Three ladyboys came round to my place the other afternoon for a general social visit and to suggest friends I might like to photograph, and during our conversation two of them mentioned they both came from the same town in Isaan, Roi Et.
Now, the majority of ladyboys I photograph come from Isaan. And of that number, I would say the majority are probably from Roi Et. Why, I asked my two young friends, are there so many ladyboys in Roi Et?
“I not know,” they both said. “But many ladyboy in Roi Et. Many!”
They went on to tell me of a particular muban in Roi Et province that is famous for having a large number of ladyboys. There are, they said, at present 40 ladyboys within this muban. A muban is a village, the smallest administrative district within the Thai governmental system. Taken as an average across the country (I’m looking at Wikipedia here), a muban typically consists of 144 households or 746 persons. So 40 ladyboys represents a significant number of the population. Why, why, why, does Roi Et have so many ladyboys, I repeated. Why oh why oh why oh why? And I banged my head against the wall (I feel sorry for that wall, sometimes). They smiled at me again. “Not know!”
They went on to tell me that they were not only talking about ladyboys. “Many, many gay too,” they said. “Not easy find ordinary man in Roi Et.” They went on to explain that the gays sometimes morphed into ladyboys. “Most ladyboy, most gay, they know already from very young. Some want be lady. Some want be gay man. But they know already when still at school.”
I imagine that peer pressure must have some bearing on this. Otherwise I cannot explain why there is such a concentration of ladyboys and gays.
Roi Et (the name translates as “One Hundred and One”) is a rural capital on the northeastern plain of Thailand, depending largely upon agriculture, handicrafts and textiles for its local economy. Like the rest of Isaan the region is relatively poor, and much of the population migrates to Bangkok and Pattaya. Try asking a Bangkok taxi driver where he comes from, and chances are it will be Isaan, and quite possibly Roi Et. Career potential for young Thai men in the province is far from good, and the average trajectory of a young Thai male will be early marriage and fatherhood, followed by a lifetime of manual work, possibly enlivened by alcohol and drugs.
It must be a depressing prospect for any sensitive young man growing up there. So, in the earliest years of adolescence, when one’s sexuality is still a floating entity, why not focus on some kind of rebellion. Anything to get out of the trap.
Of course, the shortage of marriageable young men is a problem for the girls of the community. But then ask any Bangkok, Pattaya or Phuket go-go dancer where she comes from, and guess what the answer is likely to be.