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Songkran Festival Part 2: Wine in a Bucket and a BBQ in a Sink

I never thought I’d find myself drinking homemade wine from a bucket on the side of the road, but it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made since arriving in Thailand. The wine I was drinking is called “Sato,” which is made from fermented sticky rice and yeast, and it was delicious.

I fell in love with Sato on the third night of the Songkran holiday on the Thai island of Koh Panghan. Songkran, the Buddhist New Year celebration, is a time when Thais celebrate family, honor tradition, and welcome in the new. However, unlike any family holiday I’d ever been part of in the US, this was a holiday time when people seem to feel free to be their full selves. As I explored in my last blog, I’d already spent my first few days of Songkran enjoying Songkran’s infamous water fights with my transgender Thai friends, along with copious dancing. But this night was a time to chill, sit back, and have fun (sanuk) the Thai way — over a big meal.

A few hours earlier my transgender friend Plamy had invited me to her friend’s house for a family dinner, and I happily accepted – we had been partying in the sun all day and I was exhausted and hungry. She then offered to give me a ride on the back of her motorbike. What I thought would be a quick ride soon turned into a long trek down winding mountain roads, which she took at full speed. I should’ve been scared for my safety, but instead, I was too exhausted from all the partying to care, and nodded off at least twice only to be woken by the sudden jolt of us hitting a bump in the road. When we finally did arrive, she pulled over to the side of the main road into a collection of humble buildings cobbled together with corrugated tin, wood, and Thai ingenuity. In the middle of it all was a giant sheet of plywood raised up on a platform, which served as a combination table and seating area. As I was handed a pillow and encouraged to lay back and relax, I watched a young man fan hot coconut shell charcoal in a barbecue pit fashioned out of an old steel sink.

I had no idea what kind of an evening I had just signed up for, but my Thai dinner hosts were so excited to have me there that I overcame my trepidation, and introduced myself in my best Thai, explaining that I was a transgender writer. I was introduced to the entire family, including a father, daughter, son, and several friends, including one rather flamboyantly gay guest who Plamy seemed to be close to. When the father introduced himself as “Lek,” the Thai word for “little,” I couldn’t help but laugh in recognition at his nickname, repeating it and it’s English meaning to the amusement and laughter of everyone around me (to be fair, it’s a common childhood nickname for a younger sibling). Soon everyone was having fun testing out my Thai, and asking me questions about what it was like to be a farang (foreigner/non-Thai) from the USA. Lek’s son even voice-chatted his friend then handed me the phone so his friend could meet the odd Thai-speaking farang who’d shown up for dinner.

The meal began with thin-sliced grilled pork served with steamed sticky rice. The family, like Plamy’s family, had Northeastern Thai (Isaan) roots, and this was a typical regional dish. In Isaan style, everyone hand-dipped the pork and sticky rice in the provided hot chili sauce (naam prik). The pork was perfectly juicy and crisp, reminiscent of Korean barbecue pork belly, except with that distinctly Thai hint of fish sauce. As I scooped up another ball of rice with my fingers, I explained in Thai that sticky rice was one of my favorite foods. This was met with approval from everyone around me and a mischievous grin from Lek, who momentarily disappeared. He reappeared wielding a bucket and wearing an even bigger grin. Tipping the bucket towards me, he showed me that it was full of fermenting sticky rice. This was my first introduction to Sato, and as he poured me a cup, he explained that the alcoholic drink was an Isaan specialty.

To the apparent surprise of everyone around me, I instantly fell in love with the thick, milky, honey-sweet beverage. I was met with cheers when I finished my cup and asked for more. While much of the night’s conversation I couldn’t understand, I did notice that very little of it veered towards the serious or solemn. It seemed tonight was a night for everyone to focus on having fun (sanuk): sharing stories, jokes, and music seemed to be the focus of the night. A few times I could tell my hosts were poking fun at the increasingly-inebriated foreigner in their midst, and I laughed with them whenever I heard the word farang. To their credit though, my new friends did warn me that if I overdid the Sato, I would be “very sleepy” the next day, and I appreciated the warning. I also wanted to save some room for more of the delicious barbecue that was being prepared. I had just watched two of my hosts gingerly cut open an octopus, remove its organs and beak, and slice it into strips for the grill, and I love fresh seafood.

Plamy had by now been joined by a friend who seemed to be a young gay Thai man, and the two of them switched the music over to what you might expect to hear in an LGBTQ club. As I snacked on the lightly charred octopus, first dipping it into the chili sauce, I watched the two of them dance to the music without a care in the world. Lek left once again to fetch a different bucket. This bucket, however, was not filled with Sato – instead, it contained a freshly caught fish swimming inside, which seemed to be the main course for the evening. I took an intense interest in watching Lek prepare it, asking him questions about each step as he regaled me with stories.

As he gutted the fish and sliced it in thirds, I learned about a fishing trip when he’d caught a similar seven-kilogram fish. Then, as he pounded together garlic, lime, onions, peppers, cilantro, and lemongrass in a mortar and pestle to make a chili sauce, I learned how he had only completed school through age 12, but he had educated himself in English on his own. Grabbing a machete, he chopped down a stalk of bamboo and began slicing it into strips. As he placed the fish between the bamboo strips, he told me how he was proud he was able to provide a better future for his daughter and son, who he knew would have more opportunities than him because they were doing so well in school. Finally, he showed me where to harvest lemongrass growing on the side of the road, and how to use it to tie the pieces of bamboo together to make an A-shaped frame to hold the fish over the fire.

The fish roasted over the barbecue pit for what seemed like forever as I hungrily watched and sipped my Sato. It was worth the wait — the fish was delicate, tender, flaky, and had nice hints of charred wood, but wasn’t too smoky (coconut charcoal burns very clean). The fish was perfect when dipped in the remaining garlic/lime/lemongrass chili sauce. I ate more than my fill, yet was constantly offered more food no matter how much I protested.

Songkran, for my Thai friends, still had two more days to go, but for me, the barbecue was the perfect ending. The next couple days I spent mostly alone reflecting, writing, and enjoying the beach. This was a family holiday I’d never forget. During the dancing and water fights I’d joined on the first two days of Songkran, I’d witnessed Thai people truly letting go and enjoying themselves together, no matter their background or identity. And at our barbecue dinner, it didn’t seem like anyone held back from having fun. I’d been surrounded by LGBTQ people throughout Songkran, which felt like Pride, New Year’s Eve, and Thanksgiving all thrown together. From my research on Thai history I had a basic understanding of how Buddhism influences a tolerant attitude towards LGBTQ people in Thailand, but witnessing this amount of openness at a Buddhist holiday was still a pleasant surprise to me. I also was struck by how overwhelmingly generous the families I celebrated with were towards me, and none of them treated me any different even though I was very open about being transgender. I just hope that one day I’ll be able to learn to barbecue a fish as well as Lek can, although I think I’ll need a few more lessons first.

Thank you for reading this installment of Trans In Thailand. If you enjoyed this post, please consider becoming a supporter of the blog on the Trans In Thailand Patreon page. By joining the Patreon for as little as $1 a month, you’ll get access to exclusive bonus content and the ability to contribute your own ideas to the blog. Thank you, or as they say in Thai, khap khun kha!

Songkran Festival Part 1: Water Fights and Queer Dance Parties

During the Thai New Year celebration known as Songkran, I’ve learned there’s no better way to show love to your family and friends than by dousing them in water.

