There are few things as challenging as talking to Thais about homosexuality. There really is no common category called “lesbian.” I even asked if there are some girls who exclusively date toms.Thailand has a reputation as an especially gay-friendly country, so why, even when language was not an issue, did my interviewees seem so utterly confounded by my questions? Turns out, in fact, there’s very little homosexuality in Thailand, so to speak. I generally received a response in the realm of “sure… ” I later met a Thai lesbian in Vietnam who told me she “left Thailand because there were no lesbians there.In Thailand there are a lot of ladyboys, or katoey, and toms, as in “tomboy.” Without official data, the only way I can describe this is to say that, at least in the big cities, it’s noticeably common; you see them everywhere, even portrayed in popular media. Lesbians there have a big problem.” One available but confining category for lesbians in Thailand is called “dee,” as in “lady.” Dees dress extra-feminine, wear makeup and heels, and carry handbags.Ladyboys are more common than toms, who have appeared on the scene more recently. A relationship between a tom and a dee involves a kind of hyper-hetero role-play in which toms provide for and tend to their dees.The polite term for katoey in Thai literally translates to “third gender.” Thai has no gendered pronouns, but when Thais refer to ladyboys and toms in English, they consistently used “her” and “him” respectively in such a natural way it seems to reflect the way they think of the people rather than an effort towards political correctness. Common knowledge has it that toms only pleasure their dees and never let them see their own vaginas, although I never had the guts to verify this.Maybe it’s because Thais do, to a large extent, consider ladyboys women and toms men, but neither men who date ladyboys nor women who date toms are considered “gay.” Anecdotally, it seems that ladyboys don’t date ladyboys and toms don’t date toms. Men who date men have only begun emerging in the last 10 to 15 years. Pang: [cracking up with her hands over her mouth] No no no! Only one Thai person I spoke to had ever heard of this arrangement.
To say either group identifies as “men” or “women” would oversimplify the issue. Holding hands is not even a common practice among heterosexual couples in Thai society, as they keep public displays of affection to a bare minimum.
Subsequently, I asked many Thais about this and though not all could explain why, it definitely holds true in general consensus.
When I asked about this, Thais looked at me like I was crazy or stupid. Although fairly well-accepted by general society, gay men still face difficulty because pleasing one’s parents is of paramount importance in Thailand, and the pressure to have children continues.
I spoke to Pang, a woman in a relationship with a tom, and we had the following conversation: Me: Do toms ever date toms? I heard many stories of men who date men when they are young, but who eventually marry a woman and have children. Also married men will have a ladyboy on the side as the gik [mistress].” She explained that when a straight man dates a ladyboy she acts as a sort of sugar mama, paying for everything for the man.
I also heard stories of men who marry, have children, and then go and find a boyfriend. Similarly to the tom-dee setup, ladyboys pick up checks at meals, take their men shopping, and – according to one ladyboy I spoke with named Goff – even pay their rent.
But even within gay relationships between men in Thailand, a sort of male-female structure exists in that they self-identify as either a “king” or a “queen.” As Pang explained it, “Gay and ladyboy is not the same. But really, there’s not many gay men who are men in Thailand.” I asked my Thai friend Meauw if straight men date ladyboys. Meauw and Goff both explained to me that ladyboys typically have lots of money.