (in Thai), visit: www.tf101.com