A fellow go-go dancer once told me that I needed to create a new name for myself, something feminine that would be easy on foreigners’ ears. ‘Mali’ is what I came up with. It means jasmine, a little white flower with a sweet scent. I was hoping the dainty word would add to my charm and take me one step further from the buffalo herder I used to be.
I’m a prostitute, but not a victim. If you entered the bar where I work, you would see ‘real’ women—worn-out, stretch-marked mothers weary of men and of life. And then you would see me: smiling, vivacious, positively shining with the joy of being a woman, even if I have to hide my genitalia to be one.
One of my earliest recollections is of my mother bringing me to live with my grandparents and a collection of aunts before I was six years old. To me, they are my real family. I don’t know who my father is, but it doesn’t bother me in the least. I vaguely remember that my mother had short hair, and wore a shirt and pants, unlike other women who had long hair, and wore sleeveless blouses and colourful sarongs. When I asked my grandmother (my ya) why my mae looked so different from other women she said that Mae wanted me to have a father figure. But Mae wasn’t around enough to instil masculinity in me; she was living with a female partner and pouring her time and energy into that relationship.
People sometimes ask me what made me what I am today. Growing up with no father and a mostly absent lesbian mother would be the easy answer, but I honestly don’t blame them. I was born to be a ladyboy just as sure as I was born in poverty-stricken Isan. There, in the northeast region of Thailand, my family have been farmers for many generations. If I’d had any masculinity to begin with, I was certainly given every opportunity to develop it. My family trained me to become a farmer and do manly things, but I showed my femininity from an early age. While other boys used banana stalks as imaginary horses, I tore the leaves into strips and wore them as a skirt. As far back as I can remember, friends and neighbours have called me a kathoey, and I willingly accepted the label. I can’t imagine a different identity.