Songkran is a Buddhist festival of unity, cleansing, and rebirth. It begins April 13, and officially lasts five days. As the longest holiday of the year when most businesses, schools, and government offices close, it’s a time for families to come together, and for Thais to let loose and have fun!

Water fights and dancing at Thai E-San restaurant

I celebrated Songkran with a transgender woman named Plamy and her friends and family. Plamy, as I wrote about in my last post, owns a restaurant named Thai E-san on the Thai island of Koh Panghan. Plamy has become a close friend, and while I had previously shared a dinner with her mother and father, I was a bit nervous about taking part in a multi-day family holiday with them. As a transgender woman in the USA, I often dreaded family holiday gatherings as stressful affairs where I’d have to censor myself in the name of family unity. Family-friendly in the USA too often meant “straight and cisgender.” If you’re LGBTQ, don’t talk about it, and certainly don’t flaunt it. But here in Thailand, I learned I had nothing to fear. By the end of Songkran I’d learned to “let go” the Thai way, which included dancing on chairs with other transgender and queer people, drinking homemade sticky rice wine, enjoying slow-cooked Thai BBQ, and taking part in a giant water fight.

Songkran commemorates the traditional Thai New Year, and it typically begins with practicing Buddhists (over 90% of Thailand’s population) giving food and other donations to the monks at their local temples. One tradition is bringing sand to the temples; the sand is formed into ceremonial mounds (chedis) decorated with colorful flags. Often Thais will also clean their houses and businesses. Traditionally, the use of water on Songkran was limited to washing the hands of monks, the elderly, and children, as well as pouring water on Buddha statues. Today, the festival has expanded into soaking friends, neighbors and strangers with water for the sheer fun of it.

For me, Songkran began with an invitation to a party after the first day of temple visits had concluded. I met Plamy at her restaurant Thai E-San, where dozens of her relatives and family friends from across the country were wrapping up a shared feast. After a short wait, we departed on her motorbike for what I thought would be a typical Koh Panghan party. Koh Panghan is infamous for parties like Full Moon Festival and Half Moon Party, where hundreds of inebriated farangs (white foreigners/tourists) bob back and forth to loud, monotonous techno, constantly cruising for the next hookup. But instead, I was brought to a field full of hundreds of tables, at each of which were seated five to ten Thai people, with not a single other farang in sight. On the right side of the field was a Buddhist temple decorated in fluorescent lights and colorful flags, and at the front of the field, where a rock band was playing, was an outdoor concert stage.

The table Plamy brought me to was in the front row of the stage, and about half of the people seated there were transgender and/or queer. There was a small dance pit in front of us, but only two people were dancing; I recognized one of them from Thai E-San restaurant. Most Thais though were just engaged in small talk over beer and snacks like khaep mu (fried pork skin). With my limited Thai, and the music blasting my eardrums, I couldn’t really engage in the conversation, so I adopted the standard polite Thai smile and bounced along in my chair to the music just enough to reassure people I was enjoying myself. I was beginning to wonder if the rather tame band on stage was about the best I could expect for live entertainment at a temple, some Buddhist equivalent of family-friendly Christian rock.

But soon, I was proven entirely wrong. As soon as the next rock band took the stage, cheers went up and a stampede of excited Thais rushed to the dance pit. This was clearly the main act. Their sound reminded me of 1970s classic rock, but their aesthetic reminded me of 1990s boy bands; you could see both Thai girls and women – including Plamy – swooning over them. Plamy told me the band members were childhood friends from her hometown of Phattalung on Thailand’s Southern mainland, and in fact, their name (วงพัทลุง) translates to “Phattalung Band.” 

Soon, most people in the crowd were dancing, and my table quickly became one of the rowdiest. Chairs turned into dance platforms, and Plamy’s friends started putting on a rather flirtatious show for the audience, attracting several men to come up and dance with us. Plamy bounced back and forth between dancing at the front of the stage and at our table. While it was hard to keep up with her energy, I was glad to see her let loose, as far too often I’d seen her in “business mode” being the responsible restaurant owner amidst her more laid-back friends. At one point, Plamy, drenched in sweat and dancing on top of two teetering chairs, poured a glass of cold beer over her head to cheering onlookers. Another friend dumped their drink on her head as well, and I followed suit emptying my bottle of cold water on her. Both actions were met with cheers, encouraging several more people to join in the water-and-beer dumping fun.

A soaked Plamy with the lead singer of Phattalung Band

I was told to show up again at noon the next day for more Songkran festivities. In the heat of the day, the country-wide water fight was in full force. Children, adults, Thais, farangs, transgender people, and cisgender people were all preoccupied with throwing as much water on each other as possible. Dry clothes makes you an instant target, and the second I stepped out of my hostel, I was sprayed down by a kid with a Super Soaker as his mom laughed; I laughed along too.

Plamy’s restaurant was open early to serve food, play music, and provide buckets of water and Super Soakers for anyone who wanted to join in on the water fight festivities. Plamy’s parents and our transgender and queer dance crew from the night before were all present, in addition to several new faces. Once again, chairs had been turned into dance platforms, and I was encouraged to climb up on one and dance too by our friend Dao. Of course, dancing on that chair made me an instant target for water guns, but it was worth it. 

Another popular way of spending Songkran is to ride up and down the street in the back of an open-air taxi armed with Super Soakers, and our job at the restaurant, between dancing, was to defend ourselves from these marauding taxi passengers with even more firepower. Even more rewarding though was when folks hopped off the taxis to join us. It really did seem our LGBTQ dance crew was a popular draw for farangs and Thais of all identities and backgrounds.

Kayley in front of Thai E-San restaurant

The day seemed to end far too fast; at 6pm police drove up the street gesturing for us and neighboring restaurants to turn off our music and water. We were all exhausted, soaked, and had huge grins on our faces. I had survived the first two days of Thailand’s biggest family gathering, and I was having a blast.

I’d never seen so many cisgender and straight people letting loose and partying alongside LGBTQ people other than at a Pride festival in the United States. In that moment, Thailand really did feel like a place where LGBTQ people could be their full selves. Songkran was not over yet for me: next would come a festival by the beach, and a family barbecue with some of the best food and drink I’d experienced yet. But those will have to wait for the next post, so stay tuned for Songkran Part 2!

Thank you for reading this installment of Trans In Thailand. If you enjoyed this post, please consider becoming a supporter of the blog on the Trans In Thailand Patreon page. By joining the Patreon for as little as $1 a month, you’ll get access to exclusive bonus content and the ability to contribute your own ideas to the blog. Thank you, or as they say in Thai, khap khun kha!

Interviewing a Thai Transgender Restaurant Owner

In Thailand, nothing builds new friendships better than a shared meal. And where better to meet new transgender friends than a transgender-owned restaurant?

Koh Panghan is a small, tourist-dominated island off the East Coast of Southern Thailand, where most people come for the infamous parties, retreat centers, and Western comfort food establishments that dominate the island. I struggled at first to find Thai queer community or good authentic Thai food at first. That was, until my transgender friend Irish (yep, that’s her name, but she’s actually Filipina) invited me to a restaurant named Thai E-San.

