Is Anyone Else Uncomfortable About This?

// 23 May 2008

This post starts with a massive disclaimer. My show at the Brighton Fringe Festival ran 6 days in a dusty (but charming) 40-seater theatre at £7 a ticket. This group are doing two shows a day for a full month in a much bigger purpose-built venue and charging around £20 a ticket. So there is a definite risk you are reading the bitter ramblings of a jaded performer.

That said, lets press on. Is anyone else uncomfortable about the runaway success of The Lady Boys of Bangkok? The only conversation I have heard about them all week is straight guys asking each other “Yeah but would you though? Would you?” and telling the uninitiated “They are so convincing, I have to be honest, I was nearly getting a stiffy there at one point”. The show is as far as I can make out, an old-fashioned freakshow where the “exhibits” are 16 transexual women. I really refuse to believe that the dancing (and lip-syncing to pre-recorded music) is any part of the draw.

Further I have concerns about the well-being of the performers. Two shows a day, each close to two hours long is a lot of stage-time, especially in uncomfortable clothing (high heels, heavy make-up, etc). Add to that the economic imbalance between Thailand and the UK and you’ve got to wonder whether at least some of the performers aren’t working – and potentially having medication and surgery – under some sort of financial duress.

I am sure that promoters would assure us that they are well looked after and willing and enthusiastic about performing. However the Lady Boys themselves don’t seem to ever give interviews – to the point where I can only assume they are contractually forbidden to do so – or appear away from the rest of the group either at functions or just out and about at festivals (and I have been to a lot of festivals). To me those are some of the signs that abuse may be going on.

And yet the reaction of festival organisers is not to question the spirit in which the shows are staged or the working conditions for performers in the show, but to put up street signs (pictured) around Brighton to advise motorists how to find the show. And evidently the public are traveling in from around the area to see the show.

Am I the only one who doesn’t quite feel comfortable about it?

Photo by kastakephoto, shared under a creative commons license.

Comments From You

Helen G // Posted 23 May 2008 at 8:53 pm

I’m uncomfortable with the term “lady boy”: the Thai word is kathoey. I’m also uncomfortable with referring to them as “transsexual” (a double ‘s’ is preferred, please). “Gender variant” might be a more appropriate term, given that a kathoey woman may equally likely be an effeminate gay male or a cross-dresser as a male-to-female transsexual. And I’m uncomfortable about the word “freakshow” too – I’d be surprised if they’re any more freakish than you or I…

Many, but not all, kathoey women work in restaurants/bars, or in the entertainment industry, or as prostitutes: we all have to pay the rent somehow and we don’t all get to choose what we do for a living, sadly. Kathoey women are subject to significant employment discrimination in Thailand; and they are not legally recognised there at all, even after SRS (should they transition that far). We in Britain, at least, do have the Gender Recognition Act. However, culturally and perhaps socially, they are more tolerated than, say, trans* women in Britain.

The Lady Boys of Bangkok cabaret show has toured the UK before and has featured at the Edinburgh and Brighton festivals. A kathoey music group called Venus Flytrap formed in 2006 under the tender auspices of Sony-BMG, so it seems that making a living in entertainment is no less acceptable or desirable (or exploitative) in Thailand than it is in the UK.

Overall, though, I’m probably more uncomfortable with the bigger picture of a society which marginalises, others and objectifies gender variant people in such a blatantly phobic way that 16 kathoey women have to conform to bland corporate notions of what constitutes entertainment here in the west in order to (presumably) make a living.

Cara // Posted 23 May 2008 at 10:23 pm

Thank you, Kate – that’s why I wasn’t so keen to go, but I was struggling to articulate it.

Kate Smurthwaite // Posted 24 May 2008 at 2:43 am

I must admit I was a little super-sensitive about how to refer to the performers in my post. The show’s website describes then as Kathoey, but then also says “they are all men” which seemed wrong to me given that they have made such an effort to appear as women. I would tend to prefer to refer to them by whatever name and pronoun they request but since they are never interviewed I just don’t know what that is.

My personal belief is that I should speak about people using whatever terms they prefer but it is close to impossible to know what these people* prefer so I am totally in the dark. Either way I am uncomfortable with the way these performances are viewed.

But that said: Thanks Helen for your advice on how to discuss the situation, I am certainly trying to do so in a way which opens up the issues without stigmatising the individuals involved.

*And I use that as the most gender neutral term I can.

Kate Smurthwaite // Posted 24 May 2008 at 2:50 am

Oh and apologies if anyone had the impression that I was comfortable with a “freakshow”. I used the term because I thought it was something everyone was uncomfortable with. To make the point that in any other context, the show would (I think) be unacceptable.

Steph Jones // Posted 24 May 2008 at 10:27 pm

I certainly agree with your sentiments, Kate. And I totally understood your usage of ‘freakshow’ in this context. Sadly, many people will go to see it on that ‘ticket’. The whole ‘nudge nudge wink wink’ mentality of the ‘I’d still do her though’ is sadly something that we as transsexuals often put up with alongside women that are female-at-birth – men classifying our ‘attractiveness’ seemingly based on ‘certain values’ of what constitutes ‘hot’ – our looks and bodies reduced to objects of men’s sexual desire.

