Why So Many Ladyboys in Thailand?
First of all, let me rephrase this question and give it a larger scope. The problem of the large proportion of ladyboys in Thailand is a question often asked, but should be rephrased into “why so many ladyboys in SE Asia?”, or even “why so many ladyboys in Asia and in South America?” My argument here is that if you make it a specifically Thai question, you will not get a good answer. Of course, you may react by saying that the problem is specifically Thai, adding that Thailand has more ladyboys than any other country in South-East Asia. You may be right. Although there are no reliable statistics, we can surmise that that the largest percentage of ladyboys is found in Thailand and The Philippines, that it is somewhat smaller in Malaysia, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and definitely smaller in Indonesia and Myanmar. Such differences could be accounted for by the role of Islam in Indonesia and in Malaysia, and by the role of political and legal intolerance in Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Yet the role of religion and of politics should not be overestimated, such factors may act mainly on the visibility of the ladyboy phenomenon. In any case, there is no one single factor for explaining it. For example, religion cannot be considered as the explanation : Thailand and The Philippines have different dominant religions and a large number of ladyboys; Thailand and Myanmar have the same dominant religion and very different proportions of ladyboys. As to political intolerance, it does play an important role in repressing the ladyboy social fact, but not really in explaining it.
In the articles I read about this phenomenon in Thailand, I found mainly 3 kinds of explanations.
1) The boys who become ladyboys are already very feminine, and thus, it is a kind of an easy change for them.
2) Thai society is very tolerant towards ladyboys, and towards sexual minorities in general.
3) These people are gay anyway and just want to attract more males, and possibly trade sex.
As to genetic explanations, they can be discarded at the outset, since if there were a gay gene, it would probably have been eliminated by natural selection (since gay people and ladyboys tend to make no or few children, not enough to maintain the gene in the population). Let us now examine each one of these 3 explanations.
1) The easy change argument supposes that changing gender identity is a bit like a fashion change, like – say – adopting a punk or a hip-hop style. That might be true of some teenagers in search of their identity. But then it is not a real identity change, it is more a kind of regular teenager problem. Let me say here that I do not define a ladyboy by his or her appearance only, a ladyboy is not just a cross-dresser, for fashion or for fun or whatever. It is someone with a gender identity problem. A ladyboy may dress like a boy and look like a boy, but still be a ladyboy. The gender problem is usually expressed in words like : “I was born as a boy but deep inside I am a girl”, or something like this. Try to imagine what this means. It’s not just a mistake to correct; it’s not like having the wrong job, or not doing what you really like to do. It’s not just like saying something like “I am a cook but my real life is playing the trumpet”, or “if I would start my studies again, I would choose another course”. It is having the feeling to be the wrong person, in other words, not to be oneself. I mention this because I often read articles mentioning ladyboys as if they were just another category of people, like tailors, youngsters, people who wear glasses, or, for that matter, fashion freaks. But people in such categories do not share a similar psychological problem. Let’s take an example and imagine a 70-year old lady always wearing a miniskirt, with her hair plaited into two braids, like a 12-year old girl. You may be stunned, you may think this is funny or you may feel indignant, but the point is that this lady has some psychological problem. You can always blame society for being intolerant in not allowing 70-year old people to dress like 12-year olds, but it’s a fact that she is off the norms (at least in our societies), she knows it, and since there is not much reward for dressing like this, to say the least, she probably cannot help doing it. Psychologists would speak of fragmented identity. Ladyboys are in a situation similar to this old lady, yet only worse: adopting a ladyboy lifestyle does not go without discrimination, integration problems and misunder¬standings. The psychological problem, often hidden behind a certain exultation, does not always appear clearly. But if you look closely, you will notice that ladyboys, probably like this old lady, are fascinated by themselves, their appearance, and lack the attention to others that would allow them to enter in meaningful relationships. Of course, I don’t want to reduce the problem to a psychological one, but it is one component of the equation.
2) The argument of the tolerance of Thai society aims at giving a sociological explanation to the ladyboy phenomenon. It comes to saying that there is everywhere, for some unknown reason, about the same tendency at gender change, and that in Thailand gender changes are as not as prevented to happen as in other countries, possibly even encouraged. Incidentally, that would mean that all societies that are tolerant towards sexual minorities should have a high percentage of ladyboys. The risk, in such an explanation is tautology: we would say that a society is tolerant just because there is a high proportion of ladyboys; and where there is a small proportion, we would say that society is intolerant. Such an argument only asserts instead of explaining. We would need precise information about how the society handles ladyboys to be convinced, in particular, we would need comparative information about attitudes towards ladyboys. I am not particularly convinced that Thailand is very tolerant towards its ladyboys; they are restricted to a limited number of professions like hairdressing and beauty salon, travel agent, receptionist, cashier, cabaret artist, and a few other low-level jobs, and have almost no access to high ranking professions; they are under-represented in business and politics. Thus, the argument of the tolerance of society seems a bit flaky.
