© Dan White/Richard S. Ehrlich. No repro without permission.
Chiang Mai 1998. A beefy youth of 21 has just been rendered unconscious. Dropped by an elbow to the neck, the blood supply to his brain has been cut and he lies flat on the deck as the referee counts him out of the fight.
His opponent flutters his eye lashes, checks his make ups, giggles lightly and blows a kiss to the thugs in the audience who have betted that this butterfly of a man would be beaten to a pulp by the local Kickboxing champion. In the world in general one should never judge a book by its cover and in the world of Thai kickboxing it is a mistake that may take a grave toll on your physical health. Even if your opponent is a transvestite who, when not beating your brains out, is most likely to be having his legs waxed or singing sad karaoke songs of unrequited love about men who just don’t care. Parinya Kiatbusaba took the world of kickboxing by storm, but his real aim was, quite simply, to be a woman.
As a male he began kickboxing at the age of twelve. By1998 he was a national champion. He hit the headlines when as teenager he was about to fight – and win – his first major bout in Lumpini Stadium – the global home of Thai kickboxing. When the doctors told him he had to strip for the weigh-in to confirm he physically qualified as a male; Parinya started to sob with humiliation. The emotional turmoil obviously stiffened his resolve. He proceeded to win the fight hands down and endeared himself to the nation by kissing his opponent in commiseration.
Five years on Parinya sways into the room dressed in a glittering ball gown. It has been a long road. At a 174 centimetres (5-foot, 8-inches) and sporting a statuesque figure of 37-27-37 he is now a she. Though hugely successful in the ring, for Parinya a life of personal sadness always distanced him from the innate violence of his chosen profession. A means to an end, fame simply became a way to flower as his true self. He suffered as a winner, but the winning made her free.
Now at peace with herself Parinya gave up boxing when she crossed the gender divide. She may have stopped fighting in the ring, but her new fight is to bring tolerance, pride and understanding to a part of society that is often misunderstood and persecuted. Like Lady Diana, Parinya is a passionate advocate for humanity and tolerance.
Even as a boxer, Parinya tried to qualify the violence with gentility. “The reason I kissed men after a fight is because it was my way of apologizing, and telling the guy, It is not that I hate you, it is just a sport, and I’m sorry that I have to do it.”
Boxing, Buddhism and the biology of gender profoundly influenced Parinya’s life. “In my next life, I want to be born as a real man in my heart and soul because now, in this life, I was born with the body of a man but with the heart of a woman.” He always knew that he was not really a boy.
“When I was young, whenever I saw a young girl I thought, ‘How come I’m not like her?’ I was fond of good-looking boys. But I don’t want to be reborn as a woman because it is much harder to be a woman than to be a man, I call myself a ‘sau prapet-song’, which translates as a ‘second-type of woman’.”
When Parinya was still a fighter he was famous for wearing make up in the ring. Before a fight each boxer performs a dance individual to themselves. Parinya’s was elegant and camp. He mimed putting on make up and adjusting his frock. He gestured imploringly to the audience as their patience wore thin. Gently teasing the macho crowd that gathers to watch Muay Thai in fields and car parks across the land was a courageous thing to do. Kickboxing is the sport of farmers and working men. His teasing paid off. The audiences loved him. When Parinya kissed male opponents at the end of boxing bouts, audiences went wild. “I was able to wear make-up while boxing, nobody stopped me. I wore foundation, powder, lipstick and so on. When I first started boxing, I used only a little bit, like eyebrow liner and a light lipstick so people didn’t really notice, though I knew I looked better with it on. Later, when everybody knew, I could put on a lot.”
Affectionately nicknamed ‘Nong Toom’ by Thais, she has broken new ground for transvestites and transsexuals in a society where many people claim to be sexually conservative while simultaneously tolerating widespread prostitution and alternative sexual lifestyles. Thai TV often includes transvestites in soap operas, comedies and talk shows though they are usually portrayed in absurd slapstick or as lonely characters. Liberal Bangkok officials allow an annual “gay pride” parade in the Thai capital. Parinya, however, said she was never gay. “I don’t understand about being gay. Do gay men want to be a man or a woman? Because if they want to be a woman, how come they work out and make themselves look more like a man? And if a person is a man, why do they like someone else who is the same gender? For me, I’m sure who I am. I’m now a transsexual. I always wanted to be a woman. I’ve always been a woman in my heart and I want everything about me, physically, to be a woman. It is not the same as being gay.”
In Thailand, a transsexual or transvestite is known as a ‘katoy’. No one knows how many there are, but some estimates suggest 10,000 katoys live and work in this Southeast Asian country, often as prostitutes but also as white-collar executives, artists, actors, models, cooks and in other professions. Transsexuals and transvestites are often mocked and feared, however, because some drug and rob clients in seedy sex scams or are quick to create loud public scenes. “People mostly accepted me being a transvestite, maybe more than they accepted other transvestites, because I’ve always been a very good person, polite and helpful to my friends. So even though they knew I was like this, they treated me like a friend. Even my parents accepted me because I would help them earn money and never do bad things.”
In the boxing ring, some opponents hit Parinya with verbal abuse.”Some Thai kick-boxers said very hurtful things, like I am ‘just a transvestite’. So I would say, Even though I’m a transvestite, I can fight. And I’m famous.’ But they would say, ‘Well, you are only famous because you are a transvestite’.” Once knocked out and winded his opponents would generally come round to seeing things Parinya’s way.
“I do not have any injuries. I really protect myself and I kick the others before they can kick me. I’m known for kicking really hard and knocking people out.”
Parinya is no longer allowed to fight in Thailand although there are still opportunities for her in the ring elsewhere. “I received some offers from America and Japan to fight.”
She insists her future, however, will now focus on “modeling, acting and singing.” Despite Parinya’s feminine appearance, she still speaks in a man’s voice because she did not have her Adam’s apple removed or voice box altered, and she makes no effort to conceal her bass tone. “I didn’t know that type of operation existed, but I am going to do that soon.”
Despite all the success and adulation Parinya’s heart is broken. Her boyfriend abandoned her last year. “Nature makes man to be with a real woman, so it probably will never work out for a man to be with me. I cannot give a man everything like a woman can. For example, I can’t give him a child. I don’t really know what a man wants from a woman. And I don’t know if I’m really a woman now, because I don’t really know how a real woman feels. But whatever I can give a man, I will give.”