Where the 'Ladyboys' Are

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David Longstreat / AP

Life can be complicated enough for members of the transgender community — the last thing they need is to have to choose between two bathroom doors: male or female. Fortunately for students at the Kampang high school in rural northern Thailand, there's now a third option. Introduced in May, the third bathroom features a symbol on its door of a human figure divided vertically, its blue side wearing pants and its red side sporting a skirt. The Kampang school's principal says he decided to build the new bathroom after a poll found that nearly 10% of the school's 2,500 students identify themselves as transgendered.

Buddhist-majority Thailand displays what may be the world's most tolerant attitude toward what locals call kathoey, loosely translated as "ladyboys." The term, which does not have an exact counterpart in English, refers to people who are born physiologically male but, as one Thai saying goes, "have a female heart." Kathoeys include everyone from occasional cross-dressers to those who have completed gender-reassignment surgery.

Although kathoeys do face some stigma and bureaucratic hurdles in Thailand — those who have undergone sex-change operations, for example, are still listed as men on their national I.D. cards — they are also a normal and visible part of society. A Bangkok travel agency I use is staffed by kathoeys, and a cashier at my local grocery store is rapidly transitioning toward womanhood. One of the Immigration Department officers who last year helped me renew my work visa had both an Adam's apple and lavish mascara. Kathoeys star on TV soap operas and grace catwalks at fashion shows, while an all-kathoey pop group called the Venus Flytrap plies the airwaves. Notable kathoey athletes include a kickboxing champion, who liked to plant kisses on her vanquished opponents, and a volleyball team dubbed the Iron Ladies that won a national championship in the mid '90s.

The Kampang school isn't the first one to accommodate its kathoey pupils. Several years ago, a technical college in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai unveiled what it called "pink lotus" bathrooms, reserved for kathoeys. Now Thailand's Education Ministry is considering introducing similar bathrooms and dormitories on the university level, even though many colleges require ladyboys to wear male clothing on campus. (For the most part, however, kathoey students can choose feminine hairstyles and wear jewelry, nail polish and makeup.)

Some kathoeys say they don't need specially designated bathrooms, arguing they should be able to use either male or female toilets. Others would rather have educational funds go to combating the stereotype that the only jobs kathoeys can expect to excel in are in the beauty or entertainment — read sex — industries. Certainly, career prejudice is a lingering problem: one Thai teachers' college, for instance, refuses to enroll kathoeys. Nevertheless, Thailand is a far more open-minded place than even the United States. And the tolerance isn't just a liberal, urban phenomenon. Kathoey beauty pageants are popular in Thai villages; the Kampang school is located in one of Thailand's poorest and most rural regions. As one Thai hill-tribe creation myth goes, in the beginning, there were three sexes: female, male and an intertwining of the two — just like the image on the Kampang bathroom door.