A Telling Story – Teenage Castration Debate

File this under “Strange But True”.  There is a debate going on in Thailand between health authorities, teenage transsexuals, gay rights groups, mental health professionals, and anyone else with an opinion on the issue, about whether or not teenage boys who identify as women should be allowed to undergo surgical castration.

What’s interesting about this story, apart from the novelty of it, is that it really offers a lot of insight into Thai culture and the condition of gays and transsexuals in this country.  Without getting into too much detail, let me see if I can give you some meaningful insight:


The situation

30070266-01 In the past few weeks it has come to light that some clinics are performing surgical castrations on teenage boys who say they identify as women.  The rationale for performing the surgery is that by removing the testicles before puberty or before puberty is complete, the more masculine characteristics such as deep voice, pronounced Adam’s apple, broad shoulders, muscular development, facial/body hair growth, and eventual male-pattern baldness will be avoided.

Right: A ladyboy shows up at a Thai army conscription center, trying to defy the government’s ban on transwomen participating in military service.

This surgery, which can cost as little as 5,000 baht (about US$160) has apparently been performed with parental consent, presumably from parents in the countryside who do not know much about the issues involved and just want their sons to be happy.  It has also possibly also been performed on teenagers who do not have parental consent. 

The Public Health Ministry intervened and announced a ban on the surgery, apparently for patients of any age, while the issue is sorted out.  Additionally, the Ministry reiterated that the penalty for performing this surgery without parental consent could include revocation of medical licenses, a year imprisonment, and a fine of up to 20,000 baht.


Questions Raised 

The outing of this subject has provoked debate among disparate groups.  Questions that have been raised include:

Are teenage boys emotionally mature enough to make the decision to be castrated?  What risk of damage is there physically – e.g. hormones, bone development, etc.?  Do young gays feel like they have to do this in order to be accepted – i.e. better to be a transsexual rather than a gay man?  Is withholding the surgery making the transition into the correct gender more difficult later on and if so, do we have a right to deny people that choice?


344285131_5ee72d3ce0 Sorting Through the Issues

Unlike in many other countries, young men in Thailand often seem to become aware of their non-heterosexuality at an early age.  This may be for a variety of reasons, including the general tolerance of gays and transvestites in Thai culture, as well as their greater visibility than in some other countries. 

Left: A Thai “ladyboy” performing in one of the cabaret shows for which Bangkok is famous.

Saying that Thailand is more accepting of gays and transsexuals is actually a broad generalization and really ignores some important complexities to the issue, but I’m not going to get into that right now other than to say that – broadly speaking – Thais are more accepting of transwomen (people biologically born as men who identify as women) than they are of gay men.

The committee that recommended the ban suggested that there are potential physical health issues that can occur because of prepubescent castration.  While I’m no doctor, a poke about the internet didn’t turn up any especially notable issues.  Castrated boys are likely to grow taller because testosterone slows long bone growth, and they will likely have less body strengths and overall muscle mass, but it doesn’t appear that there are major health risks associated with the surgery.

From a mental health standpoint, there may be more serious concerns.  The biggest is around whether or not a teenage boy who may opt for the surgery does so because he actually identifies as a woman.  In many western countries, extensive psychological evaluation is undergone before permission is given for gender reassignment surgery.  That may not be the case in Thailand and is certainly not the case for teenage castration, which is seen as giving similar results as a sex-change operation.

Something I’ve learned is that for young men who identify as not being heterosexual, there is a lot of – not quite an accurate term but I’ll call it “peer pressure” – to identify as a transsexual.  There are many reasons contributing to this, but in general there is a lack of viable role models for gay men.  The ones that we see very prominently on TV and in movies are almost always extremely effeminate and are usually the butt of jokes.  They’re either “bitchy queens” (pardon my language, Grandpa) or sissies.  But what we don’t see are examples of gay men who conform to more masculine standards of appearance and behavior.

(Side note: I realize that by making these generalizations there is the potential to open up a huge debate about gender and sexual identity and what “masculine” and “feminine” really mean and how those identities are constructed.  For the purpose of this blog, I’m going to just stick with the traditionally constructed definitions and apologize in advance to anyone I offend.)

