By Andrew Biggs
Once I had a staff member who started with me as a man and, when he resigned two years later, was a woman.
His name was Pop and his job was advertising sales for a magazine I was editing.
He came to his job interview in a suit and tie. Rakishly thin with a gait not dissimilar to Miss Thailand’s, he was a polite young man with a perpetual smile on his powdered face.
Pop was an enthusiastic salesperson, hitting targets and getting his commissions. What I didn’t know was that for two years Pop was quietly saving up those commissions for a life-altering trip to Pattaya.
Pop became a woman. Prior to that I’d never had a staff member of the transgender kind – not knowingly, anyway. I don’t make a habit of examining a potential staff member’s genitals during the English job interview.
What did impress me was how accepted he was in Thai society, right from the moment he started work as an effeminate young man until his last day as a beautiful woman.
Pop wasn’t the flashy type who’d come to work dressed in a feather boa with Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive blaring out of his pink Honda Civic. He was, in his own words, a “woman in a man’s body”, not even using the word “trapped” there which is a nice indication of his outlook on life.
There isn’t a school I’ve spoken at – and I’ve been to probably a thousand – where there wasn’t a ‘katoey’ at some stage of development sitting among the girl students comparing nail polish.
I’ve been to the most remote areas of Thailand and still they are there, happily living in their community. Once I chanced upon a small temple fair in the far northeastern province of Mukdahan. “Stick around,” the old lady cooking my noodles beamed with pride. “In two hours we have a Second Type of Female Beauty Pageant.”
That is my literal translation; while “katoey” is a common word to describe transvestites it can be disparaging in certain situations.
The Thai language has another word for both a man who dresses as a woman and one who has changed his sex – it’s sao prapet song -- or “the second type of female”, which sounds much more dignified. Whatever you call it, it is a third gender in this country which is generally embraced and accepted.
I can’t imagine the howls, threats, stones, fists and even fatal beatings I would receive if I chose to don a Queensland sunfrock and wander down the main street of hometown Sunnybank in a wig and high heels.
(Your columnist quickly adds that despite a smorgasbord of fetishes, cross-dressing has never been one of his things. Thank God. Think of the poor innocent children on the footpath.)
The point is, we Australians on the whole would be merciless to such a person as Pop. She’d have been bashed up at school. Somebody would have spray-painted “poofter” on the side of her pink Honda Civic. Guys would hoot and holler at her on the train, tripping her up or trying to steal her handbag.
While things are better here, Thailand is not utopia. Even with a blanket tolerance towards second-type girls, there are the occasional small blips.
Such was the case when it was revealed the Defence Ministry deems any transsexual “psychotic”, while a simple cross-dresser is merely a “katoey”.
In other words, in the eyes of the military it’s okay for me to put on a dress. Once I get the boob job, though, I’m mentally deranged.
The army’s argument is that anything that’s “reversible”, like hormones and padded bras, keeps you sane. The moment you make an “irreversible” decision such as removing your male genitals, you’re mad.
It’s always refreshing to catch a glimpse into the minds of those defending our country at the top level. I don’t know about you, but hearing people believe such things makes my own neuroses seem insignificant.
But the edict throws up far more questions than answers.
Does it mean women who get boob jobs are mentally deranged as well? All my closest female friends have been, well, uplifted at some stage. Are they all mad?
What about guys who have their genitals chopped off in their sleep by angry wives? By rights these guys must be psychotic too. Are they now exempt from conscription on the grounds of lunacy?
And … if wearing a padded bra means I am “sane”, should I be investing in such an undergarment for days I feel like I’m losing my marbles? Or is that way too esoteric for this column?
I also have questions about enforcement. Unlike my job interviews, I am assuming the military must examine a potential cadet in his nether regions. This conjures up all sorts of gross images of khaki-clad officers prodding sculpted boobs and vaginas to ascertain that a conscript is psychotic.
And the biggest question of all – what is it exactly about the actual operation that turns you psychotic? Every time I go in for enhancement surgery I am placed under sedation so heavy I’d almost kill to take some home in a bottle for those days when not even Uncle Smirnoff (let alone a padded bra) can lift me.
If you’re knocked out during an operation, how can that turn you psychotic? I was under the impression you go crazy thanks to jarring unpleasant events in your life – what’s so jarring and unpleasant about morphine?
This may all seem amusing and cute, and great fodder for columnists the world over, but spare a thought for Thailand’s transgender population who are of conscription age.
Thais need their military exemption for when they apply for jobs. Imagine having “psychotic” stamped across your forehead for the rest of your life.
That’s why the case ended up in court this week, when one young transvestite bravely took the military to court. Samart Mitcharoen fronted up for conscription and was rejected. He got the stamp “mentally deranged” and he’s very unhappy about it.
This is a bit like Samson versus Goliath – and indeed, nobody will ever know if Samson was wearing frilly knickers at the time he shot that stone. But Samart has the sentiment of his country on his side, since every Thai family has at least one relative who is transgendered and sane.
And besides, which to you seems more mentally deranged – a guy donning a dress, or donning military fatigues and devoting one’s life to killing other guys in military fatigues in the name of political ideology or man-made borders? I’ve always thought true psychosis lies in our perpetual belief that weapons of mass destruction contribute to our humanity, or that blowing up foreign cities is a great progress for civilization.
As for Pop, well, I ran into her about a year ago. She is now an English teacher at one of Thailand’s most prestigious school for girls.
I am truly proud of where she has ended up. If ever I have a daughter and have a choice between her being under Pop’s care or the military’s, you know where she is heading. Life under Pop? Ethical, safe and far less psychotic.