Ladyboys: Thailand’s third gender (and lesbian lessons)

18 Feb

The scantily-clad ladyboys at Calypso Cabaret are stunning. However, being mired in spreadsheets and delusional from the combined heat of the tropics, forty computer processors, and a busy kitchen – I nearly forgot to attend the show!

Sophisticated LED diagrams for Bangkok's gnarly traffic.

A safe window to get across Bangkok on a Friday night (for a tourist who has never been where she’s going and would rather spend an hour sitting and waiting at her destination than be late for a performance) is two hours. I had 90-minutes to show time.

I bounded up the stairs to my sweltering room, quickly put myself together, raced around trying to find an internet cafe that could print my show ticket, and battled with smarmy cab drivers to find one who would use the meter instead of insisting on a grossly inflated fare.

 Arriving on a scene designed for high-rolling tourists, two thoughts entered my mind. First: “This is living justification for the ridiculously high fares charged by moto-taxis.” We were in gridlock traffic. Shelling out for a zippy little motorbike means squeezing through stopped vehicles and arriving easily 30 minutes sooner. The second thought: “This is awesome!

Asia Hotel South Lobby

The air literally thrummed with high-energy. While Khao San’s energy is cheap – cheap food, cheap beer, cheap knickknacks, cheap lodging – the neighborhood here had its I’s dotted, its T’s crossed, hospital corners, pride-in-appearance… the works. There were no gap year slobs running around naked or in their pajamas. People were dressed crisply, landscaping was sharp and clean, signs were tidy instead of tacky, everything was polished. I was dazzled.

With 45 minutes to kill, I explored the Asia Hotel Lobby. Quite by accident, I happened upon the outdoor smoking area used by the performers. I couldn’t believe my luck. Having just read a book on “Thailand’s Third Gender”, I felt intimately familiar with ladyboy life here. I wanted to strike up a conversation, but couldn’t quite muster the courage to face the awkward situation that would most likely result thanks to the ubiquitous Thai aversion to learning English (oh yeah, and my lack of Thai). Instead I wandered back inside and enjoyed the charged energy as I strutted through the lobby feeling swank in my brand new sloop-cut shirt and dangle-swirl earrings.

The awesome little theater

Ten minutes later I laid eyes on the sweet, intimate theater – which called to mind the Black Hills Playhouse or Humboldt’s Dell Arte. The room was packed with red and black chairs and tables arranged to take advantage of every last inch of space. Fantastic pre-show people watching (from the perfect seat!) provided ample entertainment. Seeing all the girthy people crammed together, watching elegant women flash the peace sign at their friend’s cameras, observing the wait staff as they brough out the complimentary starter drink each attendee selected – great stuff.

I see so many Asians busting out the peace-sign as their pose of choice for any photo. It's endearing. And on the right person - hilarious.

While I enjoyed my free adult beverage, I mulled over the gender-bending world in Thailand as compared to my homeland. (I’ll acknowledge here that this is no way an academic treatise, nor is it thorough, nor does it take into account a huge variety of perspectives. It may not be P.C. It may not even be accurate! Tough cookies.)

Many foreigners assume, after seeing ladyboys as often as they see monks, that acceptance for a wide range of gender and sexuality is alive and well in Thailand. In a way, yes. In another way, no. Most baffling for me was the blatant pigeon-holing here that seems not to exist back home. Examples: All ladyboys are attracted to men. There are no lesbian ladyboys. Lesbians rigidly divide themselves into “Toms” and “Dees.” “Toms” are women who essentially live as men – sort of F to M transgendered, but they don’t say they feel like they actually are men (while ladyboys do feel like they actually are women). They are a whole new gender – women who often sympathize and perpetuate misogynistic values, who apparently see all women, including Dees, as inferior. Weird. Tom’s are applauded by society and not considered shameful, whereas a ladyboy will struggle all her life for acceptance. “Dees” are pictures of femininity from their high-maintenance hair down to their pedicured toes. They, too, are not really considered “deviant” for wanting to be with “Toms” since “Toms” are basically men anyway. Possibly not blog appropriate: Toms apparently do not allow their Dees to see them unclothed or to touch them intimately, lest the drawing of attention to the presence of the Tom’s ladybits shatter the masculine control she has over her Dee. Wowsa.

Anyway… this is supposed to be a story about my trip to see the Calypso Cabaret featuring ladyboy performers, so back to that topic we go.

Cabaret performers in action.

The Cabaret had lots of incredible costume elements similar to “Chicago” – the musical. The showtunes and musical selection were pretty awesome. I particularly enjoyed the use of male performers in most of the numbers. It helped to showcase just how feminine most ladyboys are. Cleverly, the producer’s first number only reveals the owners of the fishnet-stocking-clad, stiletto-wearing legs at the end of the song. The audience sits there thinking, “Yup. These ladyboys just can’t pull the wool over my eyes. I could pick those masculine legs out of any line-up.” And then…. ta-da! That’s because they are male legs! In the same vein, another number had dancers – the men and the ladyboys – all wearing bikinis (save for one person). The contrast was striking, educational, and fascinating!

Another tourist posing with some of the performers after the show.

Other favorites – a few interesting Japanese and Korean traditional numbers, a convincing Marilyn Monroe, a hilarious solo performance where the punchline is that the performer actually knows her nipple has been showing for half the song, and some incredible teamwork choreography involving poles and lots of aerial moves to Christina Aguilera’s “Show Me How You Burlesque.” For performance quality I’d give the show an 8, but for cultural fascination it gets an 11! ♣

Photo link credits: asia hotel, calypso theater, swimsuit shot, performers with tourist.

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