Tom, a shortened form of the English word tomboy, is, in the Thai language, a woman who dresses and acts like a stereotypical man. In the popular Thai conception, tom are women who have the hearts of men, and who thus perform the role of their gendered hearts rather than their anatomical bodies. The male equivalent are known as kathoey.
The gendered heart does not completely determine gender performance, however, which can exhibit an amazing plasticity, often over the course of a single day. A tom who lived in my compound in Chiang Mai bound her breasts, had her hair cropped short and never wore make-up; at home she donned a man's singlet and shorts. But she was pragmatic too: six days a week she put on her uniform, a pink skirt suit, to go across the compound to work in the offices of our landlord, a Christian organization. I don't know how this particular woman was treated at work, but take it a testament to Thai tolerance that she remained in her apartment, and her job, for the year I was living there. In general I found sanctions against gender-crossers in Thailand mild by western standards: amusement, avoidance, disapproval, but never hatred or violence.
I had first become aware of tom rather early in my stay in Thailand, when I was living in Bangkok. I was invited to a birthday party by a Thai friend, and found that the host and guests were all female. My friend, the host, pointed out that most of the women were in couples made up of a tom and a dee. (Dee derives from the English word “lady”.) The dee had long hair, make-up, and feminine clothes, as many smart young city women do in Thailand: their gender fit dominant expectations. The tom had short hair, jeans, shirts with collars, no make-up, masculine body language: they were gender crossers. My friend obligingly went around the table for me, labelling the women tom, dee, tom, dee, though I didn't have much trouble telling them apart. After that, I started looking more closely at people in public places and discovered a substantial number of gender-crossers of both sexes who at first glance “passed” remarkably well for the gender they performed; often only voice pitch gave them away. Gender-crossing is more common in urban areas - one woman told me it was “fashion” in Bangkok - but I have seen men with make-up, long hair, and feminine attire in tiny villages in the countryside in Thailand as well as in the Philippines. I have not noticed female gender-crossers in such settings.
Tom and dee are not indigenous gender categories of long standing, as the English derivation of the labels suggests. Visitors to Siam in previous centuries noted that men and women dressed similarly in a sarong and sometimes a cloth about the chest and wore their hair short; from behind, it was difficult to tell the sexes apart. By the late nineteenth century the elite began wearing western clothing, but styles for commoners, particularly in rural areas, did not change substantially until the mid twentieth century. In the 1940s Prime Minister Phibun Songkram, concerned that Thailand appear “civilized” in the international arena, engaged in an aggressive campaign to suggest, then legislate, that people wear western-derived dress: pants or shorts, shirts, and hats for men, skirts and blouses for women. A postering campaign admonished people not to go out “in public or on the street” with upper bodies bare or “wearing only undergarments”; women were instructed to wear their hair long and not to carry things on their heads. Though the government-legislated dress code was criticized at the time, it has had a lasting impact on Thai fashion. Ironically, this transformation of sumptuary custom must have allowed tom to publicly express their gender in the ways they do, for the dress and hairstyles they adopt are thoroughly modern.
I originally interpreted tom and dee to be “real” lesbians retrogressively mimicking heterosexual norms, and wrote in my journal after the birthday party, “How are they different from lesbians except in their dress?” I celebrated the appearance of these apparent lesbians, even if they cast themselves in what I viewed at the time as the outdated mode of butch-femme. In popular Thai thinking, however, these women, and their male counterparts, are not homosexuals at all; they are people, like any other, who have a “natural” attraction to the opposite gender, with the startling implication that tom, like dee, are just “normal” women who fall in love with someone of the opposite gender. For the dee, the object of their affections could as easily be a biological male as a female. However, several people told me that tom and kathoey are to be pitied, for the ones they love will one day find a “real”, “proper” partner - a heterosexual lover - and they will be left with broken hearts, suggesting that tom and kathoey remain temporary and less-than-serious partners for the normatively gendered.
Although I don’t always agree with her conclusions, Rosalind Morris has written (in typically abstruse academic language) about female homosexuality in Thailand in her articles “Educating Desire: Thailand, Transgenderism, and Transgression” (in the journal Social Text) and “Three Sexes and Four Sexualities: Redressing the Discourses on Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Thailand” (in the journal Positions). See my node on kathoey for different information on the male analogue to all this. The information and quotations about Phibun Songkram's campaigns come from Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian’s interesting biography, Thailand's Durable Premier: Phibun Through Three Decades 1932-1957.