When I arrived, Irish had already ordered and was chatting with Plamy, Thai E-San’s transgender co-owner. Irish then introduced me, and suddenly, Plamy sat down with us and proudly announced “Ladyboy Table!”  I stayed late into the night chatting, drinking, and playing pool with Plamy and her staff, the majority of whom were also transgender. I knew I’d finally found transgender community there and a lifelong friend in Plamy.

A few days later, I spent a full day with Plamy to observe her at work and interview her for this blog. I’ll try to capture the day’s conversation as best as I can in this blog, with the understanding that our conversation was often interrupted by her many tasks running a restaurant, and her interactions with friends.

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Plamy, Dao, and myself at lunch

Our day began over lunch at a friend’s restaurant, where Plamy’s friend Dao joined us. Plamy had brought everyone a treat from the market — blood cockles, named for their meaty, juicy red center, and sought out for their delicate taste with only the subtlest hint of brine. As her friends steamed the cockles and prepared other dishes Plamy picked out, Plamy explained that while blood cockles demand a high price, “I don’t care about cost when it comes to  eating good food.”

Turning the conversation to her restaurant, I learned that Plamy had jointly owned Thai E-San with her mother and father for five years and that it was the family’s second restaurant. As she explained, “opening a restaurant in Koh Panghan is expensive, we needed $5,000 to start, so I had to work in bars for 3 months and save money.” $5,000 might not seem like a lot, but by comparison, her last restaurant, located in her hometown of Phattalung, near the Southern tip of mainland Thailand, brought in only about $300 a month in profit.

If Phattalung is well off the beaten path for tourists, Koh Panghan is the exact opposite; a hub for affluent tourists who come from around the world for the ultimate Thai beach vacation promised on travel websites. Plamy’s investment paid off; Thai E-San now makes “10x as much,” over $3,000 a month. She explained that unlike at home, mostly “farangs” (White people/non-Thai tourists) come to her restaurant, and they’re willing to pay higher prices. In addition, the Thais in her hometown did not tip (it’s not customary), whereas farangs will tip between 30% to 40% for even a single drink. Thai E-San currently employs ten people split between the kitchen, the wait staff and the bar staff; five of the employees of the bar/wait staff are transgender.

Between my questions, I could see Dao and Plamy kept glancing over to a lone farang drinking alone a few tables away. After a bit of chatter amongst themselves and some flirtation with him,  Plamy invited him to sit with us and got him a beer. After Plamy paid for our lunch, she invited the farang, a young man from Estonia named Anton, to join us at Thai E-San. We soon learned Anton’s girlfriend had broken up with him that day, and Plamy comforted him and got him another beer whilst readying her restaurant to open for the evening. Plamy’s affability and generosity towards everyone she met impressed me. I believe it’s also key to her success as a restaurant owner: she knows how to make everyone feel welcome.

After both Dao and Anton departed, I was finally able to get a bit more personal with my questions. First, I asked what terms Plamy uses for herself and other transgender women. She explained that she uses “ladyboy” for herself because “in Thailand we do not use transgender” (see my previous post for an exploration of the term “ladyboy”). Plamy also uses the Thai word katheoy when talking to other Thai ladyboys, and by comparison, uses the word “wapom” for gay men. As she explained, these words were part of a “ladyboy language” that “all ladyboys know…so that way, people at the next table will not understand.” She added that Dao and she had been using this “ladyboy language” earlier today when talking about Anton.

Plamy’s parents had arrived by then, and Plamy introduced me to them in the kitchen. I could tell the entire family deeply cared for each other. Plamy told me she came out to her parents as a ladyboy at age 10, as soon as she knew. They had always been “supportive,” and were “not scared” about her  future. I also learned that Plamy’s mother was from the Isaan region in Northeast Thailand, and her father was from a small town not too far away from Koh Panghan in Southern Thailand.

The name for the restaurant, Thai-Esan, simply advertises that it serves Isaan food as well as Thai food local to the area. Isaan food is rather rare in Koh Panghan, which is a shame because it has many of my favorite dishes, such as green papaya salad, which I guarantee you’ll hear more about in future blogs. Thai E-San is centrally located in Koh Panghan near the island’s Big C Supermarket, but since its name is not searchable online, I made a pin on Google Maps to help you find Thai E-San!

Plamy and her parents are excellent cooks, and I was incredibly lucky that they invited me to share family dinner before Thai E-San opened. The centerpiece was a Southern Thai beef curry served in a giant metal bowl and spooned over Jasmine rice. The meal also included a smattering of other plates; I was particularly fascinated with the raw bitter green beans which revealed bright orange centers when you bit into them; her mother was nice enough to write down their name so I could find them again.

Plamy with her family and kitchen staff and Kayley April 1 2019 600x338

A family dinner at Thai E-San (Plamy’s father took the picture)

I thanked her family profusely for dinner, and now, with the restaurant open, I got to see Plamy fully in her element. While she’s certainly comfortable in the kitchen, it’s clear her primary role is at the front of the restaurant. She’s the one who’s always greeting customers, managing servers, looking after the bar and pool table, ensuring the lighting and music matches the mood, and making everyone, both farangs and Thai patrons, feel at home. Thai E-San’s bar is a particularly popular pre-party spot for Koh Panghan’s many parties happening nearly every night, including the famous Full Moon and Half Moon parties. Like other pre-party locations, Plamy sells discounted tickets to many of these parties. These tickets can go as high as $60, easily ten times the price of a meal at Thai E-San, so I assume they’re an important source of revenue.

While the kitchen staff mostly came from the restaurant in her hometown, Plamy seems to be responsible for hiring the bar staff and wait staff. As she explained, four “ladyboys” and one [cisgender] “lady” work at the bar, and one other “ladyboy” works as a waitress.  Plamy felt it was important to tell me that all five of the ladyboys that work for her “have the operation so they look like ladies” (i.e. gender reassignment surgery) so I decided to explore a bit further.

I asked her, “so if a ladyboy had the operation you still call them a ladyboy?” Plamy vaguely answered “same thing, but many people do not know.” I tried again: “Don’t some people use the term ladyboy only for people who haven’t had the operation?” This was met with a rather vague “yes” from her. So I tried another line of questions: “Does Koh Panghan have a ladyboy bar?” “No.” Do customers here know your friends who work at the bar and hang out at the bar are ladyboys? “They don’t know about my friends.” So customers don’t come her looking to meet ladyboys? “No. If we say to customers they are ladyboys, customers won’t go with them. So if we say to a customer they are lady, they go.”

Plamy here started checking her Facebook messages, seemingly engrossed in a conversation, and so I didn’t pry much further as to what “go” meant. However, I’ve seen a business model at work in nightlife areas of Thailand’s larger cities, where, if an employee, such as a bartender or dancer, helped entice a customer to rack up a high enough tab to counteract any lost work time, that employee might be excused for the night to leave with that customer. I’m guessing that Plamy’s bar staff help her sell party tickets as well as drinks, which easily could pay for a night of work and let them go to a party too. Whatever else “go” might involve, I believe is up to them.

Also, I believe Plamy’s employees can be a bit more up front about sharing that they are transgender than Plamy thinks. I recalled a conversation at her bar just a few nights before with a farang who had said he came to Thai E-San specifically to meet ladyboys. As this farang had only recently come to Koh Panghan, I assume he must have heard of Thai E-San through some sort of informal grapevine. Perhaps Plamy’s friends sometimes advertise her restaurant as a ladyboy bar.

