Part 1 – The Interview with Angie
Above is my interview with Angie, a Kathoey (commonly called “Ladyboy”) who is about to have her first Muay Thai fight.
Angie started training at Petchrungruang a few months ago. At first it was just once per week, on Sunday afternoons, which is a slow day at the gym. But she quickly got stronger – I could see it from afar, even before we really started interacting with each other, other than a smile of recognition back and forth – her passion for Muay Thai is evident. In a short amount of time, Pi Nu started saying that Angie was strong and could fight this guy who had recently had a match against one of the kid’s fathers (an older westerner). These kinds of informal fights are not rare in Pattaya, and really even in Thailand. Not long after, it became more than a suggestion and Angie said she wanted to fight. She’s been training every morning since then, about two months now, and we’ve been working together a little bit in preparation for that, as well as a lot of talking to help her feel more mentally prepared.
The fight is on Tuesday and I’m writing this post on the Sunday before, so she’s got two more days. I came in this morning to do a little work with her in the ring – when I got to the gym she was kicking the bag and Pi Nu was standing a few feet away from her, holding his baby son, watching and chatting with her about her fight. When he saw me he confirmed that I was there to work with her, then told me “sohn noi,” which is to say “teach her” in our work. She and I been working together for a few weeks anyway, but by Pi Nu saying this to me now, I suddenly felt like I had my own Padawan learner. Angie is very new to this all, and brave. I sat on the edge of the ring and gossiped a bit with Pi Nu about the results of the two fighters from our gym who had fought on TV the day before. This is normal enough and Pi Nu’s son Nat rested his head against Pi Nu’s neck, trying to catch a quick nap while Angie teeped the bag. While the conversation was common-place, my attention to Angie was piqued more than I’d given myself permission for prior to this. Now I was given responsibility for her training today, so my eyes focused on where her foot landed in the middle of the chewed-up leather patch on the center of the bag, how well she pushed through the dented section that was her target with her foot.
“Angie,” I said, between tidbits of discussing the fights from yesterday, “picture your opponent when you teep the bag.”
Angie works part-time in the evenings, so she’s only able to train in the mornings. Her dedication is clear and despite being tired, if Pi Nu tells her to kick the bag 100 times, she goes and kicks the bag 100 times without fail. This is something you’d think is just expected – and it is – but a large number of “part-time” students will crap out, so it means a lot to those who are instructing her that she’s coachable and willing. What means a lot to me in speaking with Angie is that she just wants to get better, and knows that it takes both time and effort. She doesn’t just wish it, she works for it, and she’s patient.
At article-top is my interview with her on Monday, the day before her fight. I wanted to talk about why she had suddenly decided to take up Muay Thai, a few short months ago, and then only two months ago, decided she wanted to fight. I wanted to know what it meant for her to be practicing something so potentially masculine, when much of her life is dedicated to becoming more feminine. As a muscular female fighter I often find myself on a blurred line between genders aesthetically in Thailand, something that doesn’t always feel very good. Mostly though, I wanted to share Angie with everyone, and give her a chance to talk a little about her experiences and thoughts.
In the above interview I’ve subtitled a little bit where audio might not be so clear, just so nothing is missed. This interview today was actually our second attempt. I had interviewed her the day before this, but we felt that the audio of her voice was just too low. I didn’t want you to have to strain to hear her. (When we tried again today I told her that the chickens at the farm in the back were louder than she is and she giggled.) I also include the first somewhat botched interview too (just below), in case some are very interested in her and would like to see more. Some of the answers were a little different in the first interview.
My First Interview With Angie (Poor Audio)
Part 2 – A Larger Perspective on Katheoy, Thailand and Muay Thai
Kathoey (Ladyboys), Transgender In Thailand – Tolerant Intolerance
I wanted to really make this post all about the interview of Angie, but as I found myself writing it felt like there are more things to say, so what follows is a kind of expansion of what is above.