In my experience, as some-one whom is still pre-op (until later this year), but is fortunate enough to not often be ‘read’, I’ve been told by a guy once who was coming onto me in a bar, “But you’re different tho’ babe, you look and sound like a bird, know what I mean?”. If that’s some sort of chat-up line then it certainly doesn’t work on me! But, having took offence at what he said, he just could not understand what he had said wrong, he thought it was a compliment!

I would take some issue with Helen’s ‘uncomfortability’ at referring them as transsexual, although I think I understand what she’s trying to say. I think the hierarchy that exists within transgender and transsexual space (‘I’m a post-op and look down on pre-op, and I’m pre-op and I look down on non-op, and I’m non-op but I look down on ‘ladyboys’) is all rather privilege bullshit IMO. (Sorry Helen).

Where Helen is quite correct, is that sex work is often the only way for (kathoey) women to make a living. Whilst some Western observers seem to think places like Thailand are some sort of haven for transsexuals, I don’t think its anywhere quite the tolerant place that is painted – I’d rather be in Britain! I’m rather sceptical about the show itself… part of me wants to hope that its empowering those that perform within it, and they are paid and treated well, but I rather suspect there is a ‘Mr Big’ at the top raking the profits of the ticket sales?

m Andrea // Posted 25 May 2008 at 2:41 am

Last time I checked, only a facist dictorship refuses to respond to criticism. Children, of course, always avoid responding to criticism by screaming their feelings are hurt — we’re not supposed to notice that they changed the focus of the discussion from the criticism to how that criticism hurt their feelings.

Anyhoo, I don’t understand why changing body parts is necessary if gender is a social construct. No one ever explains why transgenderism is not a body part fetish — almost as if they can’t. And no one ever explains the difference between transgenderism and the mentally ill who want a healthy limb amputated.

Instead, we’re directed to look at their tear-stained face. Okay, I looked, now answer the fucking questions, child.

Oh, and make sure you use lots of gobbledeegook; for god’s sake avoid plain english, as then it’d be obvious you have no answer. Come on, you’ve had plenty of time to make stuff up by now. Time’s UP!

Helen G // Posted 25 May 2008 at 7:54 am

Steph Jones said: “I would take some issue with Helen’s ‘uncomfortability’ at referring them as transsexual, although I think I understand what she’s trying to say.”

All I was trying to say is that kathoey women are not necessarily all transsexual.

Helen G // Posted 25 May 2008 at 7:58 am

m Andrea: This is your standard boilerplate transphobic diatribe which has been comprehensively dismantled many times elsewhere. I can’t say it any more clearly than Lisa did in the comments on Maia’s recent post Transphobia and Radical Feminism – a challenge (link here):

This is the fourth paragraph of Lisa’s comment: “M Andrea says that no trans woman ever answers her questions when she demands they justify their existence and choices to her. Isn’t the assumption that she can interrogate trans women and demand justifications for being trans a privileged assumption? What exalts her gender as a woman above my gender as a woman that she could possibly have a right to insist that I subject myself to 20 questions from her so that she can use that information to confirm or (more likely) deny the validity of my gender?”

Now, why don’t you answer the question that Kate is asking and stop trying to hijack her post with your tired trolling?

Steph Jones // Posted 25 May 2008 at 9:21 am

m Andrea:

I clearly cannot talk on behalf of anyone else but myself, however, I am transsexual not because of the social construct nature of gender, but because from about 3, I could not relate to my body sex and genitals – I simply *knew* something had gone wrong. By this age, I had very little socialisation, in fact my parents were liberal and did not force me into any gendered expectations, etc.

I actually am one of those that is firmly in the ‘gender is a social construct’ camp, but take away gender tommorrow and I will still exist and, if available, I would have still sought sex reassignment (I abhor the term ‘gender reassignment’ – my gender is not being reassigned!), because my birth sex and body was simply something I could not reconcile.

Laura // Posted 25 May 2008 at 3:19 pm

m Andrea,

Your inability to empathise with other human beings is absolutely astounding.

Kate Smurthwaite // Posted 25 May 2008 at 3:23 pm

Firstly I agree with Helen, this post is about a show and whether it’s appropriate, nothing else.

But secondly social constructs… shaving your armpits is a social construct. But knowing that doesn’t stop an individual – a human being who is in essence a social animal – from feeling the need to fit in to that social construct. Some women shave them, some rebel and don’t. Some are comfortable not shaving them when on holidays where it isn’t the norm – others find hairy armpits repulsive at all times. Some would want to shave theirs even if no-one else in society did. Discussion of the purpose and validity of it as a social construct is fair enough. Criticism of individuals for the choice they make is just stupid.

m Andrea // Posted 25 May 2008 at 4:26 pm

I’m shocked that anyone bothered to post my comment, thank you very much, whoever was responsible!

