Transsexuality in Northern Thailand—historical notes

A mural from Wat Phumin, Nan.

A mural from Wat Phumin, Nan (19th century).

Transsexuality in Northern Thailand
The third gender. Some notes on transsexuality in Northern Thailand in a historical context (1)

Story and pictures by Sjon Hauser

For many visitors, the high profile of transvestites and the effeminate behaviour of so many Thai men appear to be the most conspicuous expression of ‘homosexuality’ in modern Thailand. In some Thai cities, kathoei are so common that travel magazines and even some tourist guidebooks prepare the innocent visitor for unexpected encounters. In the Phatthaya section of the popular Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit by Joe Cummings, one is cautioned against  “Thai transvestites, who pose as hookers and ply their trade among the droves of well-heeled European tourists.” (2)
In a later edition of the same guidebook, the reader is even informed how best to distinguish a transvestite: “The easiest way to tell a ka-toey is by the Adam’s apple — a scarf covering the neck is a dead give-away.” (3)
In the weekly Trink page in the Bangkok Post in the 1990s, kathoei were regularly depicted as thieves and nuisances in the entertainment centres covered by the author.
Although western visions may be blurred by sensationalism, there is no doubt that transvestism is much more common here than in the west. According to academic Peter Jackson in his studies of male homosexuality in Thailand, transvestism appears to have attained a semi-institutionalized character in Thailand. It seems to him that the role of the kathoei has taken its present form in this century, although the word kathoei itself, dating back at least some centuries, suggest a substantial but unwritten and unrecorded history of transvestism (and homosexuality) here in Thailand.
mural NanOccasionally gay and even straight men may cross-dress, but the majority of the transvestites Thailand are in fact men who in modern psychology are considered as a gender identity disorders. Since their childhood most have a strong feeling of being born in the body of the wrong gender. Therefore, I will now refer to them as ‘transsexuals’.
In a Northern Thai (Yuan) creation myth, ‘hermaphroditism’ features prominently, which may suggest that transsexuality has been common in the region for centuries. The myth is recorded in an early chronicle written down possibly from a much older oral tradition sometime between the 13th and 16th centuries. Called the Pathamamulamuli, which the translator Anatole-Roger Peltier has subtitled The Origin of the World in the Lan Na Tradition, it exists in a number of versions and was also known among such neighbouring Tai groups as the Shan, Lao, and Khoen. In it, the first three human beings were a woman, a man, and a ‘hermaphrodite’.
“The three human beings grew up and had three children. Itthi, the woman, showed great affection for Pullinga, the man, much more so for him than for Napumsaka, the hermaphrodite. When he saw that the two beings loved each other tenderly, Napumsaka, the hermaphrodite, killed the man…Shortly after that, the hermaphrodite died also.” (4)
Late 19th-century travel accounts by European visitors to the north of Thailand seem to be the earliest evidence from western sources that transsexuality was common here. When the Norwegian explorer Carl Bock was in Chiang Mai in 1882, he was told that there were several ‘hermaphrodites’. (5) Holt Hallett, a British visitor here a few years later, met a shopkeeper in ordinary female costume. (6) Most likely, the people so described were not in fact hermaphrodites (persons with biologically ambiguous sexual characteristics) but transsexuals, their habits of cross-dressing being their own choosing.
Of particular interest in this context are the comments of W. A. R. Wood, a Briton who lived and worked in the consular service here in the north from the early 1900s, even residing here after his retirement into the 1960s. In his book Consul in Paradise, he writes as follows.
A mural from Wat Phumin, Nan.“In England, if a man goes about dressed as a woman he is arrested, and it seems to be assumed that for a man to have a liking for female dress is a sign of some sort of moral perversion. In certain regulations annexed to the Indian Penal Code a similar assumption is made. In Siam, especially in the north, there are a certain number of men who habitually wear female clothing and grow their hair long. It does not seem to be thought that there is anything morally wrong about this, and so far I have been able to make out, these Pu-Mia (men-women), as they are called, really possess, as a rule no moral eccentricities. Physically also, I am told, there is nothing unusual about them. They prefer to dress as women, and that is all there is to say about it.
“There used to be a young fellow of good family living near us at Lampang who sometimes dressed as a woman and sometimes as a man, and it was generally believed that during the first half of each month he actually was male, and during the latter half of the month became a female. I often exchanged greetings with him (or her) and found her (or him) very pleasant and polite, but I never became sufficient familiar  to justify making personal inquiries as to his (or her) sex. He did not wear his hair long, but when sporting feminine costume was very fond of decorating his head with flowers.
“Another Pu-Mia I used to know was quite different, being a great hulking fellow of exceptionally masculine appearance. He always dressed as a woman, wore his hair long, and affected the most ridiculous, simpering manners.
“I read some time ago of an English Pu-Mia being chased by an angry crowd across Hampstead Heath, hauled up before a magistrate, severely lectured on the depravity of his conduct, and heavily fined. Here, thought I, is one of the things they manage better in Siam. Why bother about Pu-Mias? So far as I can see, they do no harm, and in Siam, where nobody worries about them or interferes with them, there is certainly very little of the sort of thing which their existence, on the English theory, might be taken to indicate.” (7)