I’ve read from quite a few sources that kathoey are considered the “third gender” in Thailand and are widely accepted in the social and cultural fabric of the Land of Smiles. Due to Thailand’s prevalence of Buddhist beliefs, from the perspective of outsiders like myself, it appears that the visibility of kathoey – in the form of male-to-female transgender and transsexuals – is widely tolerated. “Acceptance” feels like too strong a word, or perhaps just too imprecise. There is still a large degree of prejudice, and some commonly-held beliefs are downright offensive, and violence against those in the trans community is not uncommon. The stigma around Ladyboys in the closer family circle means that a great number of young gender-queer kids may hide their identities from their families and begin their transitions once they’ve moved away from home. They can face the full spectrum of acceptance by their families upon “coming out,” from being embraced with the “you are who you are” attitude informed by Buddhist karma to the far more painful fate of being at outcast. And a large number of Ladyboys find themselves in the Sex Work industry – which globally is a high-risk occupation and a net for society’s most vulnerable – an image of Thailand which has become part of its trademark. Sadly, Ladyboy humor is pretty much standard in the joke list for many visiting the country.
All of that is just a snapshot of things to consider when asking the question, “what’s it like to be a kathoey?” in any given setting. In the gym it’s complicated. I will say that Angie has been included at Petchrungruang in a way that I would find amazing in the West, but seems to be pretty standard for the gym itself. My first gym up in Chiang Mai, Lanna Muay Thai, is famous for its Thai name, Kiat Busaba, because it is the gym of the very well-known kathoey fighter named Nong Toom, or Parinya Kiat Busaba “the Beautiful Boxer.” (who is mentioned in the interviews). Nong Toom financed her sex change operation through fighting. How’s that for a movie? (It is a movie.) But as much as Nong Toom achieved success and visibility, in that gym there’s a kind of wry response to her image and name being coupled with the gym – for her being what makes the gym’s name so famous. If she were a man, it wouldn’t be an issue; if she’d simply been a Cis woman, the gym probably wouldn’t be famous at all.
Angie and Gender in the Gym
I think of Angie as a woman. I think of Nong Toom as a woman as well, as I did when I met her and she cornered for me in Chiang Mai a few years ago (photo below). I totally fan-girled out to have her meticulously tucking this small piece of hair behind my ear between every round, while I was getting my ass kicked – something I’ll never forget. And yet, without feeling a contradiction I still identify with being the only woman at my gym here in Pattaya, (despite having Angie with me in the mornings for the last few months), as it’s not quite the same as having another Cis woman around. I feel a bit like an asshole saying that, but I’m being honest too. It’s like there’s this caveat; and it’s not because Angie isn’t a “real woman,” – she is absolutely a real woman – but rather I believe because of our experiences. We’re not treated the same…socially. How could we be? There are literally countless reasons why there would be disparities, from things as simple as body size, experience-level in the sport, the fact that she’s Thai and I’m American… tons of reasons for us to not have the same experience. And yet there’s this very key experience of categorization that is a division between us, in treatment; we are not categorized the same and in some ways Angie’s “not this and also not that” exclusion in the gym setting makes some things harder for her, but in some ways my “simply not a man, period,” makes tolerance and inclusion harder for me, as a Cis woman. And that makes it more difficult for me to say “we,” even though I consider Angie a woman, and us 100% allies to each other. Again, it’s complicated.
But what’s not complicated is how much I love having Angie at training with me in the mornings. I love seeing her kick the pads and the bag, pushing herself in ways that I don’t see most of the guys at the gym push themselves. I love chatting with her and I’m utterly flattered when she squeezes my arms and says she wants some of that strength for herself. We sit on these opposing stools of constructing masculinity and femininity, but there are tons of overlaps that make us a really cool pair. And I’m excited to work in her corner for this fight, as it kind of brings around this neat little circle of Nong Toom cornering for me and then me cornering for Angie. .