I ended up staying on Koh Panghan over ten days, and Plamy’s restaurant was a big reason. It was a place I felt comfortable being myself, being part of the community, and enjoying my favorite food. It was my oasis amidst the craziness of Koh Panghan, and while I did enjoy some of the parties, I learned to enjoy a day of snorkeling followed by Isaan-style green papaya salad even more. While now I’m on the nearby island of Koh Tao, on April 12 I will return to Koh Panghan to rejoin Plamy for new adventures, including a trip to her hometown of Phattalung.

I hope you’ll stay with me for this journey. The best way to do so is to become a member of the TransInThailand Patreon page. That way you’ll get access to exclusive bonus content and the ability to contribute your own ideas. Thank you for your support, or as they say in Thai, khap khun khaa!

Ladyboy: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Term

If you’ve ever heard someone describe their trip to Thailand, they likely told you about the food, the beaches, Buddhism, elephants, and perhaps they’ve also mentioned, with a wink, going to a bar to meet a “ladyboy.” Yet why has Thailand become so inextricably linked with the term “ladyboy,” and what does it mean?

To many transgender people, “ladyboy” is seen as exclusively pejorative. While living as a transgender woman in the United States, I avoided using the term and admonished anyone who used it. Yet now that I am living in Thailand and studying Thai culture and language, I’ve come to appreciate the nuanced nature of the term “ladyboy,” and begun to understand why so many people here love to use it.

So where did the term “ladyboy” come from? While “ladyboy” is a term often used in Thailand to refer to transgender women, it has a unique meaning and history that is closely tied with the Thai word katheoy. Kathoey is a term first used hundreds of years ago in the Thai language, which, like many Thai words, was imported from the Khmer language originally spoken in the region. Kathoey is used to refer to someone who is assigned male at birth, but expresses their gender in a feminine way. Kathoey can even be traced back further to being a translation of the Pali term pandaka. The word pandaka was first recorded in the first Century BCE in Buddhism’s main scriptural text, the Titipaki. In the Titipaki’s origin myth, there are four genders male, female, pandaka (a person born male who takes on feminine characteristics), and ubhatobyan-janaka (a person born female who takes on masculine characteristics).

Today, Thailand is 90% Theravada Buddhist, and the Titipaki origin myth continues to influence cultural understandings about gender. Thai people generally believe that it is a normal state of existence for a soul to be born as a kathoey at some point in the Buddhist cycle of rebirth, and that such a soul, in this life, will have a feminine gender unique from that of either a cisgender man or a cisgender woman.

What makes Thai culture fascinating to me though is not solely that katheoy is a gender category outside of man/woman countless cultures throughout the world and throughout history have more than two gender categories. What I particularly love about Thai culture is that there seems to be a widespread belief that there is something uniquely beautiful about kathoey femininity.

In my experience in the transgender community US, there seems to be a certain resistance to the idea that transgender femininity is somehow unique from cisgender femininity. Transgender women seem to be constantly afraid of feeling invalidated if they’re seen as anything different than a “normal”  woman. There’s a certain “ick” factor assigned to a person who claims to find transgender femininity particularly attractive, and even prefer it over cisgender femininity; such a person is often called a “transgender chaser” and is to be avoided.

People do not seem to have the same compunctions in Thailand, perhaps because of the concept of kathoey itself as its own unique gender. In fact, there seems to be a widespread cultural fascination with transgender femininity. Beauty pageants featuring kathoeys and transgender women from around the world are televised nationwide. Winners of the two biggest, Miss Tiffany’s Universe, which is for Thai contestants, and Miss International Queen, which invites contestants from around the world can expect lucrative sponsorship deals from the cosmetic industry and the larger beauty industry. This year’s winner of Miss International Queen was Jazell Barbie Royal, a Black transgender woman from the United States, and she’s far more widely known here than in the US.

In addition to pageants, kathoeys are also widely sought out as beauticians, hairdressers, and fashion experts. Extravagant kathoey cabaret shows like Tiffany’s Show, Alcazar, and the Calypso Cabaret bring in combined audiences of thousands of people each night, both Thais and foreigners. And finally, kathoeys have a key role in the Thai service industry, from bartenders to gogo dancers to sex workers. Also unlike the US, where many straight men may find it shameful to admit they are attracted to transgender women, in Thailand it’s very common for straight men to openly admit their attraction to kathoeys, and in fact, many will tell you that they believe kathoeys are even more beautiful than cisgender women.

Tiffanys Cabaret pic1 edit1 450x600

Me with a performer, Pui, from the famous Tiffany’s Show cabaret

But where does the term “ladyboy” fit into all of this? My hypothesis is that the initial use of the term “ladyboy” and its popularization has to with clever marketing by kathoeys themselves. Decades before the popularization of the term “transgender,” business savvy kathoeys in Thailand were able to use the seemingly exotic term “ladyboy” to market Thailand’s obsession with kathoey beauty to an international market. Ladyboy merges the idea that kathoeys are first and foremost, beautiful ladies. But it also references the idea that they are something more, combined with a youthful, androgynous beauty too.

Historians have often traced how Thai people for many decades have used Western colonial ideas about the East Orientalism to market Thailand to tourists. To Western colonial powers, the so-called “Orient” was characterized as mystical, exotic, feminine, and “submissive” compared to the “dominant” West. As problematic as the origins of these concepts may be, nevertheless many Thais however were able to use them to their advantage to convince tourists that Thailand was the “Land of Smiles” with beautiful, exotic Thai people ready to serve you. For many kathoeys, marketing the idea that “ladyboys” are a gender unique to the submissive, feminine Orient turned out to be a lucrative business proposition.

Today, when cisgender, straight men from the US and around the world come to Thailand, by and large they seem to be able to let go of their compunctions that being attracted to transgender femininity is somehow shameful or un-masculine, and they openly seek out the company of “ladyboys.” Large nightlife areas of Pattaya and Bangkok are home to countless bars, clubs and cabarets advertising “ladyboys” to tourists looking to meet them, watch them dance and perform, and maybe seek out personal services from a kathoey sex worker. One such club is Katoeys are US, whose sign advertises “Lady Boy Gogo Shows” in English, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese. There are also countless websites devoted to sexual liaisons with “ladyboys,” in addition to escort agencies and porn sites. Many of these businesses are fully or partially owned and managed by transgender people, and employ countless feminine transgender people who are able to live modestly while also sending money back to their families. Their families in turn have a sense of pride that their kathoey children are financially secure and able to help support them, and are generally accepting of their children’s gender and don’t judge their source of income.

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Club in Pattaya advertising “Lady Boy Gogo Shows” in four languages

I’d propose that rather than see “ladyboy” as just a poor translation of kathoey or as a pejorative term, I feel we must give credit to generations of Thai feminine transgender people who used the term to successfully promote kathoey beauty beyond Thai culture. By simply dismissing “ladyboy” as an outdated, dehumanizing term, as many of my transgender peers in the US do, it takes away the agency of thousands of Thai transgender people whose livelihood depend on ensuring ongoing international demand for kathoey beauty.  I used to completely avoid the term “ladyboy,” but now in a way, I love it, because to me it speaks to the idea that there is something inherently attractive and beautiful about transgender femininity.

This is largely my hypothesis, although it’s been informed from years of study of English-language scholarship on Thai culture gender and sexuality. However, books are one thing, and experiencing culture firsthand is another. My journeys for the next year or more will help me flesh out this hypothesis, especially as I learn the Thai language and am able to better grasp how transgender people in Thailand understand themselves by talking directly with them.

