Fighting for Identity: The Life of a Transgender Kickboxer in Rural Thailand

Fightland Blog

By Lindsey Newhall

Photos by Lindsey Newhall

In her color-coordinated training attire and fashionably fit tops, Rose is easy to spot at her tiny dirt-floor gym in rural Thailand. Her hot pink top clings snugly to her compact, lean torso. Bra straps in a delicate petal pink peer through at the shoulders. Her iridescent satin shorts are customized with her fight name, Rot-Duan, embroidered in gold.

She gingerly wipes the sweat off her brow after her rounds on pads, careful not to smear her painstakingly applied eye makeup. Her twin brother Lak calls her up for clinching. A strong fighter in his own right, Lak treats his sister Rose, younger by only five minutes, like a man during training. He clinches full-force with her, doesn't hold back in sparring, gives her no special consideration based on her displayed gender. Lak's twin sister may wear makeup, giggle delicately, and sport a pink top, but Rose is biologically male. The two were born as twin brothers, and when Rose fights, she fights men.

Eighteen and just out of high school, Rose is approaching her fighting prime. She's racked up an estimated 200 to 300 fights since first stepping into the ring at a tiny seven years old. Everyone in the area knows who she is. Her brother Lak, their older sister Gael (also a talented fighter in the Isaan circuit), and Gael's husband Gaeng, a prolific fighter in Isaan, Bangkok, and even China, laugh that the youngest, shyest sibling is the most famous fighter in the family. Rose laughs along with them, then asks why. "Is it because I'm a good fighter?" she asks. "Or because I'm kathoey?"

Often referred to as a "ladyboy" in English, kathoey (กะเทย) is the Thai term for a transgender person. Also called the "third sex," kathoey enjoy visibility in Thai society. Treatment of trans individuals varies greatly around the country, from basic acceptance and even celebration—some Thai celebrities identify openly as trans—to harsh social and legal discrimination.

As a trans Muay Thai fighter, Rose receives a mixed reception. She's generally treated well in her hometown of Phimai, Nakhon Ratchasima Province (Khorat). "Everyone's nice to me here," she says. "The people in my hometown know me. They respect me as a fighter." She has friends, fans, and a supportive family.

Outside her home base, however, things change. Some fighters have refused to step in the ring with Rose. Even opponents who significantly outweigh her have turned down fights. Sometimes it's clearly a result of her gender identity, but other times, Rose isn't sure why opponents turn down fights. "I don't know if they say no to the fight because they hear I'm a good fighter, or because I'm kathoey," she says. "My opponent and I will usually see each other for the first time an hour or two before a fight. Sometimes, whoever I'm matched up against will take a look at me and then refuse to fight."

No one refuses to fight her when she's at home in Phimai, Khorat. The gamblers love her. They know her style—calm and cool under pressure, excellent in the clinch. Some gamblers follow her around the fight circuit outside Phimai, hoping to cash in on other gamblers' tendency to underestimate her.

"Sometimes I get made fun of when I enter the ring," Rose says. "If the gamblers haven't seen me fight, they make of me. Then they shut up once I start fighting. The gamblers who know me will find someone who is making fun of me and say, 'Oh, you don't believe in her? Then I'll take a bet against you.'"

Reactions from her opponents are also all over the board. She's been kissed on the cheek during clinching, or when touching gloves at the start of the fight. The mid-clinch kisses make her uncomfortable. It gets worse when they start talking to her. "When we're in the clinch, they'll ask me if I like it, say how close we are and that we've been clinching a long time."

Verbal communication between fighters is not uncommon in a Muay Thai fight—one fighter may quietly concede to the other when it's clear a loss on points is inevitable. But sexualized comments in the clinch are a burden very few fighters report enduring. Rose tries to ignore the comments and unwanted kisses, psychological tactics that make her shy, embarrassed, and angry.

Sometimes it's not the opponent who makes disrespectful comments. Rose has heard announcers engage the roaring crowd during her fights, laughing about her style or her motivations in clinching. "I am so embarrassed when they talk about me like that," she says. "It makes me not want to clinch. But I'm a clinch fighter, so I have to. That's what I do."

No matter how uncomfortable the audience or announcer or her opponents make her feel, she jumps into the final rounds with a sharp concentration. After 10 years of fighting and over 200 fights to her name, she knows how to compartmentalize. As a fighter who often wins on points, she rushes into the fourth and fifth rounds to snag up the other boxer, going hard for the win. And she often wins.

Victory presents another kaleidoscopic range of responses from her opponents. "Sometimes they don't respect me when I beat them. You're supposed to show each other respect after a fight." To illustrate, she puts up her hands in the Thai gesture of respect known as the wai. "But not all of them will wai me. It doesn't matter, though. I will wai all my opponents, the ones who beat me, the ones I beat. Even the ones who don't wai me back."