This morning at the gym, when all of us were discussing the coming fight, I was put in the very awkward position of being nominated by Pi Nu (the owner and head trainer of the gym) as the authority on whether Angie should go over the top rope (as men do) or under the bottom rope (as women must). Basically it was left up to me to say what was proper. This was something I did not expect. I have written numerous times on my issues regarding the bottom rope and also how I have more frequently than you would think been in the position of having to be the one to enforce this practice on myself among men who don’t know it, or have forgotten. (e.g. when someone pushes down the top rope, I have to stop and point to the bottom rope and wait for him to figure it out and lift it for me. Or in one instance, a genuine Muay Thai legend who was my corner actually thought I was joking when I told him I have to, as a woman, crawl under the bottom rope, and he waited until he saw my opponent do it before he would allow me to do so.) And yet now, today, I was asked by Pi Nu what the answer was – me, a non-Thai and a woman, was asked to clarify for a rather traditional Thai man with 30+ years in Muay Thai practice, what the correct etiquette was in this situation. Does Angie go over the top rope like a man, or below the bottom rope like a woman? To be clear, I’ve wondered about this myself, in the past, and my only answer comes from having seen Nong Toom enter the ring (completely post-op, full transition to woman) by going over the top rope. No tradition establishes the norm, in this case a single person does through their precedent-setting choice: Nong Toom. If you’re being “logical” about it – and traditions seldom are logical – a Trans Woman has none of the biological features which deny Cis women from going over the top rope, principally menstruation, so “logically” a Trans Woman does not threaten the magic of the ring. But this menstruation logic is not iron clad, for instance little girls when entering the ring go under the bottom rope, far from their age of puberty. It could very well be that Nong Toom hops over the top rope simply because she can, refusing to lower herself, though seeing herself as a woman. In any case, all that said and done, I answered that Nong Toom goes over the ropes and there was a short discussion wherein Pi Nu reasoned it out, “because she’s a man.” That can’t feel good to hear on Angie’s part, but as far as the culture and practice of conservative thought goes, that was the arrived at answer.
In Angie’s Corner
Angie has expressed concern over who will be cornering for her in her fight tomorrow. She did not quite understand what a “corner” is, (the word in Thai is “Pee-lee-ang” พี่หลี้ยง) and I really tried to let her know that it is a very minor role, often held by kids. Pi Nu had told her that her corner would be this guy who she has clinched with a few times and she was upset because, as she said, “he likes to play.” I think she means he flirts too much and she is serious about her fight. It’s an interesting issue, because this guy is not gay, but straight Thai men will flirt with Ladyboys a lot because they are symbols of sexuality – like hyper-feminized women in gyms have to face as well. Angie insisted that Lung Piak (“Uncle Piak”) be her corner because he holds pads for her. I had to keep explaining that the word Pi Nu used for what this guy would be doing for her is grunt work, it didn’t matter, that Piak would be in her corner but outside of the ring to give her advice. What a completely normal “lady problem” as a female fighter! And yet it’s somewhat specialized in that as a Ladyboy, Angie faces difficulty in being taken seriously anyway (more so than cis female fighters, I think), so having someone in her corner who is sexualizing her and kind of exacerbating the “side show” elements, which really ought to be minimized, would be a nightmare. But I too will be in her corner tomorrow. In this way, all the efforts by which I’ve carved out a space for myself at the gym, to the point where my individuation is also a kind of independence (going to fights without a corner, or traveling with just Mod Ek to fights I’ve booked myself), all that I’ve fought to accomplish for myself is immediately important for someone else. My position of being a woman, simply being a woman – and a fighter – brings a piece of solace and authority to an otherwise uncertain corner, in Angie’s first fight. One straight line can indicate a limit, but two lines can then keep order between them. That’s me and Angie in this situation – all I have to do is be there, all that second line has to do is be near that other one, and the borders are set – the energy can flow within the lines of where it’s needed. And that’s pretty fucking awesome.
Check back, and I will update this post with the outcome of her fight.
If you enjoyed this, you can read all of my Muay Thai Gendered Experience articles here.