In this inaugural blog post for Trans in Thailand, I wanted to focus on the positive reasons I love Thai culture. But as I’ll continue to explore, even though kathoeys are seen as having a place in normal Thai society, they still do experience extensive discrimination at the same time. There’s so much more to explore, and I hope you’ll continue with me on this journey, and help support my work through becoming a member of the Trans In Thailand Patreon for as little as $1 a month.

 With your support, I can continue to travel the country to talk with transgender people here in Thailand about their experiences, and directly include their voices in this blog. Thank you! Or as they say in Thai: Khap khun khaa!

Unlearning Privilege, Re-Defining Success

I am currently in Baltimore awaiting the beginning of the Creating Change Conference, a massive LGBT conference where I hope to improve my skills and strategies as an activist.  The conference begins with the Building An Anti-Racist Movement day-long training institute, which includes topics such as “How my ‘Whiteness’ matters: Exploring White Privilege” and “Engaging race as a Multiracial Person in the LGBT community,” both of which definitely apply to me. I am eagerly looking forward to the training institute, and I think it’s incredibly important that the LGBT movement works towards making racial privilege visible, because the differences in how heterosexism and cissexism affects queer and trans people of color are too often forgotten or glossed over.

Recently I wrote an article for the Humanist Magazine discussing the extremely high percentage of transgender women who  depend on sex work–especially transgender women of color–who depend on some form to survive day-to-day.  In the article, A Dangerous Groundswell:  Banning Adult Classifieds Is Not a Panacea for Child Sex Trafficking, while discussing the dangers of online censorship, I also demanded that humanists, feminists, and yes, LGBT activists, place the needs and struggles of the most oppressed members of their community first:

 …A transgender woman walking the streets, especially if she is black or Latina, is at an extremely high risk for violent hate crimes, and in my six months at TIP[Trans Health Information Project] I attended a funeral for one of my clients who was killed in a hit-and-run hate crime incident. Police never investigated the crime despite demands from the transgender community.

On November 17, 2011, transgender activists held a demonstration in Washington, DC, at the Metropolitan Police Department Headquarters to protest the failure of police to properly respond to a recent surge in anti-transgender hate crimes. At this point, the dereliction of the police in protecting transgender individuals from harm is hardly surprising. It is merely symptomatic of society’s larger failure to recognize how dangerous transphobia—often fueled by religious moralizing—is to individuals. I believe that humanists, atheists, feminists, anti-racist activists, and all those involved in fighting for social justice must recognize their common struggle with the transgender community and speak up when religious leaders help enforce rigid gender roles and sexual taboos that ultimately rob human beings of their inherent dignity.

The article was heavily informed by my work at the Trans Health Information Project(TIP) in Philadelphia, as well as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a transgender organization who does an excellent job of placing the voices of transgender women of color and sex workers first and involving members of the community directly in the leadership of their organization. I wish more LGBT organizations followed SRLP’s model, and I wish more white LGBT activists consciously engaged more in non-hierarchical, anti-racist organizing that helped amplify, rather than drown out, the voices of queer people of color:

SRLP functions as a multi-racial, inter-generational collective of people committed to a broad understanding of gender self-determination. As a collective, we recognize that it is essential to create structures that model our vision of a more just society. We believe that in the struggle for social justice too often change is perceived as a product and not a process. We seek to use a non-hierarchical structure to support work that aims to redistribute power and wealth for a more just society. We also strongly believe that our community-based structure, which maximizes community involvement, will support the sustainability of our work and the accountability of SRLP to its constituency.

In 2007 I helped organize an LGBT conference at Swarthmore College which examined the dangers of such “normalizing” discourses as the gay marriage movement.  When activists demand “gay marriage” using normalizing arguments that gays/lesbians  should have the same rights as “everyone else,” it white-washes the LGBT movement along with contributing to the erasure of non-normative queer and transgender identities. I personally invited Dean Spade, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, as a speaker, and he gave an amazing lecture–Building Radical Queer and Trans Movement Infrastructure in the Context of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex–which completely shattered my understanding of what “successful” LGBT organizing strategy looks like. Since that lecture I have been on a never-ending search for how to do LGBT organizing better.

I am hoping that tomorrow’s Racial Justice Institute at the Creating Change conference helps provide me with some answers. Privilege is a weapon we have to spend our entire lives learning to dis-arm.  And I still have a lot to learn.

Transphobic Tampons: Why Julia Serano has no love for Libra®

Seriously Libra, what were you thinking? It’s 2012, and the transgender community is organized. We will call you on your shit if you try to publicly ridicule us like this. And we will win.

Let’s review the events: a TV commercial featuring Libra® tampons begins airing in New Zealand on December 21, 2011. The ad depicts two women in a bathroom competitively applying mascara, lip gloss, and other modern accoutrements of femininity until the woman on the right pulls a tampon out of her purse, seemingly “proving” she is more feminine than the transgender woman to her left, who then storms out of the bathroom. Transgender activists quickly denounce Libra’s ad as “transphobic” and begin filing complaints with the company, leaving comments on Libra’s facebook page, and even popularize the Twitter hashtag #transphobictampons to mobilize opposition to the commercial. News finally starts hitting the United States on January 3rd when Libra publicly announces they are pulling the ad from the airwaves. The transgender community celebrates.

But what did we really win? And what can we learn from this?  As transgender writer Valerie Keefe points out in her Huffington Post article Libra Tampons, A Little Bit of Free Advice

I suppose it’s a measure of progress that much of the trans community can manage to get exercised over what is, yes, a blatantly cissexist tampon ad…But this is more than about politics.

Yes, this is more than politics. This is about survival. If a company thinks they can get away with humiliating transgender women to get a laugh and increase sales, we have to make sure they know that transphobia isn’t funny. It’s usually traumatizing, painful and sometimes deadly.  Just last April, a video recording of a transgender women severely beaten in a McDonald’s bathroom  stunned and sickened the world. Bathrooms are incredibly dangerous places for transgender individuals, where gender policing, done behind closed doors, often gets the most ugly.  The Sylvia Rivera Law Project helped produced a video in 2003, aptly named Toilet Training, to aid activists in advocating for safer bathroom spaces, but it still costs $75 to arrange for a public screening of the video.

Libra’s 30-second ad, on the other hand, reached millions of viewers with no cost to them. And that ad made it seem okay, even funny, to police another person’s gender in a bathroom. But it also did something else: it inadvertently gave transgender people an incredibly useful tool to teach others about transphobia.  And the ad brilliantly illustrates a  particularly virulent form of transphobia: trans-misogyny. Let’s start with a definition, and then the ad.

When a trans person is ridiculed or dismissed not merely for failing to live up to gender norms, but for their expressions of femaleness or femininity, they become the victims of a specific form of discrimination: trans-misogyny -Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, 2007.


Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl changed the tone of transgender activism, and gave it a feminist vocabulary much more equipped to describe exactly why and how transgender women  often face much harsher discrimination than transgender men. Serano argues that femininity itself is at the center of  the issue–femininity, despite decades of feminism, continues to be viewed as weak and artificial. When transgender women embrace femininity, it calls into question the supposed superiority of masculinity. Furthermore, those feminine individuals who choose to traverse the gender divide in the direction of male-to-female are also commonly depicted as moving in the direction of  artifice and performativity.  Serano traces this line of reasoning through the feminist movement itself, such as the “cultural feminism” of the 1980s which celebrated a more androgynous “gender-free” aesthetic  as a more enlightened form of female-ness, and post-structuralist feminist theory which often focused on drag and transgender individuals to highlight the “performative” nature of all gender. Feminism’s various strains, combined with queer theory, contributed to making transgender women who expressed femininity to be seen as “artificial” and “fake,” whereas transgender men and cisgender women who moved away from femininity were seen as “authentic” or even “subversive.”  Queer cisgender women who embraced the “performative” nature of femininity were also likewise seen as “subversive,” and found their own voices within the queer/trans community through writers and speakers such as Minnie Bruce Pratt, author of S/HE, or Chloe Tamara Brushwood Rose, co-editor of the anthology Brazen Femme.

Lady Gaga: Born This Way

But in a world gone Gaga for over-the-top women, what does femininity even mean anymore? Do some women have a more valid claim to femininity than others–are some cisgender women just “born this way” too? Serano argues that feminism becomes self-defeating when it portrays heterosexual feminine women as being tricked or “brainwashed” by society to love makeup, dresses, fashion and other  feminine traits. As she points out:

those feminists who single out women’s dress shoes, clothing, and hairstyles to artificialize necessarily leave unchallenged the notion that their masculine counterparts are ‘natural’ and ‘practical.’  This is the same male-centered approach that allows the appearances and behaviors of men who wish to charm or impress others to seem ‘authentic’ while the reciprocal traits expressed by women are dismissed as ‘feminine wiles’…male centricism purposely sets up femininity as masculinity’s ‘straw man’ or ‘scapegoat.’

Substitute “whipping girl” for “scapegoat” and you have the central argument of Serano’s book: as long as our current understanding of femininity remains unchallenged, transgender women will bear the brunt of both sexism and cissexism (“the belief that transsexual genders are less legitimate than, and mere imitations of, non-transsexual genders”). Before throwing more vocabulary at you, let’s return to the Libra® tampon ad:

Much of the criticism of the ad has focused on how menstruation doesn’t define a woman. However, remarkably little attention has been given to the contrasting feminine presentations of the two women in the ad. Both women are depicted putting makeup on, but there seems to be a clear distinction between their two styles. The cisgender woman on the right seems demonstrative of a more “natural” femininity, one that only needs a little bit of makeup to accentuate. The transgender woman, meanwhile, furtively glances over at her to learn how to “perform” femininity better, and then exaggerates the femininity of her competitor such as through her huge dabs of mascara. This is a clear jab at the “performative” nature of transgender femininity, and helps lead the viewer to the punchline where the woman on the right is able to completely invalidate her competitor’s femininity by producing a tampon. But is there really anything more “natural” about the makeup of the tampon-wielding woman? Isn’t such a distinction inherently dubious? As Shona McCombes explains in her post “In Defence of Fake Beauty” on the UK feminist blog the F-Word:

‘Natural’ beauty slyly requires us to use just enough makeup, spending just enough money and putting in just enough effort to convince people there was never any money or effort or makeup involved…To talk about natural beauty is to naturalise a specific form of beauty, and naturalisation is always a process of privileging and exclusion.

Which brings us back to Serano.  In addition to “cissexism,” Serano identifies three distinct ways in which transgender women are marginalized by society, all of which are rooted in our societal processes of privileging certain genders, and excluding individuals from expressing their gender in certain ways. These three forms of oppression are: 1)traditional sexism 2)oppositional sexism, and 3)effemimania.  Let’s take a look at some more ads to see how these concepts play out in popular culture; I’ve paraphrased Julia Serano’s definitions from her book and website

1)Traditional Sexism

the idea that femininity and femaleness is inferior to masculinity and maleness i.e. gender hierarchy:

2) Oppositional Sexism

the idea that male and female are distinct, essential categories, i.e. binary gender roles:

3) Effemimania

Our societal obsession with critiquing and belittling feminine traits in men and transgender women,

i.e. the idea that “male femininity” is more disturbing, pathological, and potentially threatening to society than “female masculinity”

Put 1)traditional sexism, 2)oppositional sexism, and 3) effemimania together, and you get 4) trans-misogyny. Libra’s tampon ad is a great example. Let’s review it one final time, image courtesy of blogger Hormonal Trans Rex, and an alternate definition for trans-misogyny, again from Julia Serano:

4) Trans-Misogyny:

Sexism that specifically targets those on the trans female/trans feminine spectrums…It accounts for why Male-to-Female spectrum trans people tend to be more regularly demonized and ridiculed than their Female-to-Male spectrum counterparts, and why trans women face certain forms of sexualization and misogyny that are rarely (if ever) applied to non-trans women

Oh wait, Libra, you didn’t realize that transgender women wear pads while recovering from surgery? Thanks for showing the world what a trans-misogynist asshole you are. And please, for the rest of the world, stop asking transgender women about “the surgery,” because you might not like the answer.

MichFest and Roller Derby: Finding my own mythos

I love Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.  I just wish it loved me back as much as roller derby does.

Both Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival–or Michfest–and the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) represent two of the most successful feminist attempts to build women-centered communities.  They are massive social experiments that combine a DIY ethos with a  non-profit business structure that have brought thousands of women together to celebrate something they love.  And both have generated heated debates around the topic of transgender women’s inclusion in women’s spaces, which I, as a transgender rollergirl who attended MichFest in both 2010 and 2011, have found myself in the middle of for the last several years.

#TransWomynBelongHere was met with way more resistance at #Mi... on Twitpic

my MichFest 2011 ticket

MichFest is part of my personal origin story, central to the mythos of my gender identity. My experience standing up for the right of transgender women to be able to attend MichFest, a campaign that I have been a part of ever since attending Camp Trans in 2006, has shaped my understanding of what it means to be a woman, and the importance of women-only space. Being part of Camp Trans in 2006 and 2008  also shattered any pre-conceived notions I had of essentialized, binary gender, and helped me understand my queer gender identity.  Through  Camp Trans, I befriended hundreds of transgender individuals from every corner of the U.S. and Canada.  These friends gave me the inspiration and courage to be the person I am today–an activist, a woman, a transgender individual, and a rollergirl.

I would not have had the strength and courage to stand up for transgender inclusion within the DC Rollergirls and within WFTDA if it wasn’t for all the amazing transgender activists who have stood up for transgender inclusion at MichFest, a struggle that has spanned several decades and involved countless transgender advocates and their allies.

But before I write more about that struggle, let me first begin by saying that I love MichFest for it’s own sake, as one of the greatest achievements of lesbian-feminism, a living embodiment of the ideology espoused by feminist and lesbian pioneers including Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde.  MichFest, founded in 1976, and held yearly ever since, is a living artifact of the organized resistance to what Adrienne Rich famously described as “compulsory heterosexuality,” a playground where Sapphic desire and Goddess-centered feminist “woo” is the norm, and heterosexuality and patriarchy often feels like a distant dream. It is an example of an attempt to build a self-sufficient community with something other than “the master’s tools”–including replacing patriarchal language such as “woman/women” and “history” with words like “womon/womyn” and “herstory”–where women run everything from the kitchen to the medical center. The fact that it still draws thousands of women every year, including amazing female musicians and performers, is a testament to it’s enduring success.

