Thursday, June 18, 2009

Transgender Taboos

A new drive to contain the spread of HIV/Aids in Laos is forcing officials to recognise a marginalised group - transgender men known as "katheoy". The BBC's Jill McGivering went to meet some of them in the capital, Vientiane.

Discrimination can make it hard for katheoys to find work
Khom was born male.

But she has thought of herself as female since she was about nine years old.

Now 28, she could easily be accepted as a woman. She has long, styled hair, make-up, and a gentle, feminine manner.

But when she talks about her experiences of being "katheoy" in Laos, her voice is solemn. They're not fully accepted, she says.

She uses the example of trying to find a job. If she fills in an application form, it always needs a photograph as well. The selectors look at his gender - "male" - and at the photograph. It goes in the wastepaper bin, and she never gets called for interview.

But after being largely ignored for so long, katheoys like Khom are suddenly the focus of attention from the Lao government. Some are "long-haired" katheoys like Khom, who present themselves as women. Others are "short-haired" katheoys who present themselves as men.

Both groups have sex with men.

They have emerged as the country's highest risk group for HIV/Aids - and are now the target of a special campaign.

Wider Lao society seems far more in touch with katheoy culture - and generally tolerant of it.

I went with Khom and her friend to walk along the banks of the Mekong river.

Families were having picnics under the trees in the sweltering heat. Children were playing on the nearby swings, and vendors were selling cooked meat and cold drinks from carts.

Everyone I asked knew exactly what katheoys were.

Many people described them as a "third" gender. One or two people frowned when they saw Khom and her friend pass. One man said he would rather not talk to katheoys.

But most people seemed sympathetic.

I just want to be accepted and not separated from the rest of society

"It's their nature, they were born that way. They can't help it," shrugged one middle-aged man.

I asked one man how he would feel if his son was katheoy.

"I'd be disappointed," he said. "But I'd learn to live with it. It's not something you can change."

"I just want to be accepted," she told me, "and not separated from the rest of society."

Story Continues...

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