Richard Lipez: On transsexualism, Thailand sets high bar for US

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BANGKOK — A Thai teenaged boy with a Thai mother and American father went off to Wisconsin for a year when his dad had a temporary job there. Used to Thai culture, the boy found one American custom especially puzzling. He came home from high school one day and told his parents that the annual day was coming up when boys at the school would all dress like girls and the girls like boys. "Why," the perplexed kid asked, "do they have to have a special day for that?"

This son of an American who came to Bangkok as a Peace Corps volunteer and never left (this happens a lot) grew up in a society where gender identity is more fluid than it is in the West. Transsexualism — having the body of one sex and the gender identity of another --- is probably no more common here than in the U.S., it's just been historically more open and accepted.

When Joe Wheaton and I first came to Thailand 13 years ago, we happened upon a beauty contest on the grounds of the university in Chiang Mai. A big crowd was whooping and cheering the contestants, and it took us a while to decipher that a number of the lovely young Thai women were actually lovely young Thai men. We think --- though we aren't sure --- that a guy won the top prize.

The "guy," of course, wasn't really a guy just because of some male anatomy. Back in the 1990s, the Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition sponsored a panel discussion where three transsexuals told their stories. The most riveting was that of a 14-year-old biological female who grew up thinking --- knowing --- she was a boy. He told how he played boy games with other boys, and then one day when they were all naked for some reason he saw he was missing something. "What's that?" he cried out, seeing the other boys' genitals and seeing himself as a freak.

This wouldn't have happened in Thailand. There's always been a place in Thai culture for katoeys --- lady-boys, in the usually non-judgmental vernacular --- and for phuyings, biological females who identify as male. They're often thought of as a kind of third sex. They can't all afford sexual-reassignment surgery -- -Bangkok is a world capital for the procedure --- but they do what they can, openly in most work and social situations. (The military, Thailand's most reactionary institution, defers katoeys from the draft-lottery. I'm surprised Trump hasn't talked up the Thai generals as examples to follow.)

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Anti-transsexual prejudice does exist in Thailand, though it's mostly benign. There have been no laws proposed to police restrooms and check on people's nether bits. And while Thai society is highly stratified, acceptance of transsexuality as a natural phenomenon not to worry about cuts across class lines. Every village has its lady-boys and masculine biological females, and it's no big deal.

Nor is the upper crust any different. Joe and I recently ran into a peripheral member of the Thai royal family we met five or six years ago. We'd heard he was a "cross-dresser" at an American university in the 1960s, but he was in male attire the last time we saw him. This time, however, statuesque and beaming, she had collar-length gray hair and wore a flowing muumuu with a pale floral pattern. She could have been playing the Bea Arthur character on "The Golden Girls."

Some of this acceptance of the mysterious variety of human existence comes from tolerant Buddhism. We've heard that in neighboring Malaysia, a mostly Muslim country, it's not so good for transsexuals, gays, and anybody else who doesn't fit a rigid gender mold. And even some Thais consider transsexualism punishment for bad behavior in a past life. Such thinking, though, is the exception, not the rule.

Sophisticated understanding of the transsexual phenomenon is growing year by year in the United States, despite Donald Trump --- and Mike Pence, who has been reported to be behind the U.S. military ban on transsexuals now making its way through the courts. For Americans of one sex born into the body of another, the arc of history does seem to be bending toward justice. The U.S. shows signs of catching up with Thailand.

Example: for a long time, my cousin Joy, 86, had four granddaughters she adored. When teenaged Ruby declared herself Andrew and over several years transitioned to his truest self, Joy wrote him a moving letter welcoming her first grandson into the family. Classy.

Richard Lipez, of Becket, writes the Don Strachey private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson. "Killer Reunion" will be published in April.


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