"Night Stage" at MichFest--built and staffed by women

The debate around Transgender Inclusion at MichFest is centered around their so-called “womyn-born-womyn” policy, where womyn-born-womyn is a code word for “not a trans woman.”  This policy–or “guideline” as it’s now being referred to by MichFest co-founder Lisa Vogel–is based on an essentialized understanding of gender that claims that women of non-transgender experience(cisgender women) have a more valid claim to “womanhood” than women of transgender experience do.  Lisa Vogel, who owns the land MichFest is held on, has made it very clear since 2006 that while transgender women will not be denied entry to the festival, their presence is not welcome and that by entering, they are “not respecting the boundaries” of womyn-born-womyn.  More openly transphobic womyn-born-womyn often use the analogy of rape, claiming that transgender women violently exert male privilege simply by entering MichFest, violating cisgender women there by their mere presence.  This line of reasoning can be traced back to the infamously transphobic book The Transsexual Empire by Janice Raymond, which is one of the most unfortunate products of lesbian-feminism.

The implementation of the wbw policy in 1979, was a time when radfem lesbian separatists were carving out space for themselves and completely throwing off all reliance on men, financially, emotionally and politically. In the fervor, lesbians also began excluding trans women from their spaces claiming they were men infiltrating the burgeoning lesbian movement as a patriarchal attempt to disrupt. It’s a beautiful history marred by this legacy. —rebeccasf

The debate over who should be included in MichFest helped give birth to another weeklong annual event–Camp Trans– that began in the mid-1990’s as a protest of Michfest’s “womyn-born-womyn” policy, but at this point has become it’s own unique celebration of transgender identity.   Camp Trans is located on public land a short walk from MichFest, and except for 2011, has always been held the same week as MichFest.  Organizers of Camp Trans have often been some of the hardest-working advocates for transgender women’s inclusion at MichFest.  Every year on the first day of MichFest, Camp Trans organizers  walk up and down the line of hundreds of cars waiting to get into MichFest, to tell attendees about the problems with the womyn-born-womyn policy, and hand out pro-transgender flyers,  t-shirts, armbands,and/or buttons to transgender allies.  I was at Camp Trans in 2006 when organizer Lorrraine Donaldson was sold a ticket to the 31st annual Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and became the first “out” trans woman to openly attend MichFest, accompanied by the “yellow armbands,” transgender allies within MichFest, and Camp Trans issued a press release celebrating victory.  However, despite our hopes, this event did not lead to a reversal of MichFest’s exclusionary “womyn-born-womyn” policy, and was met with a harsh response, including a letter from MichFest co-founder Lisa Vogel.

Lorraine Donaldson, Camp Trans organizers, and Yellow Armbands, 2006

Yet Camp Trans is not just a center for organizing to end MichFest’s womyn-born-womyn policy, it is a camp with it’s own rich history as a celebration of transgender and genderqueer identity.  Gender-variant individuals from all over the world come to Camp Trans to be surrounded in a gender-free zone for a week, where you quickly learn NEVER to assume someone’s pronoun or gender without asking them first.  It’s a beautiful celebration in a safe space created by transgender people and their allies, and like MichFest, it has it’s own performers, workshops, and fun activities lasting an entire week.  It is completely volunteer-run, and unlike MichFest, attendance is free–although donations are requested to keep the camp going.  Camp Trans 2006 was the first time I felt completely comfortable as a transgender woman, and everyone respected my gender identity and called me by my preferred name and pronouns even though I had yet to begin hormone-replacement therapy and spent most the time in workout clothes.  It’s also the first time someone described me as a “sporty dyke,”–I was obsessed with capoeira angola then–and I still consider myself a “sporty dyke” today, even if my sport now is roller derby. Camp Trans 2008 was a year of celebration for me, which included punk-rock karaoke in the woods–I sang the Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love,” and my girlfriend at the time sang the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant.” Many of my best friends, and even future roommates, I met through the extended Camp Trans community–two former roommates are in the photo below from Camp Trans 2009:

Genderqueer Chicago (and friends) at Camp Trans 2009

For the last few years there has also been a pro-transgender inclusion camp inside MichFest known as Trans Womyn Belong Here (TWBH), which is distinct from Camp Trans, but allied with Camp Trans’ original mission: opening MichFest to transgender women.  In 2010 I attended MichFest as a solo camper, and kept my transgender history largely secret, although I did meet a few folks from TWBH.  In 2011, I camped in the middle of the TWBH camp at MichFest, and was much more out and open about my transgender identity, including leading an official workshop at MichFest for transgender allies called “Transgender Ally Toolkit.” More on my experiences attending MichFest coming soon in future posts…

But to return to 2006, that year I entered a book collection contest at my college with a collection of over 50 books on transgender and lesbian history, culture and identity.   I annotated all the books and wrote an essay to tie them all together, and ended up winning third place in the A. Edward Newton Book Collection contest.   The essay I wrote told the story of Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, Camp Trans and the “genderqueer revolution” of the 1990s.  The collection included books and articles by Kate Bornstein, Leslie Feinberg, Riki Wilchins, Dean Spade, Patrick Califia, Jack Halberstam, and more.  It also told the story of the birth of lesbian-feminism, and included books by Adrienne Rich, Marilyn Hacker, Audre Lorde, and Alison Bechdel. As a reward for winning third place, I was given a cash prize, but more importantly, was able to display all the books in the library collection for a month, and give a speech about my collection. I still have all the books, plus dozens more, including zines such as “Transexual Fury,” which I picked up from Camp Trans in 2006 (below).  If you click on the image you get the full comic, which includes superheros from Camp Trans and MichFest helping each other out:


Camp Trans meets MichFest

In tribute to MichFest and Camp Trans, a subject I’m sure to come back to in future posts,  I wanted to highlight here some excellent essays, articles and websites central to the MichFest transgender inclusion debate.  For anyone new to this subject, and without 50 or more books on feminism, queer history and transgender theory on hand, the Transgender Studies Reader, edited by Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, is the perfect place to start. Even better, as I found out tonight, much of the book’s contents is available online here.

Key blog posts on recent events from MichFest and Camp Trans  (2010 and 2011):

Camp Trans and the Spirit of Community by

transgender: OUT!wear Pridewear Selling AntiTrans Woman Tshirts! by rebbecasf

Just Another Woman at MichFest (Pretty Queer) by Alice Kafarski

Critiques of transphobia within lesbian-feminism and transgender exclusion in women’s spaces:



Two essays that really shaped how I understand my own “queer” gender as being outside of both male and female:



Black Market Christmas

It’s been this way since Christmas day/ dazzled, doused in gin

Christmas Eve reminds me why I hate alcohol. My father and sister are getting giddy with alcohol and even one drink (a dark & stormy, my favorite) plunges me deeper into the darker recesses of my mind. I retreat to a back room in the house and drown out Christmas music with one of my favorite albums, Placebo’s Black Market Music.  It fits my mood exactly: dark, glooming, cynical, spiteful, even hateful.

At the time they cut me free/ I was brimming with defiance

As I start writing, memories of Christmas past come bubbling to the surface, haunting me.  But the ghosts in my family are not Dickensian messengers rattling chains for a quick fright before delivering a heavy-handed moral. No, the story here is still being written, and I struggle every day to decipher the meaning.

