What happens when different is good?

Just search “ladyboy” on YouTube.

Gay and transgender rights are a hot button topic in America right now, and it’s easy to see why. With so many states amending their constitutions to legalize gay marriage, and with discrimination against transgender individuals still going strong, we are definitely in a period of flux for how sexual orientation and gender self-identification operate under the eyes of the law and in society as a whole. Readers might remember my column from a few months ago where I spoke out in favor of LGBT rights and encouraged everyone to show the Legislature that they wanted a repeal of the ban on gay marriage in Nevada.

Currently in Nevada, members of the LGBT community are protected under the state’s anti-discrimination laws and hate crime statutes, but while there is growing acceptance of their community, there is still a sense of “Otherness” about the way LGBT people are treated under by the government and by popular culture.

Traveling to Thailand this month has revolutionized my perspective on social and legal attitudes toward members of the LGBT community. A somewhat famous buzzword for the Thai people is the term “ladyboy.” The culture around this word is a fascinating one, and it is not easily explained. Essentially, it’s a cultural phenomenon that has existed in Thailand—and some other parts of southeast Asia—for some time in which many biologically male children have been raised female.

This phenomenon has resulted in a large number of the biologically male population crossdressing and/or undergoing elective surgery to become at least partially female, which is accomplished by receiving breast implants but not necessarily changing their genitalia. In addition to “ladyboy,” there is a word of similar meaning called “kathoey” which can be used to refer to either a man-to-woman transgender or an effeminate gay man.

Some Thais even refer to kathoeys as being members of a third gender, as they don’t fit into the traditional dichotomies of masculine biological man and feminine biological woman.

According to some Thai people I’ve spoken with, members of the LGBT community in Thailand are generally treated well in common society, although the law does not provide protection based on sexual orientation or identification nor is same sex marriage legal. There is generally very little desire, however, for the LGBT community to hold pride events because most members of the community don’t feel ostracized enough to highlight their differences as a group. It is understood that certain gender and sexual orientation expectations come with the territory of being male, female or the third gender, but overall, differences are neither celebrated nor demonized.

For me, it is strange to spend time in a country where sexual orientation and gender identification aren’t considered a big deal. Sexuality appears to be a relatively fluid concept in Thailand—and more realistic, if you ask me—where people explore their preferences without judgment. In high school and university, girls will ask each other out as a way to gain experience in dating, and tomboys seem to be just as abundant as ladyboys. There doesn’t seem to be any stigma to having your sexuality out in the open either. I’ve had ladyboy tour guides and beauticians, gay student helpers at the university, and I’ve seen older white men going on dates with passing but suspiciously husky-voiced women.

The whole experience has led me to wonder what it would be like if the U.S. was as open to LGBT lifestyles as the Thai community. Strictly defined gender roles seem to be hardwired into the American mind, but if we weren’t so set on labels, would equality be reinforced, or would we just find other ways to alienate groups of people? As America makes its next move in terms of LGBT rights, only time will tell.