Misgendered for my appearance and nationality 

“Oh, you’re from Thailand? Are you a ladyboy?” 

I have lost count of the number of times I’ve had conversations like these. 

When some foreigners hear “Thailand”, the first word that comes to mind – and out of their mouths – is “ladyboy”. The term refers to transgender women, or kratoeys in Thai, who are largely accepted and celebrated in Thai culture. However, their ubiquity does not qualify the perpetuation of a stereotype towards women from Thailand.

Disclaimer: This piece is solely based on my personal experiences and is not targeted at anyone. 

I get called a ladyboy because I’m from Thailand

In Thailand, ‘kratoey’ can be viewed as an umbrella term that not only includes transgender women, but also gay men and even intersex people. Technically, a ‘ladyboy’ is a transgender woman who has the physique of a woman. Today, trans women are more accepted as part of society and even have their own pageants – the most famous being Tiffany’s Show Pattaya. 

Not too many decades ago, though, they were more commonly associated with their roles in local and international brothels. Hence, the term can be perceived as being derogatory by some.

Tiffany's Show
Tiffany’s Show Pattaya is a celebrated pageant that happens annually
Image credit: Thaieast

A few months before Covid-19 shook the world, I was getting coffee while abroad on holiday, where the barista asked me where I was from. Upon hearing that I hailed from Thailand, he commented, “Are you working as a ladyboy here? It’s lots of money!” While he shook with laughter, I tried my best to hide my discomfort and anger. 

With just two sentences, this man showed that he only saw me as a stereotype – not a person with an actual story.

Gender identity vs. sexual orientation

By asking me if I was a ‘working as ladyboy’, the barista assumed that firstly, I might have been transgender, and secondly, was attracted to – and sleeping with – men for money.  

The truth was that I identify as a woman – which also happens to be the gender I was assigned at birth; meaning that my gender identity is a cisgender female. In terms of sexual orientation, I am exclusively attracted to other women, thus making me a lesbian. Lesbians, unlike ladyboys, are not interested in men.

While the barista was very much mistaken, I chose to understand that he probably just wanted to relate to me by making a joke that stung. 

But I suppose an offhand comment is one of the less upsetting ways to misgender someone, though still offensive. Someone joking about a stereotype hurts, but it doesn’t hurt as much as someone asking me to leave a restroom that is literally meant for me.

Being redirected to the men’s room

While I do identify as a woman, I also enjoy things that are deemed to be more “masculine” by Asian standards. In Thailand, it is rare to find women dressing in men’s clothing; and with a problematic obsession with fair skin, partaking in anything that could cause bruises or darkened skin tones is seen as taboo. Woman prefers men's clothes and extreme sports
I find men’s clothes more comfortable and am an extreme sports junkie – I even turned my passion for mountain biking into a profession at one point.

While I’ve accepted that my appearance and hobbies could cause others to see me as masculine, it still does not make me a man. 

Every time I use the public loo, other women double check the sign to confirm it is indeed the women’s room. Sometimes, the cleaning staff even attempt to redirect me. This happens to me a lot in other Asian countries as well, and it still baffles me every time!

Their reactions show that short hair and loose fitting clothing are “strictly reserved” for men. This reflects how in many Asian societies, the notion that ‘girls like pink and boys like blue’ remains deeply ingrained in the culture.

Misgendered due to short hair

“I’m grateful for my support network that encourages me to be who I am. I think if everyone had one, then there would be more acceptance and understanding all around.”

A more inclusive future

Though problems like LGBTQ+ stereotypes are still rife in many parts of the world, Asian upbringing can affect how many perceive our community. 

For example, one might have better luck in more “open” societies like America in understanding that women can be an exact replica of Ellen DeGeneres, but straight. This dichotomy mirrors how deeply rooted harmful understandings of gender identity and sexual orientation can be in some Asian cultures such as in Thailand- only made worse with stereotypes and badly portrayed characters in soap operas

Thus, an entire population of people are subjected to consistently being misunderstood and even alienated from their peers – not something we want for our future generation. While not everyone has the opportunity to be exposed to different ideas, compassion and sensitivity are universal concepts. The new generation seems to understand the need for progress – there’s been a huge spike in public advocacy for LGBTQ+ individuals in Thailand.

I really hope that more people follow in the footsteps of allies in the community in paving a better future for our upcoming generations – such as embodying the idea that everyone is deserving of respect regardless of who they are. 

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