I think one of the hardest things to deal with in life would be to know that your whole life is a lie. Everyday, every moment, to everyone, telling lies to hide who you really are. Never able to be yourself but in the privacy of your own home, and even there one must be careful. No, I’m not talking about politicians here, but transgenders. You are born one sex but in your heart you know that is not what you are. For some they know from the earliest age, having tendencies that were more feminine, while others just felt a certain wrongness with their life, and came out later in life. In some cultures this is more accepted, but there is still ignorance and discrimination in the most tolerant cultures.
My introduction to transgenders was when I first moved to Philly. I lived above Bob and Barbara’s bar for six years, listening to constant drunken revelry that went on there. To this day Bob and Barbara’s is my favorite bar in Philadelphia. It has an oval bar in the center, with an angled red cushion so drunks could lean over the bar and sip their drinks. Every inch of the walls are covered with Pabst Blue Ribbon memorabilia. They have old signage, beer orders, advertising, clocks, and just about anything you could think of related to PBR. Jack, the owner is obsessed with PBR, and invented the Philly Special there, which is a shot of Jim Beam and a PBR for three bucks. At this long bar you will find people from all walks of life, and it would not be out of character for the bar to have an old black lady sipping her gin talking to a hipster about the old days,while a businessman is enjoying his after work beer. Gay or straight, young or old, rich or poor, they are all welcomed here.
Like all good bars there are different themed nights, Monday and Friday the house rocks to jazz, ping-pong Wednesdays, and soul food Sundays. But the most famous night here is Thursday night, Liza Liza’s drag show. By far the most popular night, it’s not uncommon to be wall to wall people smooshed together. Some of my best memories are from hanging out with friends there partying like rock stars. Liza has been doing the show for about twenty years now, and still draws in huge crowds. A drag show is when men dress as woman and sing or dance or pantomime some songs. It’s all done in good character and a lot of fun. Not all the performers are transgender or gay, some just like to put on a good show. She would always bring people in the audience to dance or interview, and would usually pick on any of my friends if I asked her to. I’ve seen friends plop down on the floor refusing to be dragged up while others practically got naked on the stage. My favorite instance is when my friends dad ended up on the stage doing a very risqué dance, and pulling his trowsers up and down in some 1960’s dance move showing his whitey tighties. Of course many specials were had that night.
Living above the bar for so many years, I got to know Liza a bit, and we became friends. So at the bar once I asked her, well, if she had the operation, and if her breasts were real or not. I was really ignorant at the time of transgenders, and curious what it entailed I guess, and why she would choose this lifestyle. She told it in her very lispy feminine voice, that yes her boobs were real. She had taken all kinds of hormones to grow them out and that I could feel them if I want. So I did, and not only were they pretty big, but felt pretty damn real too. I had no idea at this time that was even possible. As far as the operation goes, she informed me that most transexuals don’t have very big cocks, and for the operation you need a large penis to build a vagina out of. So for her she felt it would be pointless. At this point I have to say I just thought of her as a novelty, someone different, but I really did not think much else about it. She was a show woman, and so comfortable in her own skin that I never thought of how hard the process must have been on her and also how hard a decision it was to go through these treatments.
I did not really think of this till a good friend of mine decided to go through with it. I had been friends with this guy for over ten years, had worked with him on projects, partied with him, and traveled with him. I can say he never had any feminine qualities about him that I saw, in fact, maybe a bit on the over masculine, curse a lot, talk about wrestling and drunken brawls, and chicks a lot, which was really always a topic of conversation for all of us. I never got gay vibes from him or any kind of vibes. I had not seen him for a few years because he had moved to Europe to work, but we stayed in email contact and occasional phone calls. Some of our common friends thought he had gotten into really hard drugs, and were worried about him, but I figured he just needed to get away, which seeing how you are reading my travel blog, you know I totally understand.
I happened to be in Europe and got a chance to meet up. My first impression was holy shit, he had lost a lot of weight. His hair was a lot longer, and he did seem a little strung out. But as always he was a good host, taking us to some great restaurants and bars. Just like old times, we got into a bit of trouble with some enormous looking locals who just wanted to fight, us being the target, but we got out of that unharmed by leaving the bar while they were in the bathroom. So to me he was the same as ever, and we had a great night catching up. After an Olympic night of drinking, I asked him what he was really doing out here. He looked me in the face and told me that he only had two sets of dude clothes.
