Sunday 20 March 2011

When will augmented breasts be normal in the Thai navy?

Sorrawee Nattee, Miss Ladyboy 2009. Too good for the navy?

Thailand has been well known to Western seafarers and travellers as the country that has vast number of 'ladyboys' or kathoeys: maybe one in every 165 men. Their high profile, their beauty, and the tolerance with which they are often treated has been an education.

Many seafarers have told me that docking in Thailand opened their eyes to the fact that narrow western hostility to transsexual and transgender people is not the only way of handling such fellow members of the human race. Indeed, Thailand has been an inspiration to transgender visitors.

Now the country is going a step further (impelled by shortages of army recruits) and choosing more delicate language with which to refer to transsexuals. Trouble is, it's still exceptionalising them as abnormal and undesirable for the armed forces, rather than accepting the full breadth of the human spectrum.

Similarly, PC Air's decision last month to employ transsexual women as cabin crew brought the news that their name tags will be be gold-coloured, to demarcate them from genetic women and from men.

In an article called 'Army renames transgender conscripts', today's Bangkok Post carries the news that 'Instead of their sexuality being called a "psychological abnormality" or a "gender identity disorder", they will simply be referred to as "Type 2" or "Type 3". The army has coined the terms to avoid offending transgender people.

'Type 2 refers to men who have undergone breast augmentation. Type 3 comprises people who have had a full sex change.

'The army had proposed replacing the term "psychological abnormality" with "gender identity disorder." But it had a rethink after fierce criticisms from human rights groups, who were opposed to any term that suggests abnormality.

'The Defence Ministry is amending the Conscription Act of 1954, said Thaksin Chiamthong, director of the academic resources division of the Army Reserve Command.'

'He said the main purpose of the amendment is to correct the part of the law that states transgender people are exempt from conscription because they are considered psychologically abnormal.

'"Normally only Type 1 [men whose appearances are typical of men] are required to draw a conscription ballot," said Col Thaksin. But if the number of Type 1 is insufficient, Type 2 will be conscripted as well, despite their female-like breasts,"' which the forces have often termed 'malformed'.

The relevance of this to the Thai navy is that it needs 16,000 conscripts in April. In fact the entire armed forces and Defence Ministry need to conscript 97,280 men, an increase of 9,828 from last year.

But they don’t fancy it. Patrick Winn found earlier this winter that ‘of the half million young Thai men facing military conscription lottery each year fear it, most fear being drafted into grunthood. Best case scenario: Two years in a dull outpost. Worst case: Patrolling the southern Thai-Malay borderlands, where Islamic insurgents are notorious for beheading troops.’

And few fear it more than kathoeys. Conscript Prempreeda Pramoj told him that '"Buzzing off a kathoey’s long locks and forcing her to go soldiering in the sun is the cruellest of punishments.

‘“No transgender would ever want to be in the army,” Prempreeda said. “They’ll cut your hair off. They’ll destroy your femininity. You will do everything you can to avoid it.”’

In the past, some straight young Thai men have attended draft meetings dressed in frocks in order to avoid doing their three year's military service. It looks like it's going to take a lot more than a pretty dress if 21-year olds are to dodge the draft in these hard-pressed times.

The really interesting question to me is 'How will the transsexual people's shipboard presence affect relationships, given that sexual activity in the enclosed space that a ship is can be such an issue?'

Remember the fuss over British women being allowed to work at sea in the Royal Navy? Rivalrous punch-ups and adultery were inevitable, the tabloids screamed and the diehards warned.

Surely the Thai navy will choose to put transsexual people in shore jobs. In an attempt to manage desire it will probably position them far from the intensity of ships on prolonged deep-sea missions.

After all, it's hrdaly news that in the US and UK navies men cross-dress 'for fun' in shipboard entertainments, and that the absence of genetic women certainly can lead to men having sex with men.

Thailand's shortage could actually suggest the unthinkable might finally have to happen: drafting genetic women too. Come to that,isn't this fuss a good argument for finally getting over all these narrow definitions about gender-appropriate roles and 'normal' sexual identities?

On this latest news on languge see:
On kathoeys' reluctance see: Patrick Winn’s Global Post article, ‘Thailand military: the lovely conscripts’, October 8, 2010 :

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