A mural from Wat Phumin, Nan.Wood also mentions that female ‘pu-mias’, who dress and behave as men, are not so common as the male kind.
Of the two male ‘pu-mias’ described, the one with the attractive appearance and pleasant manners may have inspired Wood to write the short story The Pu-Mia, included in the recently republished collection of his short stories, Rhinoceros Blood. In this, a ‘pu-mia’ features as a witness at the Northern Siamese Court in Chiang Mai. Luang Maitri, the assistant judge who had only recently been posted here from Bangkok, was taken by surprise at his appearance, and apparently was unaware of the existence of this ‘third gender’.
The chief judge later explained the matter to his new assistant.
“Northern Siam is not like Bangkok. I have never seen a respectable young man going about the capital dressed like a woman. But in Northern Siam there are a few so-called pu-mia in every district. This seems to be accepted as a normal thing. They are men, like you or me, but they insist on dressing like women, and object as a rule to doing a man’s work, though ready enough to do laundry work, sewing or weaving, or to take any job normally assigned to females. They do no harm, so far as I know, and nobody bothers about them. People say: “He is a pu-mia,” just as they might say of someone that he stutters or is short-sighted, and that is all there is to it.”
The pu-mia happened to be the assistant judge’s neighbour and the latter came to develop a keen interest in the handsome young man. One day they met and got chatting, and the Bangkokian could not suppress his desire to ask the boy about his queer habits. He told him about his history of transsexuality.
“When I was a boy, I had to go to school, and I was always dressed like a boy. I would have liked to dress as a girl, but my father, who was then alive, would not allow me to do so. I left school when I was fifteen, and my father then had me ordained as a Buddhist novice at the Lion Temple. I was there for two years.
While I was in the temple, my father died, and I resigned from the temple in order to come home and help my mother. After I came home, I took to dressing and doing my hair like a woman. My mother did not object, so now I always wear feminine attire. I am doing very well, making and selling silk skirts, and sometimes I take in laundry too. I do all the cooking and also look after my grandmother…My mother is busy all day in her shop. So, you see, we manage very well, and are better off than we would be if I tried to do a man’s work, as I am not well-educated enough to get a highly paid job. Two years have passed in this way, I am now nineteen, and have come to look on myself as a woman: moreover all our neighbours accept me as such. I am very happy now that I have become a woman. I do useful work and everybody is very kind to me. Moreover, I have much more liberty than is enjoyed by real girls whose parents are always fussing about them if they got out alone. You see, I am a woman with all the freedom of a man.” (8)
At present, transsexuality/transvestism is probably as common in the North as in the days Wood refers to. The term pu-mia is however rarely met, having been replaced by kathoei, or thut, the latter a rather derogatory expression.
They can be seen in the cities as well as the villages. Many work as shopkeepers or market vendors. Quite a few hairdressers and beauticians are kathoei. Shops making and selling cremation wreaths of paper flowers are more often than not run by kathoei.
muralWhat these occupations have in common is that certain artistic gifts and a well developed sense of beauty are required or they give ample scope to display communucation skills.
An anthropological study of northern Thailand by Walter Irvine contains a report on the success of a businessman who employed eight kathoei. They took care of the demonstration and sales of the firm’s cosmetic products at town and village markets. Previously, the employer had requited female staff but their efforts had met with little success. However, once he hit on the idea of employing kathoei, sales boomed.
“He reported that their success was partly related to their hard work, but also to their entertainment value, for dressed as women, the young kathoei looked, he siad, better than most women, thus providing an unbeatable advertisement for his products, while attracting clients by the very fact of being kathoei  and their ability to ape the babble of women, and entertain…” (9)
The supposed sensitive character of the Northern Thai kathoei may have led many to the traditional like (likay) theatre, in which the majority of the performers are kathoei. This form of folk theatre was introduced to the North at the beginning of the twentieth century, and probably originated in the South of Thailand long before. Nowadays, there are very few troupes left.
In an essay in A Northern Miscellany, Benjamin Schneider describes one such surviving group. The owner/manager Khun Thongsuk, well into his sixties in the 1980s, seems to exemplify how kathoei were drawn into this profession.
“His parents were very poor, having ‘no land and little to eat’. He had no schooling past Grade 1. His one asset, he says, was that he was very beautiful. This beauty was ‘like that of a woman’ and Thongsuk became known, probably before he fully understood himself, as a homosexual. According to him, ‘Gays were hated at that time,’ and it is not surprising that at the age of fifteen he found in like both a relief from poverty and an accepted niche in society. Like at that time had no female performers and Thongsuk, with his outstanding looks, quickly became a very popular lead actress. Many men, ‘even a policeman,’ fell in love with him.” (10)
Thongsuk, who had not performed himself since he was fifty years old, had also become renowned as a spiritual healer and a fortune teller. Among such practitioners of traditional medicine and ‘psychotherapy’, numerous other kathoei can also be found.