Blank look on my face, always being the quick one that I am. What else do you wear? Woman’s clothes. Well my draw dropped to the ground, and I pretty much told him to get the fuck out of here. Well, he was dead serious. To prove it we went back and looked at all these pictures of him as a woman. I was floored, but drunk enough to take it all in my stride. After all, I did live above Bob and Barbara’s for years. The next morning I was incredibly hung over, eating breakfast with him and Yvonne, I asked him if he was relieved to have told me. He said it was like a massive weight coming off his shoulders, and that I was the first person from his old life that he told. Till that moment, I was not sure if I had dreamed it all.
No more of the pronoun game, for now on I will use She and Her because that is what she is. Having a friend come out to me really made me think about the concept of being transgender, and what a tough decision it must be. It was no longer a novelty like the drag show at Bob and Barbara’s. She told me how she had hidden from everyone in her life how she felt. She would dress as a woman only in her own house, and not even her family knew. Till that point she had been living a lie her whole life. Beyond all the mental anguish that goes along with it, there is the very physical pain that she must go through to transform herself into a woman.
For someone who wants to change their sex, there are different levels, from hormone treatments to the very painful surgeries. The hormones do all kinds of things to their body, beyond mood swings, there are all kinds of health risk involved with messing with your body’s chemical make up. There are higher chances of cancer among other things. Then lets not even get into the surgeries, breast implants, adam’s apple shaving, collagen implants, nose jobs, butt implants, to the ultimate, altering the penis into a vagina. Now I had my nose broken in a fight once, so the doctor had to go in, open my septum, and reset my nose. The surgery and recovery were the most painful things I had ever experienced, I felt like I was drowning on my own blood and for days my pillow was soaked. I would rather be punched in the face again, than go through surgery. (Before any one else chimes in, I have been slugged numerous more times since then, I’m a bit of a pacifist with little dog attitude). But my little nose surgery was nothing compared to what they are getting done, and their pain and suffering probably is tenfold compared to my little nose job.
Ok, so this is a travel blog, so what does this have to do with traveling. Thanks for asking. We are now in Thailand, a country that is synonymous with transgendered, or the lady boys. In every major town there are the Lady Boy shows, cabarets, or even massage parlors. But not only in the entertainment or sex industry, but throughout asia it’s more accepting to the transgendered, or at least on the surface. We’ve met many woman along the road, working all kinds of jobs from tourism, beauty salon, to buffalo herder. In Koh Sumui there are numerous cabaret shows ,the performers go on stage, sing and dance, and even have members of the audience come up and dress in elaborate costumes. On the streets at night, things get really crazy, where all the bars, strip clubs, and massage parlors pour out on the street.
The Thai term for them is kathoey, which usually means an effeminate male, not just a transsexual. To all appearances Thai people are very excepting of Lady Boys, but there are still treated like a lesser class. The government will not allow them to change their sex on their id’s, which make’s it very hard for them to travel. It also makes it difficult for them to get jobs. When you show up as a woman but your license says male, it already leaves kind of dishonest feel, which hurts the job process. There are some companies that are more open-minded, but not that many. It seems odd to me that a country that seems so open still won’t change their laws. I read a great book called Lady Boys. the Third Gender that interviews numerous Thai transsexuals, and really lets you see them for the ladies they are. It’s a heartfelt biography of their stories. They interview everyone from street workers, stewardesses, dancers, and even a Muay Thai boxer.
On the street in Vientiane we had some street walkers that worked our corner of our hotel every night. Seeing how we were staying there every night we casually chatted. Of course they were always extra friendly when Yvonne was not around. One night they were doing their thing and we were having a beer at our restaurant when I started sketching them. The one girl noticed and came over to peek over my shoulder, then let out a loud series of giggles and started posing. After doing a few sketches of her and her friend, I asked if I could interview them for my blog. I am no Walter Conkrite, that is for sure. For one, their English was not very good, and two, when Yvonne left me to take a call they started pantomiming various sexual acts instead of answering my questions. I suppose it did not help that I was blushing when it got to the real sensitive questions, about family, how they came out, if they had gone through operations or hormone treatments and things like that. In the end, I thanked them for their time and trying to answer my questions. Than I asked them if maybe they could not make so much noise getting customers after one a.m., because they kept waking me up. And you know what, they did.