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When it comes to alternative genders and sexualities--not to mention sex itself--Thailand enjoys an international reputation for openness, acceptance, and (in terms of sex work), availability. Yet in spite of media stories that portray "The Land of Smiles" as a gay paradise or a society in which people have full freedom of expression, the realities surrounding gender and sexual diversity in this country are complex and ambivalent.

Located in mainland Southeast Asia, Thailand is roughly the same size as France, with a population of approximately 62 million people. Bangkok, the nation's capital, is the largest city, with over six million inhabitants.

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Although home to vast geographical diversity, cultural assimilation of different ethnic groups has taken place in Thailand as a result of a national policy that asserts one official language (central Thai), one religion (Buddhism), and one culture ("Thai"). Nevertheless, cultural and linguistic variation continues to exist within Thailand's borders, resulting in a wide range of identities and practices related to gender and sexuality.

Constructions of Sexuality

Among the Thai, sexual orientation is tightly bound up with gender identity, in that same-sex attraction has generally been considered to be indicative of cross-gender identity and behavior. For example, a male who is sexually attracted to another male is thought to have a "female mind" and as such is identified as kathoey, a term which refers to effeminate and female-identified males. On the other hand, the sexual partners of kathoey are not necessarily designated by a special term and instead are considered simply to be "men." Accordingly, these sexual relationships are based on a heterosexual model.

In addition to kathoey, there are men who self-identify as gay (a word adopted from the English). These are gender-normative, masculine-identified males who are sexually attracted to other gender-normative, masculine-identified males. Some scholars believe that this type of egalitarian relationship is not indigenous to Thai culture but rather is a recent influence from the West.

In the past, the Thai language apparently did not have specific words to refer to lesbians. The closest equivalent was the phrase "len peuan"—"playing with friends." Today, females who are sexually attracted to other females generally refer to themselves as either "tom," an abbreviation of "tomboy," or "dee," from "lady." These identities are similar to the Western categories of butch/femme, and such gendered identities and role playing is prevalent in the lesbian community. Unlike Thai men who have embraced the English word gay to describe themselves, toms and dees generally shun the word "lesbian," due to its association with pornographic films produced for straight men.

Gender Diversity

It would appear that gender diversity has a long history in Thailand, although research is still limited. In some versions of northern Thai creation myths appear among the world's first people. There are also written accounts by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europeans that describe the apparent social acceptance of transgendered males in the northern city of Chiang Mai. Kathoey also play a role in northern Thai religious ritual as spirit mediums.

Transgenderism is a visible part of contemporary Thai culture. Transgendered males may self-identify using one or more of a number of different terms, including kathoey, sao braphet song ("a second type of woman"), phuying (woman), or gay.

In the popular media, stories about kathoey are often found in newspapers and magazines, and they frequently appear in television dramas and comedies. In everyday life, kathoey are quite noticeable as well, whether in urban, suburban, or rural areas. Kathoey can be found working in occupations ranging from street peddlers and shop clerks to tour guides and teachers, and are a strong presence in the entertainment, beauty, hair, and make-up industries. Cabaret shows featuring kathoey are also easily found in most towns and cities.

Kathoey are popular subjects in the Thai mass media, as well as in Western newspapers and magazines, which are often all too eager to pick up stories about transgenderism in exotic Thailand. Coverage is mixed, however. For every story on kathoey cabaret shows, there is another warning about sexual deviants who make their living by robbing tourists.

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Kathoey working as go-go dancers in Bangkok's Nana Plaza entertainment area.
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