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social sciences

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One example of positive imagery is the Miss Tiffany beauty pageant. This contest, open to kathoey, occurs each March at the same time as the Miss Thailand competition. In recent years both Thai newspapers and Western media outlets (such as CNN and Reuters) have carried stories comparing the femininity of contestants in each of the pageants, with headlines such as "Thailand's newest beauty queen no lady," "Battle of Queens on national TV," and "Tiffany boys out to prove gender gap narrowing."

In terms of negative coverage, Thai media has a fascination with crimes featuring kathoey. A major media event occurred in December 1996, when a kathoey studying education at Chiang Mai University made national headlines by committing the brutal murder of another university student.

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As a result of the publicity surrounding the incident, the Rajabhat Institutes Council, which decides policy for Thailand's 36 teacher training colleges, shortly afterwards publicly announced that it would begin prohibiting "sexually deviant" students from enrolling in teacher training courses. Its argument was that transgendered and homosexual teachers were bad influences on young people. Apparently, such a ban had already been implemented by the Rajabhat Institute on a "limited and selective basis" since 1993.

The ban led to widespread debate within the Thai media and English language newspapers published in Thailand. Opponents of the ban consisted of academics and human rights advocates, who argued that such discrimination was unconstitutional and violated basic human rights, as every Thai citizen was entitled to equal protection under the law. Although it was never clear exactly how and to what extent the ban was being enforced, by the end of 1997 both domestic and international pressure caused the Rajabhat Institutes to relent and repeal it.

The Social Climate

There are neither legal nor religious sanctions against same-sex relations or the violation of gender norms. However, the great value placed upon preservation of family units and preserving lineage through marriage and procreation can lead to intense social pressure to be in conformity with the expectations of family and culture. Indeed, because of the Confucian emphasis on the continuation of the family line, Thai parents of Chinese descent are particularly intolerant of children who identify as gay, lesbian, or transgendered.

At the same time, the Thai value of harmony and distaste for confrontation and open disagreement or conflict ensures a relative lack of public harassment and violence against those who openly flaunt gender norms. This freedom to express oneself in public has led some Western observers to imagine that non-normative behavior is accepted in Thailand. Nevertheless, severe penalties for the transgression of gender and sexual norms can occur, but in ways less visible to those who are unfamiliar with Thai culture. These range from the destructive power of gossip and ostracism to job discrimination and rape by family members.

In the Buddhist scriptures, attitudes towards homosexuality and transgenderism are ambiguous and inconsistent. In contemporary Thailand, some Buddhist writers believe that one's homosexuality or transgendered identity is determined by karmic influences. Karma refers to the Buddhist law of cause and effect: moral actions produce positive results, either in present or future lives, while immoral actions result in negative results.

Thus, some Buddhists believe that sexual misconduct, such as engaging in prostitution, adultery, child molestation, or abandoning a woman one has made pregnant, can cause a person to be born in their next life as a kathoey. Accordingly, one's homosexuality or transgenderism is not sinful, because it is involuntary repaying of a karmic debt. Thus, kathoey are not to be hated but rather pitied.

On the other hand, in the mid-1980s intolerant attitudes towards homosexuals and kathoey began to surface among Buddhist authorities. This was apparently because of the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS in Thailand. Influenced by media reports that pinned the blame for the virus on gay men, conservative Thai social commentators argued that engaging in homosexual activity was a voluntary act that arose from a lack of self-restraint and an over-abundance of sexual lust. Thus, people who engaged in relations were responsible for their actions, and hence taking part in sinful behaviors.

Research indicates that people's attitudes towards kathoey are complex and often dependent on context. For example, one study found that university students' feelings about transgenderism were often influenced by their relationship to kathoey. A person who was loath to have a child who was a kathoey could also respect and admire the artistic abilities of kathoey in general. At the same time, students generally felt positively about kathoey who "behaved themselves" in public by dressing and acting modestly, in contrast to the negative feelings they held about kathoey who drew attention to themselves through loud voices, sexy clothing, or aggressiveness.

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