Timeasia.com: Boys will be girls (2001)

Monday, January 1, 2001

Boys Will Be Girls
In a Bangkok clinic, $1,000 can turn a man into a woman. Some call that the price of freedom

When Chittarika Kijboonsari woke up in the recovery room with a vagina where her penis used to be, she had no regrets. "I woke up smiling. I'd wanted it cut off for so long, it was just a relief to finally look like a woman where it matters most," she says. The doctor did that by splitting the penis up the middle and using the flesh from the scrotum and the root of the penis to mold a labia and clitoris. All that was left to do was go home and break the news to her mother. "She didn't speak to me for three months," Chittarika recalls. "She was scared. She thought I had bad spirits inside me. And then one day she forgave me, she accepted me." Her sisters have as well, welcoming their new sister with gifts of lingerie and makeup. The whole family now cheers her on at transsexual beauty pageants.

The success of last year's smash hit movie Iron Ladies—about a volleyball team comprised of transsexuals—seemed to say to the world that Thailand embraces all. In reality, the film's success owed more to a good storyline than to societal understanding. Although they're not exactly ostracized, transsexuals live on the fringes of Thai society and struggle to be accepted as women. Most of their countrymen believe them to be suffering for bad behavior in a past life.

On Chittarika's identity card her gender—despite her surgery, her little black dress, her long, soft brown hair—is listed as male. Every time an official or employer asks to see it, they find out that she used to be a he. Thai law doesn't allow people to change their gender on identity cards or passports. And yet, Thailand offers people like Chittarika more freedom than most other Asian countries. Singapore and Malaysia push transsexuals much further into the shadows, and the surgery is illegal in Japan.

Nobody knows how many transsexuals there are in Thailand, though some surgeons put the number at more than 10,000. Since there is no official record, there's no telling how many gender change operations are performed every year. But surgery is easily available at a wide range of prices. At the gleaming Bumrungrad Hospital, well-heeled foreigners pay around $6,000 for the works, including breast augmentation and Adam's apple shaving. Some clinics in Pattaya will undo Mother Nature's handiwork for $1,000.

Chittarika knew all along that Nature had made a big mistake. "I wanted to be a girl since before my memory starts," she says, looking entirely feminine in a simple black mini-dress, sipping a frappuccino in Starbucks. Growing up, she played with Barbie dolls and put on her mother's makeup. "In my heart I was a girl, my body just didn't match," she says. Now it definitely does. She does modeling work and appeared on the cover of New Half, a now-out-of-print publication for sao prapet song, "the second kind of woman." The magazine, published by Vanida Koomanuwong, was shut down two years ago by a government policy aimed at limiting media exposure for transsexuals on the premise that they were a bad example for youth. TV shows with transsexual characters—usually used as sassy, obnoxious sidekicks—were told to get rid of the parts. Koomanuwong insists there was nothing vulgar about New Half. It featured real people, with real lives, she says. "People see transsexuals as nasty whores, or as mentally ill, but they're not: they're everyday people."

But while Koomanuwong—who's the first kind of woman, in case you're wondering—advocates for social change, few sao prapet song see any point in being political. Few care to lobby for changes in the rape law, which doesn't cover transsexuals, or for the right to marry. Najaira Lee, a 27-year-old makeup artist, says her biggest concerns are private: whether or not she should tell her boyfriend, an expatriate living in Bangkok, that she used to have a man's body. "Do you think I should?" she asks anxiously. She's not sure her boyfriend would accept her for what she is—and what she was. When she's told men in her past, they've usually become just that, men in her past. Can she risk telling the truth again? "Finding lovers is easy," she muses, "but finding someone who loves you is hard."