SJON HAUSER: text and picture

(1) This story was first published in Guidelines Chiang Mai, July 2000: 30-31.
(2) Joe Cummings, Thailand, a Travel Survival Kit. Lonely Planet, South Yarra (Australia), 1984 (2nd ed.): p. 103.
(3) Joe Cummings, Thailand, a Travel Survival Kit. Lonely Planet, Hawthorn (Australia), 1990 (4th ed.): p. 163.
(4) Anatole-Roger Peltier, Pathamamulamuli or The Origin of the World in the Lan Na Tradition. Chiang Mai, 1991: p. 207.
(5) Carl Bock, Temples and Elephants. The Narrative of a Journey of Exploration through Upper Siam and Lao. Sampson, Low, Marsten, Searle & Rivington, London, 1884: p. 320.
(6) Holt S. Hallett, A Thousand Miles on an Elephant in the Shan States. William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh, 1890: p. 99.
(7) W. A. R. Wood, Consul in Paradise. Sixety-nine years in Siam. Souvenir Press, London, 1965: p. 98-99.
(8) W. A. R. Wood, Rhinoceros Blood and Other Stories. Trasvin Publications, Chiang Mai, 1991: 124-26.
(9) Walter Irvine, Northern Thai Madness and Nationalism. Unpublished Ph. D. Dissertation, London, 1982: 363.
(10) Benjamin Schneider, Likay: popular theatre in Northern Thailand. In: A Northern Miscellany. Essays from the North of Thailand (G. Walton, ed.): p. 191-206. Jareuk Publications, Chiang Mai, 1989: 196-197.