Not all her opponents are dismissive or rude. Rose has had many boxers come up to her after the fight and congratulate her on her performance in the ring. Opponents' corners and coaches also compliment her, tell her they admire her and hope to see her at fights in the future. Some opponents even exchange contact information after the fight and keep in touch over Facebook or the phone.

Rose was in high school when she started taking hormones. The pills had been simple enough for her to buy, despite her young age. She and a female high school friend descended upon a pharmacy in their hometown in rural Thailand and easily acquired a pack of pills the pharmacist normally sold to women looking to prevent pregnancy. It didn't matter to the pharmacist that Rose and her friend were only 14-years-old.

Rose had wanted to try hormones ever since her friend Gawt, an older kathoey in her high school, had recommended them to her. Gawt told her she'd see changes in her body once she started the pills. "You'll get softer, more feminine-looking," she said. "You'll be beautiful."

The bottles of hormones ranged from USD $5 to $10, normally 30 pills to a bottle. Rose prescribed herself two to six pills a day, depending on the effect she wanted. She loved how the pills made her feel, more feminine just like Gawt had said.

The only problem was what the pills did to Rose's training. She put on weight, suffered a loss of endurance, strength, and power. These changes weren't something Gawt had warned her about. Unlike Rose, Gawt wasn't a Muay Thai fighter.

She kept her coaches in the dark about her use of hormones. At only 14 or 15 years old, Rose was still in a relatively light-weight class. She was able to keep taking hormones and fighting, so long as she stopped the pills a week before a fight.

Eventually she gave up the hormones entirely. Her fights became more frequent and for higher stakes. She moved up weight classes, where both she and her opponents were approaching their full adult musculature. Her coaches found her high-level matches in Bangkok. She quietly stopped making trips to the pharmacy. The pills and their desired feminine effects would have to wait.

Trans fighters like Rose are rare; she herself knows of only three or four other active trans fighters. It's a small circuit, though, and sometimes their paths cross in the ring. Two years ago, she faced a trans fighter named Bubae in an event in a military camp in Khorat. Rose had been struck by how femininely Bubae had walked and presented herself before the fight, though all that was stripped away once the bell rang.

Bubae was tough. It had been a highly anticipated fight among the gamblers present. The fighters' gyms threw down a considerable side bet. After a full five rounds, it was Rose, a reliable clinch fighter with high-scoring knees, who won on points.

After the fight, Rose and Bubae became Facebook friends. They kept in touch, discussed their fight careers and supported each other. Rose learned Bubae was saving up for a nose job. When she was able to afford it, Bubae decided to retire from boxing. 

Despite her male build and relatively short hair, Rose is easy to spot at the gym—her clothing sets her apart. A few years ago, she took to wearing tops to all her fights. Though still biologically male, Rose refuses to fight shirtless. This attitude has affected her career—she's turned down matches at Lumpinee, Rajadamnern, and Channel 7, all major Bangkok stadia where contenders must fight shirtless and with short hair. Outside those venues, however, finding events with a more relaxed dress code is not difficult. When fighting in her home region of Isaan, the northeastern area of Thailand known for producing the majority of Thai boxers, she can wear what she likes. Even certain stadia in Bangkok, like Omnoi Stadium, allow her the freedom of personal expression. News channels where there to film as she, a trans fighter in full makeup and wearing a feminine top, jumped into the ring. She went over the top rope like a man, not under the bottom rope as her biologically female counterparts would.

Despite jumping over the top rope when entering the ring, Rose considers herself, "a woman, or kathoey, but definitely not a man." She walks and dresses and speaks in a manner befitting her identity. She once had a "boyfriend," someone she talked to on Facebook messenger her freshman year of high school, but their online relationship petered out after a while. She giggled with her high school friends about wanting to date a fellow Muay Thai fighter someday. "But I don't want him to be too handsome," she said, "or else he'll be a player. Any man who is handsome is definitely a player!" Her friends asked if she liked any of the fighters she'd met, or if they liked her. She said she thought some might be interested, but so far nothing had ever happened.

In her years of fighting, Rose has become something of a local celebrity. She has a small army of fans, many of whom are other trans people, that follows her from fight to fight. Most of them are older, in their twenties or thirties. Rose smiles when she talks about them. "I have a lot of fans," she says. "They come and help me. They research my opponents and give me advice about them, though most of them aren't fighters." Her cheering section whenever she fights in her hometown is deafening.

Her fans support her, and also give her a sense of how her life could progress in the future. Some of her friends have undergone gender reassignment surgery, something Rose is strongly considering after her fight career. But major surgery is a long way off. Rose is taking smaller steps toward achieving her idea form—now that she's graduated high school, she's able to grow her hair as long as she likes. She has a strong set of friends who accept her, and her family is fiercely loyal and protective. It's these fans, friends, siblings and parents, all her advocates, who make the sting of rejection, even in a country as relatively progressive as Thailand, a little easier to bear. In the ring and out, Rose continues to fight.

Thai-English interpretation by Frances Watthanaya.


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