This is a selection of images from a recent trip to Isaan, Thailand’s northeast. They are part of my on-going project on male-to-female transgender, or khatoey.
For the full gallery of images, please go to my main website.
Isaan is largely rural, relatively poor and predominantly ethnic Lao. It made an interesting comparison with Bangkok, where I spent most of my time previously.
One theme I am always keen to explore is the degree to which khatoey are accepted by their families, neighbours, school mates and work colleagues. In urban, middle class Thailand the growing acceptance over recent decades seems to be linked to the ability of khatoey in general (through hormones, surgery, cosmetics and their wardrobes) to physically resemble women. Beauty is highly prized (khatoey are commonly talked of as more beautiful than women) and often considered an indicator of virtue.
In rural Isaan, it is rather different. Few khatoey have the time, money or inclination to beautify themselves to the extent of their urban sisters. Yet most of the people I spoke to said that they suffered no social stigma. Families, especially mothers, aunts and grannies who do most of the child-rearing, seem to reach an acceptance of their sons as khatoey at an earlier age than elsewhere in Thailand. One mother told me: “I have five sons. I always wanted a daughter so when Poy [her youngest] turned out to be khatoey, I was happy.”
On this trip I met khatoey school teachers (as well as a small army of school boys), older khatoey who are married with children, and I heard of policemen, soldiers and village chiefs.
Why Isaan should be so khatoey-friendly is interesting to speculate. I am no anthropologist - and I am aware that there is rarely one simple reason for the way people behave - but I suspect it may have something to do with the region’s relative poverty and how that affects gender roles.
Due to poor soils and a lack of irrigation, much of Isaan has only one rice harvest a year. This means that men in particular are often under-employed. Many have to search for labouring work in the cities between harvests. As in many places where work is hard to come by, men in Isaan have a reputation as less than ideal husbands and fathers, with hard-drinking and domestic violence cited as common ills.
By comparison khatoey come out looking rather good. In taking on a female or ‘daughter’ role they tend to put family first, be it as carers or domestic help. What’s more, many khatoey are willing to take on both ‘male’ and ‘female’ work if required. In lean times this flexibility can be an asset to a family.