“Someone would choose to identify as a transsexual even if that wasn’t how they really felt, rather than identify as a gay man?”  This may sound unbelievable to you.  It sounded unbelievable to me, too, when I first heard this theory put forth.  But a friend shared this observation made by a ladyboy friend of his: 

“I figured it would be easier for me to be with a man by being a woman, than if I remained as a man.”

Gay Thai men I know have confirmed that when they were younger and defining their identity, there was a lot of pressure from some of the other boys to identify as ladyboys and transsexuals.  As Tawn explained it, there was a conflict there because he knew he wasn’t a woman, and yet there weren’t any clear role models of masculine gay men.  Because of this, I’d say there is a reasonable doubt to be had when it comes to the question of whether teenage boys are ready psychologically to go under the knife.


That leaves us with the final question, of whether or not we have the right to withhold this procedure from a young man who does accurately identify as a woman, forcing him to develop into a masculine body that will make it more difficult for him to claim his correct gender identity as he later transitions towards being a woman.

This is a difficult question, I think.  If the medical questions can be put to rest, and there is a way to legitimately determine that the young man does indeed suffer from gender dysphoria, a condition brought on by a “mismatch” of the body’s sex and the person’s gender identify, then maybe we should allow the surgery to go ahead, easing the transition from man to woman. 

If those questions cannot be adequately answered, then I’d agree that it is best to make young men wait before taking so irreversible an action as castration surgery.

What do you think?


As an interesting side observation: this entire discussion in the Thai press has not addressed the issue of young women who identify as men at all.  On the gay Thai chatboards there has been debate as to whether breast reduction surgery for young women faces the equivalent questions, medically and morally, as does the castration of teenage boys.


Of fabulous women, real and otherwise

Kiri Te Kanawa Monday night Tawn and I went with Ken, Brian and Sean to watch famed soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa perform at the Thailand Cultural Centre.  This was billed as her “farewell tour recital” which I can’t decide whether it means that this is a recital in preparation for the tour or perhaps just the tour itself.

I’ve never seen Dame Kiri perform before but was captivated by her incredible voice.  It was a simple recital: Dame Kiri and her pianist, center stage.  She peformed six sets of songs and two encores, starting with German operas, moving through French, doing a few more contemporary songs such as “Scarborough Fair”, and then moving to the Italian operas.

Dame Kiri’s voice, and her control of it, is amazing.  Unamplified, the audience was leaning forward breathlessly to catch each and every subtle rise and fall of her voice.  It was just a lovely experience.


P1020916 That was our experience this week with a fabulous and real (by birth) woman.  Sunday night we spent some time in the world of fabulous not-so-real woman, although in all fairness some of them are in the process of becoming women.  The event: Miss AC/DC 2007!  This year’s tag line: Same Thing in Reverse.  The Thai version was a bit racier, translating as “Taking Turns Receiving and Giving”.

In its seventh year, Miss AC/DC has its roots deep in a strong subculture within the gay Thai community: transgendered and, particularly, transsexual people.  Best described as the Miss Universe pageant with fake breasts and estrogen, it is a much better reflection of the gay community in Bangkok than the November pride week.  Pride week is a feeble collection of events sponsored by the mostly farang owners of the bars and other businesses in the Silom gay ghetto.

Miss AC/DC on the other hand, was organized, supported, and attended by locals, many of whom probably don’t show their faces on Silom at all.  It felt so much more like a representative picture of the community and, as such, was great fun.  Nonetheless, there seems to be a bit of a divide within the event:

There are the transsexual participants, people who were born men but identify as women, many of whom are taking steps towards gender reassignment surgery.  For example, a number of contestants had had breast implant surgery and filled out their evening gowns au natural. 

Then there are the drag queens, people who are dressing as women for the fun of the event, but who maintain their identity as men on a daily basis.  The choice of Miss AC/DC 2006 apparently caused some controversy precisely because she wasn’t woman enough, whereas many of the other previous winners seemed to put their inner woman on the outside.