I wrote this novel just for you/ It sounds pretentious, but it’s true

In my high school years, writing about my family was simpler, much more black and white. I had a small community on LiveJournal where I could bitch and moan about how fucked-up my family was, and everyone would share their own stories and commiserate.  Every night when my father came home I’d be braced for a shouting match, and there was broken glass in my kitchen at least once a week,wine glasses smashed to prove just how pissed off he was that dinner wasn’t prepared on time.  The memory of my father cheating on my mom with his secretary was still fresh, as was his admission to me that “one day you’ll understand.”  And then there were the nights that he ripped up my homework in some sick power-play to prove that he could destroy even my academic success-although I still graduated with straight-A’s anyways.

Problems with the booze/ nothing left to lose

It was easy then to dismiss my father as a hopeless alcoholic, a lost soul whose once-bright future had long ago been swallowed up by his thankless job as a tax accountant.  I pitied him, but hated him more.  Then came college, where I finally had freedom to explore my identity and didn’t have to come home to arguing every night. My relationship with my parents grew more complex as I learned to overcome hatred through endless therapy appointments and discussions about family with other members of my college’s LGBT group.

It seems/ a place for us to dream

I learned to express myself through poetry, and was published in my college’s various literary magazines. After examining my own deep-seated anxiety around relationships, I ended up identifying as polyamorous, pansexual, and transgender. Even though I cycled through relationships pretty quickly at first, I was having fun, and was building lasting friendships.  But my father’s words when he cheated on my mom–that “one day I’d understand”–occasionally nagged at me.

Run away from all your boredom/ run away from all your whoredom

Holidays were the one time I could no longer run from my father, although at first I hid the person I’d become.  One Thanksgiving shortly after I had begun hormone-replacement therapy, my father and mother began discussing my lack of facial hair–wondering out loud when I’d finally “grow into a man,” and how my father had gotten facial hair late too.  I made a $10 bet with my father that I’d never grow facial hair, and my father called me a “fool,” but matched my bet.  I’ve never collected the money.

I’ll go fighting nail and teeth/ you’ve never seen such perseverance

That Christmas things got much uglier though–over a bowl of oatmeal.  In one of my father’s classic power-plays, he refused to let me eat my own breakfast because I had refused to eat the quiche everyone else was eating (even though I’m allergic to dairy and eggs). When I tried to walk the oatmeal into the next room, he physically barred my path.  When I tried to keep walking he shoved me backwards.  When I tried again, he grabbed the oatmeal and smashed the bowl in the sink. A shouting match ensued, which turned into a shoving match, and then suddenly, my sister and mother were trying to separate me from my father who now had a black eye and a bleeding lip.

Gonna make you scared of me/ cause hemoglobin is the key

Suddenly, the tables had turned–my father had the black eye, and not me. I was shocked, but also proud. No one had to call the cops on my father for being violent, because I had stood up for myself. I wasn’t scared of him anymore. Instead, I was scared of myself.

As they drag me to my feet/ I was filled with incoherence

This story doesn’t have a conclusion. This year’s Christmas story is still being written, and I’ve repeatedly been asked to re-join my family, and Black Market Music  has looped more than once,  so I’ll leave you with a song and one final lyric.

I’m forever black-eyed/ product of a broken home


Gay Navy Kiss

Gay Navy Kiss

I can appreciate a girl in a uniform too…and not just other rollergirls. This is the best Christmas present I could possibly ask for. A beautiful and true story of two female Navy Petty Officers taking part in a U.S. Navy tradition: the first kiss when a boat comes ashore. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell–an incredibly harmful policy that I’m glad is gone. This is a time to celebrate:

“Petty Officer 2nd Class Marissa Gaeta of Placerville, Calif., descended from the USS Oak Hill amphibious landing ship and shared a quick kiss in the rain with her partner, Petty Officer 3rd Class Citlalic Snell of Los Angeles…Navy officials said it was the first time on record that a same-sex couple was chosen to kiss first upon a ship’s return.”

And one of them fought pirates too. I think my heart just skipped a beat:

“Snell is based on the USS Bainbridge, the guided missile destroyer that helped rescue cargo captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates in 2009.”

Photo by Associated Press, full story from Huffington Post Gay Voices here:   Marissa Gaeta And Citlalic Snell, U.S. Naval Petty Officers, Share First Same-Sex Kiss At Ship’s Return

Edit: I originally posted “two lesbian officers” which was quickly corrected by an old friend who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy–Petty Officer is an enlisted rank, not an officer.  The generic term would be “sailors.” Plus there’s nothing in the article that says that both women identify as “lesbian.”

I’ve perhaps always been particularly fascinated by the U.S. Navy because I was taught to sail at a young age by my father.  He at one point sincerely hoped I might end up a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, and I’ve visited it multiple times.  Not the right career choice for me–especially as a pacifist who engages in anti-war activism–, but I was taught to respect the Navy from a very young age.

Hitchens, Hitchlings, and Feminism

How do you distill the views of a writer as prolific, as controversial, and as influential as Christopher Hitchens into a sentence?  I’ve been struggling for over a week to put together a coherent post to commemorate the atheist firebrand, struggling to reconcile how Hitch influenced my own feminist and interfaith-inspired “atheist activism” with the anti-religious and anti-Muslim bigotry exemplified by so many others who consider themselves to be “atheist activists.”

Yet meanwhile, the crack team at Urban Dictionary has already written their own tribute to Hitch, in the form of a one-sentence definition for the word hitchling. The definition, devoid of  the sexual innuendo and raunchy humour typical of the site, is a genuinely flattering tribute to the infamous intellectual.   Apparently a hitchling is:

a child void of religious indoctrination who is encouraged to read broadly and to seek the truth unapologetically (In memoriam of Christopher Hitchens)

Going strictly by the definition, I honestly wouldn’t mind raising a child as a hitchlingCan anyone really argue with encouraging a child to seek a well-rounded education and to be willing to question anything, including organized religion?  As an atheist, I have no desire to instill religious indoctrination on a child, and aren’t all children born atheists anyways?

Christopher Hitchens even left for posterity a reading list of suggested books for raising hitchlings, thanks to the inquisitive mind of an eight-year old girl named Mason Crumpacker. That list, along with the charming story of how Mason asked Hitch for the list in front of an entire atheist convention, is available at the blog Why Evolution is True.

Yet the list Hitch provided to the young woman is startlingly devoid of female writers with one exception–Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the former Muslim turned conservative darling, thanks to her harsh critiques of Islam in Infidel and Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations. There’s no other feminist voices to inspire and teach a young woman to be confident and strong in her own abilities, and no texts by genderqueer or transgender individuals who dared to question one of society’s most dangerous “truths” by simply existing–the “truth” of gender.   Instead Hitch left us with a list of great white men–Chaucer, Shakespeare, Hume, Dickens, etc.–names I certainly would recommend as well, but a list of names wholly lacking in diversity.

I’m not really surprised.  In the dubiously titled video “Christopher Hitchens versus Feminism,” Hitch offers his thoughts on gender roles and parenting, smugly suggesting that women are called “the gentler sex for a reason,” and that “they shouldn’t work if they don’t have to.”  His slyly hidden smile suggests that he’s playing the audience for laughs, and it’s unclear if he has any agenda other than to humiliate his female questioner. Just watch the video and ask yourself: could Hitch ever raise a hitchling? Is Hitch really a good role model for someone who can question the truth unapologetically?  Or was Hitch more obsessed with appearing clever than engaging in serious questions about gender and gender roles?