3) The argument according to which ladyboys are mainly looking at attracting men should at least be rephrased. After all, there are many gays who wish to attract more men and who do not adopt a feminine identity. In many countries, in the West in particular, it seems, on the contrary, that gays are attracted to male figures, and that few heterosexual males are attracted to ladyboys. In such societies, it would be counter-productive to become a ladyboy in order to have more sex. In other words, if it is true that ladyboys have more sexual success than gay boys, be it in Thailand or elsewhere, it is a fact that has to be given a sociological and a relational explanation. What I want to stress here is that this argument of “more sex”, like the fashion argument, ignores the real life of ladyboys, it makes of them rational individuals who just want to have as much kicks and pleasure as they can. The fact is that most people who write about them have some interest in them, tend to admire them, and not to see their problems. They do not see the despair, the sense of emptiness and normlessness, which, incidentally brings many of them into delinquency. Ladyboys are not well-balanced boys who have lightheartedly, and, in a way rationally, chosen to change their identity in order to get more of something.
If none of these 3 explanations are satisfactory, it is probably because we are not analyzing the problem correctly. You cannot analyze a social phenomenon as a psychological one, i.e., for example, as a simple decision problem. As usual in sociology, explanations have to include many levels. At the more macro level, we know that there tend to be less ladyboys in Western societies than in traditional ones. That’s a first lead. As one knows, traditional societies, as opposed to Western or individualistic societies, put more stress on the family, less on the individual. Individuals are less autonomous; there is more respect for the elders; vertical relationships based on age are more important, and so on. There are many more characteristics of traditional societies versus individualistic ones, but the important thing is to understand the meaning of autonomy in order to understand what a society made of individuals with little autonomy means. To take just one example, I have always been struck by the spontaneous help an individual in South-East Asia would offer to a sibling (for his or her studies for example), often sacrificing his or her own future. This looks like an act of great generosity, i.e., an act of giving something in full consciousness of the consequences and taking responsibility for it. But it is not. It is more the result of a confused sense of belonging to the family, something that is not really thought about. You will not hear people say something like “I have thought a lot about this and I have decided to…” Their position in the family determines what they have to do. I could develop this point at length (I wrote a book on identity), but we have to go back to our ladyboy problem. First, the fact is that in Asian traditional societies, males and females are seen as more similar than in the West and than in other traditional societies. Boys and girls also become more easily real friends without sexual intentions or fantasies. Sexual roles are not as differentiated as in the West. Second, in Asian traditional societies, women play an important economic role, and are often seen as more virtuous than their husband. Third, in traditional societies, what one is or becomes in life is considered to depend only little on one’s own will and actions.
Thus, the interesting question is not “why so many ladyboys in Thailand?” but “why so little in countries like China or India?” for example, which are Asian countries and largely traditional societies. Why not more in South America? Why almost none in Africa, another continent ridden by traditional societies? Detailed answers should be brought to these questions, analyzing each country’s institutions and norms, and comparing them. Social psychologists and cultural sociologists have studied the attitudes of people in different countries, for example the importance of competition or cooperation, or prejudices about sex differences (sexism). Incidentally, I was surprised to read, in a famous comparative study by Geert Hofstede, that the country that scores highest on valuing masculinity is Japan. Hofstede did not include China, but I take it that a beginning of answer is that the current regime tends to repress minorities and behavior deviating from the official norms. But there are also cultural factors: for example, sex roles, in the confucean tradition, are well differentiated; to be mentioned also is that the dowry system (the bride price) is still an important tradition (the dowry system accentuates the male-female status difference). In India, sex roles are also clearly marked, the dowry is also there, and women have a quite lower social status than men; furthermore, ladyboys have a religious role; they are associated to this role in the minds of the population and tend to be restricted to it. In South America, there are also marked differences. Some countries score high in sexism (like Venezuela), some score low (like Chile). I suppose that the countries with less sexism have more ladyboys. As to Africa, it seems that the vast majority of the people share a kind of social conservatism in sexual matters. It is probably the role of historians to explain that.
If we want to move towards a better explanation of the ladyboy problem, we should first have reliable numbers, which we do not at this stage. We also have to distinguish between societies which tend to be individualistic (although they still have traditional features) like the West, i.e., mainly Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, and societies which tend to be more traditional, i.e., the rest of the world. It is by seeing the ladyboy phenomenon as a feature of traditional societies that we will better understand it. Then, we have to distinguish traditional societies depending on the percentage of ladyboys, and try to understand such differences. My point here is that is it only through a systematic comparative analysis of traditional societies that we will progress in the understanding of the problem raised by the different proportions of ladyboys in different cultures and countries.
I find the use of the word "problem" in the first sentence of your final paragraph curious. Is it really a "problem" that there are so many ladyboys in Thailand? Personally, I don't think so. Live and let live, I say.
I agree with the conclusion you reach that contrary to popular opinion, Thailand is actually not that tolerant of ladyboys. This tolerance is superficial as Thai society tolerates ladyboys only to a certain extent. This is evident in the fact that most ladyboys only work in one of a relatively small number of fields and industries.
As to why there are so many in this part of the world, it's easy to list a few contributing factors but the main reason? I really don't know.