Unlike most of Southeast Asia, Thailand was never colonised. However, Siam understood the power of Europe’s modern sciences and technologies and sought to learn from it.
Thailand is a traditionally Theravada Buddhist country. In Theravada Buddhism, Kathoeys, the closest equivalent to the Western idea of transgender people, were believed to be manifestations of bad karma. Seen as a natural product of their karmic fate, they received less stigmatisation and were even pitied as victims.
This changed when King Mongkut’s fascination with Western sciences set the precedent of couching Buddhist ethos in scientific terms.
In 1956, the Thai Royal Institute published the Saranukrom Thai (Thai Encyclopedia), which explained Kathoeys in biomedical terms: Kathoey thae are hermaphrodites who have the sex glands and genitals of both sexes, but whose physical appearance and secondary sex characteristics may be male, female, or intermediate. Kathoey thiam are pseudo-hermaphrodites who have the sex glands of one sex, either testes or ovaries, but sexual organs of the opposite sex, either a penis or a clitoris and vagina. While still considered natural, Kathoeys were now victims of bad genes, instead of bad karma.
Kathoeys has evolved to include four dimensions: appearance (superficial crossdressing), sex (hermaphroditism), sexual desire (homosexuality), and gender identity (feminisation). Yet, the demeaning connotations of Kathoeys as ladyboys and sex workers fuelled by Thailand’s sex tourism industry has meant that fewer people identify themselves as Kathoeys. Instead, the three major terms transwomen associate themselves with are phuying (loosely translated as woman), phuying prophet song (woman of the second kind), and phet thee sam (the third sex/gender), with phet accommodating all sorts of gender and sexual diversity beyond the dualistic construction of gender and sex.