What is a กะเทย?

Carissa Sutter, 126

Recently, in response to our Volunteer Reporting Forms, a PCV asked an important question: Should kathoey be counted as male or female? This had to be asked, because the reporting forms only have two genders and the Thai culture has an entirely different perception of what gender is. For the purposes of this article, we will focus entirely on the kathoey who dress as women – not the effeminate men who are also called kathoey.

Let us first consider America’s current technical definitions of gender, sex, and a few other identity terms:

  • Gender: An intellectual and emotional attachment to an identity or a social role – it is not physical.[1] Please
    follow this link for more detailed information on the multiple genders.
  • Sex: A physical and/or genetic state of being. “Sex is defined by the gonads, or potential gonads, either phenotypically or genotypically.”[3] For more information on the multiple sexes, click this link.
  • Transgender: People whose identity, expression, behavior, or general sense of self does not conform to what is culturally associated with the sex they were born.[5]
  • Transsexual: This is a technical term used in Gender Studies for people who transition from one sex to another.[6] Not that long ago, Transsexual was used for both gender-identity and sex-identity, but they are now two separate terms. It is more accurate to use the term Transgender in America than Transsexual because the intellectual and emotional choice is more relevant to the individual than the biological.
  • Transvestite: A person who wears clothing of the opposite sex either publically or only in private. This does not refer to sexual preferences in any way, or even fully to gender preference, only to mode of dress. Unlike Transgender people – Transvestites enact the role of the gender, they do not embody it.
  • Drag Queen: A person, almost always a man (drag is an abbreviation for “Dressed as a Girl” but the term has definitely been used loosely), who wears extremely extravagant and flamboyant clothing to perform on stage or at an event. This is dress is almost always in a female-gender-style and used only during performance, not in daily life.

“Not drag—drag means costume. What I do is just wearing a dress.” – Eddie Izzard[7]

Caitlyn Jenner recently transitioned very publically into the female gender role. She is a transgender, and it is most appropriate to now refer to Caitlyn using only feminine pronouns. Eddie Izzard is a British comedian who is a transvestite. He frequently dresses as a woman, but is heterosexual, uses masculine pronouns, and considers himself “male.” On the biological front, there are long-running rumors that Jaime Lee Curtis was born with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), which is a physical condition that leaves the person genetically one sex, while physically in a stage other than that sex. Those are rumors, and  Curtis has never confirmed or denied them (and she should not have to as she clearly has defined herself in the female-gender role).

Now for the Thai perception of sex and gender. As Volunteers learn pretty quickly, the gender rules in Thailand are very different. If a person takes on too many gender roles of the opposite sex, they are soon expected to follow the cultural norms for that gender. They may begin to be referred to using that gender’s pronouns, and/or asked to do chores associated with that gender. One Volunteer cut her hair short and frequently dressed more like the male gender, so she was not expected to behave “like a lady,” or help clean like a typical Thai woman (click here to learn more about her experiences). Another Volunteer was asked to help wash the dishes because he behaved in a feminine manner.

This is because the Thai people have a different understanding of gender than Westerners. Culturally, Thai people don’t attach a person’s gender to a person’s sex.[8] They allow each person to determine for themselves which role they fit into best. Culturally, Thais do associate a person’s sex with their sex organs, as the US Government does, but they leave the person to decide their own gender.

Kathoey, or Ladyboy, refers to people who were born male but behave in ways that match the norm for the female-gender. The Thai language has not adopted the Western definitions of gay and straight, and Thais do not  make a distinction between gender identity and sexual identity. “Indeed, within Thai academic discourses a single expression, ekkalak thang-phet, is used to translate both ‘gender identity’ and ‘sexual identity.’ “[9]

