Male Bodies, Women’s Souls

A few weeks ago one of our readers, the co-author of this book, sent me a copy. Here is my review.

This book, was certainly not written by any old Dick and Harry from your local pub. LeeRay Costa, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Woman’s Studies in Virginia, while Andrew Matzner, MA, is an expert in cross-cultural transgenderism.

The book, using narrative methods, analyzes the experiences of the transgendered (Kathoey / Ladyboy) to challenge the stereotypes they face. In much of the book, the authors prefer to stick to the term ‘Sao Praphet Song’ (Second-type women). Personally though, I will keep with my own term ‘Ladyboy’ in this review, as it is that term which seals the majority of the readers coming to this blogsite via Google looking for information about the transgendered.

LeeRay and Andrew really delve into the definitions of ‘gay’ vs ‘kathoey’ etc. Absolutely, too much detail for me to go into today, but basically they say that Thai society itself often fails to comprehend and differentiate between the two words. And that is where a lot of the stereotype and discrimination originates from. The book explains that a ‘kathoey’ is used to refer to those born male, who have a feminine manner and identify themselves as woman. The ‘kathoeys’ view women as positive role-models and see themselves as having the same characteristics such as: faithful and gentle while believing that sex is only one part of ‘love’.

In stark contrast however, a lot of the ladyboys had little decent to say about gays and viewed them as ‘promiscuous’, ‘sexually active’, ‘insincere’ and had all the negative Thai masculine characteristics as ‘irresponsible’, abusive’, ‘lazy’ and ‘alcoholic’. According to the book, gays and even tom-boys, in general, didn’t view ladyboys in any brighter light too.

Half of the book concerns previous study of ladyboys and many of the quotes are those coming from author Peter A Jackson, PhD, who is a Senior Fellow in Thai History, Australia. Then, much of the latter of the book deals with an analysis of the ‘Sao Praphet Song’ narratives. All of the narratives were written anonymously by ladyboys at Chiang Mai University – members of the Transgender Club – ‘Rosepaper’.

Many of the narratives paint a clear picture of physical violence, family intolerance and social rejection. Unaccepted by their parents, some of the ladyboys were also victims of brutal physical abuse at the hands of their fathers. Unhappy at the sexuality of their biological sons, some parents tried to change their feelings by forcing them into different more manly environs such as playing masculine sports etc…. On other occasions however, the ladyboys explained that their parents were accepting, but only on a ‘superficial level’. Many of those who felt completely unaccepted had to try and hide their sexuality; they lived two different lives – they’d dress and act like men at home but go out at night as women.

What is interesting to note, was that Andrew realized that ladyboys in the US and those in Thailand both believed ‘The grass is greener on the other side’ and that their opposite societies were more tolerant of transgenderism. It can be inferred that perhaps the West would see a lot more ladyboys in public than there actually were, if society were more socially accepting.

Many of the narratives are touching and tell some horrific stories of rape and gang-rape of ladyboys at High School, which they believe is prevalent in Thailand’s schools. One ladyboy even claims that 70% of young male students have had some kind of gay/ladyboy experience at least once.

The book aims at challenging wide-spread belief, misinformation and misinterpretation that transgederism evolves from sociological environs such as this “A household in which the father is either permanently or frequently absent is seen as negatively impacting a boy’s psychosexual development” ( Jackson 1997). In fact, even some of the ladyboys in their narratives believe that such environs affected them in one way or another. Personally speaking, most of ladyboys in their stories tell very different backgrounds. Interestingly, in contrast to main-stream belief, the ladyboys were not happy at being born with a woman’s soul and would have preferred to have been born a real man. Some of them believed that this ‘bad luck’ occurred because of ‘bad karma’ created in a previous life.

The ladyboys on choosing to write their narratives, do so in an effort to to help change Thai society and challenge the many misconceptions about them. “We didn’t choose to be born this way”. According to society, ladyboys are only useful – working as beauticians, cabaret dancers, costume designers or make-up artists etc… And that Thai society viewed them negatively as being ‘loud-mouthed’, ‘aggressive’ and ‘over-acting’. Again, it is intersting to read that many ladyboys also complained of others who acted in this exact kind of way, thus putting a negative reflection on all of them.

As what could be a serious challenge, to even the title of this book – it was found certain aspects of a person’s identity may be open to change and in some cases individuals could change their identity from ‘kathoey’ to ‘gay’ and back again. That, I found personally to be true – and could argue that some ladyboys are only so, for a brief fashionable period of their young lives (I have witnessed this throughout my time in Thailand). It could be argued therefore, that a lot of ladyboys are not born with a woman’s soul after all.

The authors wrote this book as a stepping-stone for further study into transgenderism. I would personally say after reading this book, that more narrative study like this ought to be broadened and to not just include those born into middle-class families. How about further study into ladyboys born into poor rural families, those who have renounced their transgenderism, older middle-aged ones and those who have entered the world of ‘working for foreigners’etc….?

Anyway, this book ought to be compulsory reading for anyone wishing to gain a better understanding of ‘Thailand’s transgendered youth’.

You can buy this book at


If anyone has any books they want reviewed or new tourist attractions that need publicity then please contact either myself or Richard. At the moment we are looking for a Muay Thai Camp to write about.

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