The commercialization of “Pattaya khatoeys” is a consequence of historical tourism. If you look up that expression today on Google, the first 40 entries listed are where you can pick one up or how to tell if you’ve made a mistake. Apparently, if the lady in question has boxer’s hands or an unshaved Adam’s apple or colorful feathers in her dress, the chances are that your dream – or your nightmare – has come true.
Research suggests there are around 5,000 Thai transvestite and transsexual persons in Pattaya, although this number has likely gone down of late. A former cabaret performer oozing self-confidence, with the stage name Eggz Benedict, said, “With all the entertainment places now closed, most of the girls have gone back to their families in the provinces. There is no point in being in Pattaya if they can’t send cash home on a regular basis.”
During normal times there are almost one thousand artists and support staff employed in the resort’s nightly khatoey extravaganzas which center around Tiffany’s, Alcazar and Colosseum. “Those of us that are left here in Pattaya are in shared accommodation and we take turns to prepare simple meals,” says Eggz, “We often join the free food queues which are advertised every day on Facebook.”
Some other Pattaya khatoeys are luckier. Several hundred work daily – largely unnoticed – in banks, hospitals, boutiques, restaurants and market stalls. Most of them are still in employment, howbeit in relatively lowly paid jobs for which they are often over-qualified. Rose, now 25, who is a rotation-cashier in Starbuck’s branches, said, “I have a university diploma and once applied for a job as sales manager with a European Union firm in Bangkok. But I never got through the interview as I refused to wear long black pants and short hair.”
Discrimination certainly haunts the Thai transgender community, more so than the broader gay movement. Transvestites and transgenders don’t serve in the conscripted armed services, although their exemption certificate often indicates “suffering from a disease which can’t be cured within 30 days.” They can’t change their sexual identity given at birth, even if they have gender reassignment surgery, and will have grave problems even in simple matters such as opening a local bank account. Unemployment and violence go hand in hand.
The obvious consequence is that around three quarters of the city’s khatoey headcount are found, or used to be found, in the black economy known as the sex industry. Mostly, they don’t look for sympathy. “It’s easy work and allows me the independence to live my own life,” says Miss Noy whose street name is Maisie Trollette after the UK-based drag queen who used to do guest shows in Pattaya many years ago.
Noy stresses she is proud of what she does for a living calling it “mostly social work”. During one period of imprisonment for theft from a trouser-less and wallet-less Japanese tourist, she was appointed as a nurse in the medical center in one of Chonburi’s remand jails. But she predicts now there is little future in the Pattaya prostitution stakes. “There are next to no customers now and I can’t see that changing for many months.”
It is well known that prostitution in most forms is based on the lack of financial alternatives. Thailand has admittedly taken a few steps forward to engage transgender culture. The 2000 film The Iron Ladies positively depicted an almost entirely khatoey volleyball team. The country’s first all-khatoey music group Venus Fly Trap was formed in 2006. But there has been no serious attempt by governmental agencies to address the issues of legal discrimination.
The current post-coup government has made some vague promises about gay and transgender equality in employment and in civil rights, including single-sex contractual relationships. But nothing has happened, nor is it likely in the current political and financial mega-crisis.
In the meantime, Spangles Galore who is a friend of Maisie Trollette, confided, “The best way to boost business now would be to change the name of Pattaya.” Her suggestion is Fagg City.