Because many kathoey[10] are neither fully gendered-male or female, they fit more comfortably into the Third Gender, or phet thi sam.[11] The Third Gender can be claimed by a person born as either one sex or more than one sex, but may not fully identify with the two main genders. In Nepal, new gender-identity laws were enacted three years ago which defined the Third Gender as “an identity-based category for people who do not identify themselves as either male or female. This may include people who want to perform or want to be presented as a gender that is different from the one that was assigned to them at birth, based on genitalia or other criteria. It can also include people who do not feel that the male or female gender roles that their culture dictates to them match their true social, sexual, or gender-role preference.” [12] Some say that the term kathoey itself was traditionally created to refer to a native belief in a “non-binary” gender.[13]

Many Westerners believe kathoey is interchangeable with the Western perception of Transgender, a term used colloquially to describe changing from one gender to the other. During an interview on The Third Gender: Documentary on Thailand’s Trans Community, a Thai described Transgender as a “Western term,” and not one that applies to their community.[14] In fact, some kathoey “might not identity as—or even understand the meaning of – transgender or transsexual specifically.”[15] Kathoey cannot be defined as absolutely male, female, transgender, transsexual, or transvestite – though individuals in that group can be described by using some of those labels.

The biggest confusion for most Western people is that a kathoey might identify as a part of the male sex and the female gender. Ask different kathoey which sex or gender they identify with, and you will get different answers. This is why the Third Gender is a really important option to have available on any forms, surveys, or censuses. And Nepal is not the only country to add a third option under the gender category – Thailand is rumored to be adding the Third Gender as a protected population in their unreleased constitution. To find out more on this subject, please refer to the footnotes which include articles from newspapers, magazines, and a scholarly periodical; as well as links to videos, and books.


Watch these videos for more information on the Third Gender:



Watch this video for more information on those who self-define as Transgender in Asia:





Transvestite: Eddie Izzard

[1] “Gender Identity” by Shuvo Ghosh, MD. Medscape. Accessed on August 24, 2015.

[2] “7 Genders Beyond Male and Female,” by Jessica Mahmoud. Uloop. Accessed on August 24, 2015.

[3] “Gender Identity” by Shuvo Ghosh, MD. Medscape. Accessed on August 24, 2015.

[4] “How Many Sexes Are There?” by Anne Fausto-Sterling. New York Times. Accessed August 24, 2015.

[5] “What Is The Difference Between Transsexual And Transgender? Facebook’s New Version Of ‘It’s Complicated’.”
Medical Daily. Accessed August 24, 2015.

[6] “What Is The Difference Between Transsexual And Transgender? Facebook’s New Version Of ‘It’s Complicated’.” Medical Daily. Accessed August 24, 2015.

[7] “Eddie Izzard Defines Drag and Explains How He’s Like George Washington,” by Krista Smith. Vanity Fair. Accessed August 24, 2015.

[8] “Kathoey Culture: An Intimate Exploration Into The Lives Of Thai Ladyboys” by Jordan Gold. Accessed on August 25, 2015.

[9] Lady Boys, Tom Boys, Rent Boys: Male and Female Homosexualities in Contemporary Thailand by Peter A. Jackson and Gerard Sullivan.

[10] Reminder: This article is dealing entirely with kathoey who wear women’s clothing.

Drag Queen: Divine

[11]Thailand’s Transgender People Aren’t Just ‘Ladyboys’ Anymore” by

Jay Michaelson. Accessed on August 25, 2015.

[12]Dividing by Three: Nepal Recognizes a Third Gender” by Kyle Knight. Huffington Post. Accessed on August 24, 2015.

[13] Lonely Planet Bangkok interview with trans-activist Prempreeda Pramoj Na Ayutthaya by Austin Bush and Thitinan Pongsudhirak. 2014.

[14]The Third Gender: Documentary on Thailand’s Trans Community. Filmed and edited by Vivienne Chen. Funded by the Martin A. Dale Award. Accessed August 24, 2015.

[15]Thailand’s Transgender People Aren’t Just ‘Ladyboys’ Anymore” by Jay Michaelson. Accessed on August 25, 2015.






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