Not unlike some western societies, many parents of Ladyboys in Thailand feel a great sense of disappointment and shame but the topic may never be addressed verbally.
In 2009, the Gay Pride parade in Chiang Mai was blocked by the so-called Red Shirt protesters, declaring it did not represent Northern culture, essentially denouncing any reference to the acceptance of homosexuality. And yet gay men who do not 'act' like Ladyboys are often hired to work in government positions.
Ladyboys who are out in the Thai nightlife may have the most freedom of all as they are often seen as show girls and expected to be over the top. But one has to wonder if the need for being truly accepted is greater than the desire for attention. If Thailand truly accepted heterosexuals and homosexuals equally, would there be such a distinction between the two? If people were really comfortable with gender differences would there be a need to constantly announce that so and so is a Ladyboy? After all, how often do people introduce heterosexuals as a friend who is straight?
When compared to other parts of the world, Thailand is in many ways, far more tolerant in terms of the bigotry and discrimination gays and lesbians face on a day to day basis in other countries. Nonetheless, it is important to question whether or not people are truly free to be themselves, without the same protection as heterosexuals of a given society.
Though many gay westerners find Thailand to be a land of sanctity, local human rights groups still find themselves working towards equality under Thai law. Although Ladyboys are quite visible in pop culture and in everyday mainstream life, open discussion of homosexuality remains virtually nonexistent.
Thailand is indeed a country of great open-mindedness with regards to human sexuality, but until the government recognizes all of its citizens' rights, under the law, it will never be as free and progressive as some visitors are led to believe. At the same time, maybe the mere acceptance of Ladyboys is the first step in conquering discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Degrees of homophobia exist, on different levels, all over the globe, including Thailand. Perhaps the Land of Smiles will one day also become known as the Land of Equality for All Genders, and it might be the katoeys that pave the way.
Doug Anderson is a retired Canadian programmer. He first visited Thailand in 1988 and has been back many times since. More information about Thailand, Thai culture, and the Thai language at Thai Culture Publishing.