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Book Review

Book Review: by Lang Reid

Male Bodies, Women’s Souls

It is the nature of the human beast that any deviation from the accepted ‘norm’ is a subject of fascination, revulsion, horror, derision, etc, etc, strike out those that do not apply. When the subject comes to ‘lady-boys’ fascination seems to be the best description, when looking through foreign eyes, but what about when looking through the eyes of the indigenous Thais?
Male Bodies, Women’s Souls subtitled Personal Narratives of Thailand’s Transgendered Youth (ISBN 978-0-7890-3115-0, released this year by Haworth Press, and co-written by LeeRay Costa and Andrew Matzner) is another look at the lady-boy, kathoey, or sao braphet song (the polite words to describe these transgendered people- which, roughly translated, mean women of the second category) phenomenon. This promised to be a rather more scholarly approach to the subject, rather than anecdotal experiences, the back cover proclaiming that by using a theoretical and methodological approach this would give the readers a more readily accessible foundation of knowledge about gendered sensitivity and sex/gender systems.
The two author/researchers, who have qualifications in the field, decided to use the personal narratives from the subjects, most of whom were university students in Chiang Mai. These narratives were then looked at to see if there were some common inferences that could be drawn from them (quote: through the lens of a reflexive anthropology moored to feminism and humanism and presented through the narrative genre.) Mainly looking at the age old question of nature or nurture, was my take on it.
The number of subjects at 16 was not nearly enough to make this a true examination of the lady-boy genre. Most children grow up in a family with at least one female sibling, but that is not enough to take them into the strange world of gender dysphoria. The authors drew some conclusions from their work, but because of the small number in the cohort sample, it would be difficult to have much to add to the world literature on the subject.
In true scholarly fashion, a very full index and bibliography are included, but that is not enough to raise this book above a voyeuristic look at the subject. The unanswered questions such as the incidence of gender dysphoria in Thailand versus the experience in other countries remains unanswered. If there is an increased incidence, why is this so? Back to nature or nurture again, I suppose, but unanswered. And why Chiang Mai? Does it have more than other provinces? Has the Lanna Kingdom something influencing the incidence? Unfortunately this book will not tell us.
The personal narratives did appear to have the common theme of a lack of acceptance by the parents, and also an underlying thread of physical violence in the family unit. Was this a factor in the dysphoria, or are all Thai families this way? Again the answer was not to be found within the covers of this book.
There was no doubting the qualifications of the authors, but I felt the book was no heavyweight in the field. It is no doubt a fascinating subject and the first few chapters outlining the research done to date was informative, but I expected more from this slim volume.