Most of Bangkok is pretty typical for an Asian city but one of the things you can’t help but notice are the ladyboys. These are the men who dress as women, have undergone various procedures to feminize (including surgery up top and down below and hormone replacement therapy), and wear makeup. Many of them are gorgeous and look to be more female than me. Without getting too much into gender identity, the first thing you have to realize is that ladyboys are not easy to categorize as there seem to be different reasons and extremes in their identities and appearances. I’ve heard self-definitions ranging from transgender to third sex to doing what it takes to make money.

Anyway, some of the ladyboys are obvious and some aren’t. In fact, one of the telltale signs of a ladyboy is that they put more effort into their appearance than women. Many Thai women don’t shave their legs, but ladyboys do. In our neighborhood, we even have a ladyboy bum who puts on clown-like makeup and wears a very short skirt. Veronica, my 1st grader, hasn’t noticed her, but she frequently notices other ladyboys and asks me if they’re a girl or a boy. And sometimes, if the ladyboy is fairly obviously male, she’ll ask me why.

We’ve kept answers pretty simple at this point. “That person is a boy but likes to wear girl’s clothes.” That seems to work for now. Sometimes she asks us why they like to dress as a female and we explain that everyone is different and that sometimes it’s like how she likes to wear dresses on one day and pants on another.

I’m just thankful that she doesn’t seem to notice the prostitution. There are certain red light districts – two of them are very close to us. But you sort of have to intend to go there and go into them to get the full effect. When we get off the train, you can see the neon lights of one particular red light district.

“Oh, that’s beautiful! We have to go there!” She told me once. I explained to her that it is beautiful, from a distance, but not very nice to go in.

The other day we were at a pharmacy. The entire end of an aisle display was full of colorful, fruit flavored condoms. Not behind the counter but just at the end of the display. She ran her fingers down the condom boxes and asked what they were. The pharmacist behind us was laughing when I told her it was not candy. She pressed me further and I told her I would explain further when we got home. She forgot by the time we got home.

But the incident made me realize that it’s time to talk to her more about the birds and the bees. I’m just going to explain it – sort of technically, I guess – so I can better explain condoms, too.

I’m American but spent a lot of time in the Philippines growing up. We were always in this town that housed a massive naval base. So in terms of driving past and seeing things, I grew up in a pretty similar environment and I don’t think I was adversely affected by it.

It did help give me understanding of the diversity of people. My concern at this point is putting these experiences and sights in context for children that doesn’t expose them to more than they should be at this age, but also in terms of what our family’s values are.

Like all families, we have particular views about sex and gender, and I always talk about morality in terms of actions as opposed to people.

Not all of this value sharing goes the same direction, however. For instance, Thais are very conservative people. When a foreign male meets a typical Thai woman, it’s very rude to touch her. We have to explain to our children how to operate in a society with these types of views, too.

I’m still learning some of these distinctions myself. Ladyboys are very well integrated into society. I’ve seen them working in the grocery stores and serving food. There is a difference between being gay and being ladyboy. Most of the gay men I’ve met I wouldn’t have known they were gay if they hadn’t told me. But ladyboys are not just those who are in the entertainment business and not just those who are in the prostitution business. In fact, a lot of male prostitutes have hetero families and go home to a wife and children. They’re in the business to make money. There are a lot of cabaret performers who want to be successful in the entertainment industry, so they engage in some cross dressing behavior on stage, but not in their home life.

There are a few things I’ve picked up here about all of this. One is that Buddhists here talk about everything having a spirit and how that spirit is not necessarily assigned a gender. That makes people more open to ladyboys and third sex.

Another issue is that the way Thais practice Buddhism leads them to be very non-judgmental. It’s important to make merit. You can make merit by doing good deeds. If you’re sacrificing yourself to feed your family or to support your family, that could be perceived as making merit.

I will say that in the US to a certain age, it’s easier to protect your children from seeing these things. But when I see American television, these issues come up but in a context that makes it more difficult for me to explain it to them in light of our values. Even television shows that are seemingly innocuous like, say, Glee, preaches stronger than a televangelist in advancing a particular agenda. In Thailand, you may see some things that you wish your four-year-old weren’t also looking at, but it’s much less aggressive when it comes to pushing values on you.

(Image via Wikimedia commons.)