One of the best parts of traveling is encountering different cultures, beliefs, and ways of seeing the world. It can be amazing to see new things, eat unfamiliar foods, and try things you have never done before.
But what happens when you come face to face with something that makes you uncomfortable, scared, or even angry?
When I went to Thailand, I asked myself this question. For many, the population of “lady boys” and other gender expressions in Thailand has been a topic of intrigue and awe. But for me, witnessing different views was a valuable lesson on how to me a respectful traveler.
When I told people that I was traveling to Thailand, I got many of the same reactions and questions over and over.
“You’re going alone?”
“I’m so jealous!”
“Say hi to the monkeys for me!”
Almost everyone had showed their support for me, despite their fears that I would kidnapped, killed, or worse (after spending a month with mostly European backpackers I’m starting to think these fears are an American thing, but that’s beside the point}.
They wanted me to have a good time, see cool things, and live to tell the tale.
But one question that came up that seemed to rub me the wrong way was…
“Are you gonna see some lady boys?”
To which I simply said, “Yeah, probably”.
And I left it at that.
Because the unspoken concern behind that question wasn’t actually whether I would GET to see a lady boy or not, but whether I would feel uncomfortable if I did. The answer to that is simply, no.
Unfortunately, many people see the idea of gender expression outside of the male or female binary as something bizarre, deviant, and even wrong.
In the United States. we are still struggling to support laws that protect people of all orientations and genders from harassment and secure for them the basic human rights everyone is entitled to. The fact that this is still up for debate shows that many people have negative views of people who express themselves outside of typical female (feminine) and male (masculine) roles.
In reality, many cultures are much more accepting of those who may be transgender or identify with another gender altogether.
To clarify, transgender refers to someone who has transitioned from one gender to another.
A third gender, beyond male and female, is a non-binary identity. This is a concept outside of most Western understanding, as a lot of people assume individuals who are outside of the male or female boxes to be “transgender”.
Third gender categories are often referred to another name in the native language. The lack of Western vocabulary for a third gender often causes outsiders to equate it those who are “trans”, but that is not necessarily the case.
For example, one of my caring and patient readers told me that in Thailand there are actually two genders beyond male and female: the Kathoey and Phuyin. The “Kathoey are sometimes referred to as Ladyboys but are seen in Thailand as a third gender. Phuying women are binary transgender women.” Those outside of Thai culture may not be aware of this distinction.
You can see how projecting one culture’s beliefs onto another could get confusing.
Unfortunately, many people go beyond that and assert that their beliefs are the correct ones. This can often lead to arguments and even violence.
If someone comes to another culture with preconceived notions of how things are “supposed” to be, they are bringing with them an mentality that is detrimental to both their own enriching experience, and the sanctity of another culture’s beliefs.
This idea is doesn’t only pertain to seeing “ladyboys” in Thailand, though.
It applies to travel in any part of the world, for the key to being a respectful traveler is simply respect.
Here is how I chose to be a respectful traveler.
When I chose to travel across the world to immerse myself in another culture, I knew with that came a certain level of responsibility.
Though one point of travel may be to see the many famous sites to cross them off your bucket list, another should be to expand your view of the world and realize that there are many perspectives, customs, and beliefs beyond your own.
People often experience internal conflict with this because may see something that they have been raised their whole lives to think of as wrong. It can be tempting to speak out against it and even try to argue with the local people on why they should see it from your point of view.
When experiencing these feelings, it is really important to pause and reflect.
To be a respectful traveler, first think about whether the belief or behavior exploits are harms other people. If it doesn’t, you have no basis to speak out about it as a violation of fundamental human rights… you just simply don’t like it because of cultural or personal difference.
A good rule of thumb is to ask local people why the believe what they do, what the history is behind their belief, and what meaning it holds for them. It may be something of importance to them, and they may even have practical reasons for believing this way. Having these conversations can be a valuable learning experience and may open your eyes to a different perspective.
Remember, it is never the responsibility of a minority individual to “educate” you on their experience.
For example, in some parts of the world, people can be killed for expressing a gender identity outside of the male/female binary. No one one is ever required to “out” themselves to teach you about gender, race, orientation, etc. Some aspects of a person’s identity may be an object of discrimination for others, and it is simply too risky for them to express themselves in that way to a complete stranger. If you want to learn more, feel free to find more resources about the topic on your own, or those who volunteer to tell you about their own experience.
To ultimately answer the question, I did see lady boys in Thailand. I saw them walking along the street in Bangkok as any regular person would, working at massage parlors and hair salons, passing out flyers at clubs, and buying produce at the markets.
I didn’t have any negative interactions with them.
And I never heard a single word of disrespect from a Thai person regarding lady boys.
The only negative comments I heard were from tourists and backpackers. And that taught me something.
That despite none of them actually having a negative interaction with a lady boy, they still held stereotypes, fears, and disgust in their minds…
Stereotypes that ran in stark opposition to how the Thai people actually saw these forms of gender expression in their own culture.
That was not a mentality that I wanted to have plague my trip.
Having a general respect for other people has allowed me to learn more, make more friends on the road, avoid conflict, and ultimately have a great time traveling.
So even as I saw foods that buy Western standards would be considered bizarre (like fried scorpions, fish-sauce-flavored everything, and that lovely fruit, durian)
and saw customs and experiences that I couldn’t relate to (like whitening creams, interacting with monks, and living in one room with my entire family),
I wasn’t “freaked out” by any of it.
I chose to be a respectful traveler to other people and beliefs, and I received that respect in return.
No one forced me to eat a fried scorpion (even though I considered it).
I could work on my tan all I wanted.
And I got used to the smell of durian after a while.
In my eyes, to travel abroad and learn nothing is a waste.
But to travel abroad and disrespect the local culture is a violation.
Sure, everyone has their fears, insecurities, and beliefs. You are allowed to be “freaked out”.
But perhaps you may want to rethink why you feel that way.
Difference doesn’t have to be a scary thing. It can be a beautiful thing.
The best way to live, learn, and have a great time abroad is to be a respectful traveler.
Otherwise, why step foot out your front door?