Anyway, I know that I should have my healthy leg amputated, in order to feel normal. Obviously, “knowing” something to be true is not proof that the thing is true, so can we please dispense with that argument? The more accurate word in this case is I “believe”…. which is not proof.

Btw, I’m sorry I hurt anybody’s feelings. The reason my questions feel like an “interrogation” is because there is no logical answer, and so once again, let’s change the focus to someone’s feelings.

But if you want to play that game, my feelings are hurt by your criticism, so of course you must be wrong! In fact, if you don’t agree with me, you must be phobic about something, much the way doctors are phobic about amputating my healthy limb.

When all criticism is automatically labeled as “phobic” and never addressed, it becomes manipulation doublespeak, roughly translated as “I don’t have an answer” or “that subject makes me uncomfortable”.

Claiming that something is phobic can only be valid if the criticism is actually addressed, and proven to be wrong.

Do you realize that 9/10s of Lisa’s blogpost was “look at her tear-stained face”? I’m still trying to find an actual point, and there isn’t one.

Yanno, back in the day, when feminists were busy trying to make a safe place for women to enjoy sex without guilt, I bet there was rad fem who said, “hold on a minute, patriarchy has a habit of perverting every feminist theory ever expoused, let’s put some strategy into this one, so they can’t turn sexual liberation of women into pornification of women”.

And I bet all the other feminists said, “oh men love us and want us to be equal, that’s why we have to play by men’s rules when fighting men for autonomy from men”. And so they didn’t look for ways that patriarchy could pervert their work.

Welcome to reality, where “liberation equals pornification”. Contrary to popular belief, I’m not picking on transgenderism because it’s fun. It’s a freaking train wreck waiting to sideswipe feminism in a few year’s time, as trends progress.

And until feminists start using logic to parse this crap out, the questions will continue. You can call it rude all you want, but I no longer care. Emotional manipulation tactics are an insult to my intelligence, and little respect is warranted under this circumstance.

Ohhhhh, I love that Rich dude in the first reply. Also, after making fun of it for months, I believe I finally figured out where all this avoidance is originating. If true, feminists have their work cut out for them — probably a decade’s worth of book deals lulzzz…

Kate Smurthwaite // Posted 25 May 2008 at 6:11 pm

Are you posting on the wrong thread? Neither “Lisa” nor “Yanno” are on here. And further your comments just don’t make sense. If you have a point make it clearly and people will respond. If you want to criticise what others are saying you need to identify what you are arguing with cos frankly I have no idea what you are on about.

Can we get back to the point please?!!

Alex B // Posted 25 May 2008 at 10:01 pm


Why call them transsexuals? How can you possibly know that? I really think you should edit that to something less specific – ’16 performers’?

“The show’s website describes then as Kathoey, but then also says “they are all men” which seemed wrong to me given that they have made such an effort to appear as women”.

Huh? Because they have made an effort to appear as women you shouldn’t call them men? That’s not a logical statement. I think you should either trust their website, or just not make reference to their gender, especially as you have not been able to ask them yourself.

Kate Smurthwaite // Posted 25 May 2008 at 11:46 pm

You may be right, I must admit I did waver on what terms to use but it seemed to be hiding from the issue if I kept saying “performers”. I concluded that what is obvious from their photos on their website is that many of them have had breast enlargement surgery. And I could only imagine that a person born a man who had gone to the lengths of intrusive surgery to appear more like a woman probably wouldn’t like to still be referred to as a man. I also used the term “Lady Boys” but did so with capital letters to show I was quoting the title of the show, rather than a “correct” term for them.

The point (one of the points) of my article was that I am uncomfortable with the way they appear to be treated by their management, who clearly write their website, so I was equally uncomfortable using terms copied from that website.

But I accept it is basically impossible to know how they would like to be referred to so I can only apologise if I have guessed wrong – we may never know.

That said I think I am being a lot less offensive to these performers discussing them in potentially not-quite-spot-on terminology than are the management who keep them out of sight and away from the media and put them through a grueling performing schedule and the punters who arrive in their droves to gawp and discuss “would you though?”.

Lets concentrate our attention on those who see nothing wrong in exploiting and objectifying these people rather than on those of us who are trying to highlight that exploitation but might occasionally through lack of information get the terminology a little bit wrong.

Angela // Posted 17 July 2008 at 11:09 am

Transwomen consider themselves to be women, just a different sort of lady. They live, look, and act as women. The reason transwomen go on female hormones to give themselves a woman’s body, and get facial feminization to have a woman’s face, and dress feminine as women, is because women like to look beautiful and feminine,and transwomen are not exception.

Many beautiful feminine transwomen , (some who are as beautiful as the most beautiful genetic women are), after being completely feminized and turned into women, get their legal status changed to female and date or even marry handome men, and sometimes even adopt children with their husbands.

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