(Nong Tum is perhaps the most internationally recognised Kathoey for her portrayal in the film Beautiful Boxer.)
The term "kathoey" is not an exact equivalent of the modern western transwoman — it suggests that the person is a type of male, unlike the term sao praphet song, which suggests a female sex identity, or phet thi sam, which suggests a third gender. The term phu-ying praphet thi sorng, which can be translated as "woman of the second kind", is also used to refer to kathoey. Australian scholar of sexual politics in Thailand Peter Jackson claims that the term "kathoey" was used in premodern times to refer to intersexuals, and that the usage changed in the middle of the twentieth century to cover cross-dressing males. The term can refer to males who exhibit varying degrees of femininity — many kathoeys dress as women and undergo feminising medical procedures such as hormone replacement therapy, breast implants, genital reassignment surgery, or Adam's apple reductions. Others may wear makeup and use feminine pronouns, but dress as men, and are closer to the western category of effeminate gay man than transgender.
The term "kathoey" may be considered pejorative, especially in the form "kathoey-saloey". It has a meaning similar to the English language "fairy" or "queen".
Kathoey work in predominately female occupations, such as in shops, restaurants and beauty salons, but also in factories (a reflection of Thailand's high proportion of female industrial workers). Kathoey also work in entertainment and tourist centers, in cabaret — Alcazar and Tiffanys in Pattaya are among the best known — and as sex workers.
Pattaya: Kathoeys on the stage of a cabaret show.
Kathoeys are more visible and more accepted in Thai culture than transgender or transsexual people are in Western countries or the Indian subcontinent. Several popular Thai models, singers and movie stars are kathoeys, and Thai newspapers often print photos of the winners of female and kathoey beauty contests side by side. The phenomenon is not restricted to urban areas; there are kathoeys in most villages, and kathoey beauty contests are commonly held as part of local fairs.
Some believe that this higher acceptance is due to the nature of the surrounding Buddhist culture, which places a high value on tolerance. Using the notion of Karma, some Thai believe that being a kathoey is the result of transgressions in past lives, concluding that kathoey deserve pity rather than blame.
A common stereotype has older well-off kathoey provide financial support to young men with whom they are in a personal relationship.
Kathoey women currently face many social and legal impediments. Families (and especially fathers) are typically disappointed if a son becomes a kathoey, and kathoey women often have to face the prospect of coming out. However, kathoey generally have greater acceptance in Thailand than most other Asian countries. Legal recognition of kathoeys is non-existent in Thailand: even after genital reassignment surgery, they are not allowed to change their legal sex. Discrimination in employment remains rampant. Issues can also arise in regards to access to amenities and gender allocation; for example, a kathoey who had undergone sexual reassignment surgery would still have to stay in an all-male prison.
Kathoey working in a go go bar in Bangkok's Nana Plaza entertainment area
In 1993 Thailand's teacher training colleges had implemented a semi-formal ban on allowing homosexual (which included kathoey) students enrolling in courses leading to qualification for positions in kindergartens and primary schools. In January 1997 the Rajabhat Institutes (the governing body of the colleges) announced it would formalize the ban, which would extend to all campuses at the start of the 1997 academic year. The ban was quietly rescinded later in the year following the replacement of the Minister of Education.
In 1996, a volleyball team composed mostly of gays and kathoeys, known as the The Iron Ladies (Thai: สตรีเหล็ก, satree lek), later portrayed in two Thai movies, won the Thai national championship. The Thai government, concerned with the country's image, barred two of the kathoey from joining the national team and competing internationally.
Among the most famous kathoeys in Thailand is Nong Tum, a former champion Thai boxer who emerged into the public eye in 1998. She was already cross-dressing and taking hormones while still a popular boxer; she would enter the ring with long hair and makeup, occasionally kissing a defeated opponent. She announced her retirement from professional boxing in 1999 — undergoing genital reassignment surgery, while continuing to work as a coach, and taking up acting and modeling. She returned to boxing in 2006.
In 2004, the Chiang Mai Technology School allocated a separate restroom for kathoeys, with an intertwined male and female symbol on the door. The 15 kathoey students are required to wear male clothing at school but are allowed to sport feminine hairdos. The restroom features four stalls, but no urinals.
Following the Military Coup in Thailand in 2006 kathoeys are hoping for a new third sex to be added to passports and other official documents in a proposed new constitution. In 2007, legislative efforts have begun to allow kathoeys to change their legal sex if they have undergone genital reassignment surgery; this latter restriction was controversially discussed in the community.[