Thais, or South-East Asians in general, make eerily convincing transvestites. Their slight builds and smooth faces are a recipe for success.
I saw a particularly stunning transvestite as I waited under the palm tree. His silicone breasts were perfectly formed and he had hips to die for. The only thing to betray his gender was his gold lamé dress – a bit too showy to be worn by a Thai girl on a stroll down Chaweng.
He was carrying a backgammon set under his arm, and as he slunk past he asked if I wanted to play a game.
‘No thanks,’ I replied with neurotic haste.
‘Why?’ he wanted to know. ‘I think maybe you afrai’ I win.’
I nodded.
‘OK. Maybe you wan’ play in bed?’ He tugged at the long slit up the side of the dress revealing fabulous legs. ‘Maybe in bed I le’ you win…’
‘No thanks,’ I said again, blushing slightly.
He shrugged and continued walking along the beach. A couple of beach huts down somebody took him up on the backgammon offer. Curious, I tried to see who, but they were blocked by the trunk of a leaning coconut tree. A few minutes later I looked back and he was gone. I guessed he’d found his punter.
Étienne appeared not long after, beaming.
‘Hey, Richard,’ he said. ‘Did you see the girl walking this way?’
‘With a lamé dress?’
‘Yes! My God she was so beautiful!’
‘She was.’
‘Anyway, Richard. Come to the restaurant.’ He reached out a hand and hauled me up. ‘I think we have a boat to take us to the marine park.’

That is an extract from Alex Garland’s brilliantly heady novel, The Beach. I love the book so much that I’m willing to forgive him this silly scene (the start of a chapter called ‘TV Heaven’). I do, however, think it gives insight on how people, straight men in particular, see trans women – in this case, as one of many symbols for the Otherness of the eerie eastern backpack trail.

A quick Google search defines transvestite as: “A person, usually a man, who enjoys wearing clothes normally worn by people of the opposite sex”. I wonder how an intelligent and talented writer such as Garland didn’t explore his choice of words more carefully. Flaubert would have.

Perhaps I’m being overly harsh. Garland wrote The Beach in the mid 90s, while the trans community itself was split on matters of language. Terminology remains a complex and unresolved issue but there is, now, broad agreement on many terms. (See Trans Media Watch’s Style Guide.) It’s also true that Thailand views trans people differently than the West does, with trans female identities leaning towards a more fluid, third gender grouping. Even so, I’m surprised he chose to call someone with breast implants a transvestite. I’m sure there are genderqueer exceptions, and perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but don’t breasts showcased in gold lamé generally suggest a female identity?

And what’s all this about “betray his gender”? Don’t you know, Alex – sex is what’s between your legs, while gender resides betwixt yer ears? Did male pronouns really seem like the right choice? I’ve said it before: the public make no meaningful distinction between the myriad trans identities that we in the community have come to know and cherish. As Roz Kaveney observes in the début issue of META magazine, that’s why you fight for the rights of all trans people – because portrayals of cross-dressers and drag queens affect transsexual people too.

Note, also, that pesky deception-meme, revealing itself, again, like a slip of thigh from a lamé slit. A similar scene appears in the third season of Californication:

Another trans woman sex-object, with no name and no story; seductive, but honest this time. Note, though, her simpering gratefulness to lovely and liberal (as we are led to believe) protagonist Hank Moody after he congratulates her on such a wonderfully convincing deception – “You totally pass for a lady.” Thanks, Hank, that sure makes up for your friend’s violence! In his defence, Hank does suggest that the lady in question is a human being… an educational point, no doubt, for many viewers.

I’m looking forward to Hit and Miss, the new Sky Atlantic drama about a trans woman assassin. You may well groan at the thought of another trans lady going around killing people but I’ve read the initial script and, though it was problematic in areas, Chloë Sevigny’s lead character is more nuanced than you might expect. For a start, she’s not a sex worker. Makes a change, huh?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off for some “seduction and backgammon”.

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  1. Love this Paris, and I love your words “know and cherish”.

    This shows me, personally that the community is beginning to develop and own itself in a very positive, nuanced way and this can only be good. Betraying one’s gender though is slightly sad, especially coming from a writer. Yes it was the 90’s but still……

    Anyway just my thoughts.


  2. Scribble Imp says:

    Nice to see the, “sort of” progress being made on the media portrayal of trans people. I’ve began looking into the way they are portrayed in western videogames. To be honest it’s pretty rare except for Eastern games. Videogame culture has troubles with representing LGBT as a whole let alone trans people.

    I look forward to future posts on the subject.

    • ParisLees says:

      Thank you! You should do a blog about that, sounds interesting. Not an area I really know much about. Coincidentally, The Beach features video game culture (albeit that of the 80s and early 90s). It’s a great read, I highly recommend it.

      • Scribble Imp says:

        I’m going to try writing about it on my blig that I normally use for art work. Mainly I’m driven to do it because I’m looking to get into the games industry right now and I’m considering what their general feelings are towards trans people. Also hopefully it will help feed ideas into my webcomic development featuring (but not exclusively) trans themes.
        I’ll have a look at The Beach. If your interested keep an eye on ny blog. Hopefully something will appear soon.

  3. k8bit says:

    I do, however, find it odd that the series makers put out advertising in and out of trans circles for a “pre-op transsexual” – in itself a pretty odd thing to do – for the main character, then went with a cis actress in the end anyway.

    Now, my own opinion was that a professional actress who was willing to do their research was better than a trans non professional actress (unless there was an openly out trans actress willing to put themselves further out there, who also happened to be good at acting!) maybe what they should have advertised for was trans-consultants?

    You were involved with this produ tips at some point weren’t you, Paris?

  4. Kirsty says:

    Sign me up as follower number 70….. I’m also a subscriber to your magazine, digital publishing is great as I get my copy in South East Asia without the postal delays.

    Time for some retail therapy in Manilas trendy malls 🙂

  5. misswonderly says:

    I wish I shared your confidence in Hit or Miss. Nuanced it may be but there’s still the basic problem of why the hit woman was conceived as trans in the first place unless for reasons of sensationalism and prurience?

    I haven’t read The Beach although I saw the movie. The scene you describe points up an interesting intersection between cisgenderism and orientalism [as described by Edward Said ] and the ‘subaltern’ status of trans people

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