Anyhow, that aside, it was an evening filled with a lot of talent, creativity, and fun.  Here are the pictures and the stories that go with them.  Click on pictures to see larger versions.

Each audience member receives a ballot – I’m not sure how or what our votes count for, because there was a panel of some twenty judges.  Before the show the contestants are mingling with guests in the foyer of the BEC Tero Hall (a large concert/event hall at Suan Lumpini Night Bazaar) showing off their costumes and posing for pictures.  Here is Tawn with some of the contestants.  Clockwise from upper left: Miss Canada (the only farang contestant), Miss Greece, Miss Zimbabwe, and the recipient of our votes, Miss Vietnam. 

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Also posted in the foyer were the profiles of the contestants, most of which had “before and after” pictures showing them in their everyday and as a woman looks.  There were some eighty contestants, but here is a sampling, most of whom I think participated as drag queens rather than transsexuals:

Bangladesh   Lithuania

Miss Bangladesh and Miss Lithuania

Mauritius  Oman

Miss Mauritius and Miss Oman

Russia  Zambia

Miss Russia and Miss Zambia  Below, Miss Zimbabwe


This was a professional production, held in a large hall with all of the trappings of any major pageant.  Filming was being done for the DVD (last year’s was on sale in the lobby) and the event was projected onto screens throughout the hall so people sitting further back could see every detail.


Thanks to Suchai, whose group of friends is very closely involved with the Miss AC/DC organization, we scored front row tickets across from the press section.  Note where Tawn is sitting in the picture below.


The opening piece, a full on Broadway style musical number with hired dancers (these are not the contestants performing) was a political satire using an old patriotic song, performers dressed as female military members a la the Women’s Auxiliary Corps of World War II, ending with the soldiers holding up the constitution – a very clever commentary on the coup and other recent political events, below.



Then the evening’s contestants paraded onstage in their fanciful and creative costumes:

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Above: Miss Czech Republic is her diamond dress, Miss Denmark in her award-winning costume walks with Miss Dominican Republic.  Below from left to right: Miss Norway, Miss Egypt, Miss England (dress inspired by My Fair Lady), Miss Jamaica, Miss Zimbabwe, Miss China, Miss Zambia (red hair), Miss Singapore, Miss Spain (red dress, back row), and Miss Curacoa (yellow feathers).


P1030020 Left: Miss Jamaica, Miss Hong Kong, Miss Finland, and Miss Peru.

Below: In the center of the picture, Miss Netherlands (tulip dress with windmill) and Miss Burma.


The best costume award was won by Miss Russia, who came out as a series of matrioshka nesting dolls in an arrangement of fishing wire and two assistants that was brilliantly clever.  How much money and how many hours were spent on these ideas?

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Also quite well done was Miss Laos, whose puffy plaid dress flipped down in the midst of her runway walk to reveal and elegant canary yellow number.

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The second phase of the event was an evening gown contest, which gave the contestants an excuse to wear yet another fantastic outfit.  Here is a sample of the types of dresses we saw, some of which were truly beautiful and, on some of the contestants, very elegant.


The number of participants was whittled to a final ten who then performed in the talent portion of the pageant.  Miss Vietnam rode her unicycle, Miss Czech Republic did a gymnastics routine, and Miss Jamaica sang with a resonant and powerful voice.

As the judges’ votes were tallied, Miss AC/DC 2006 (who had been Miss USA) performed a cheerleading routine with what must be an organized cheer squad.  They were very good and other than being gay and Thai, would have fit in at almost any college football game in the United States.


Finally, some five and a half hours after it started, the final five contestants were lined up on stage and the runner-up awards were given.  Our choice, Miss Vietnam, came in second to this year’s Miss AC/DC, Miss Jamaica!


It was a long evening and a lot of fun.  Who knows if we’ll have the energy to do the whole thing again next year, but it was one of the most interesting glimpses into gay Thai culture that I’ve seen so far.  In fact, Ken, Tawn and I were discussing what a fascinating documentary could be made about the pageant and the lives of the various participants.  Who is there for which reasons, whose family members know (and support) them in this event, what about the trans vs. drag debate, etc…