In Thailand, transgender males, also called lady-boys, are a common sight in cities and tourist areas. While many transgenders work in traditionally female professions such as in cabaret shows or Thailand's notorious sex industry, most are looking for better integration in Thai society. But, despite their high visibility, transgenders still face challenges in seeking acceptance.
At a popular beauty contest this month in southern Thailand, 30 attractive, feminine figures glide onto the stage.
Dressed in sparkling evening gowns and perfect hair and make-up, the contestants smile widely at the audience as the cameras broadcast the pageant live across the nation.
But, the contestants at Pattaya's Miss Tiffany Universe contest have something special in common other than looks. They are all transgenders.
Transgenders are born as men but live and look like women, often taking female hormones and having cosmetic and sex change surgery to appear more feminine.
Transgenders are more visible and more accepted in Thai culture than in most parts of the world. Some believe this is a result of the Buddhist culture, which places a high value on tolerance.
Just before the competition, contestants and their teams are in the changing rooms, applying last-minute hairspray and lipstick and posing for the media.
Kotchakorn Surajan, 24, a competitor for this year's crown, says while Thai society has become more accepting of transgenders, there is still a long way to go.
"I wish we would be more accepted in society nowadays. The reason I joined this contest is to tell society that we are human and we think just like normal, real men and real women," said
Despite Thailand's reputation for sexual tolerance, transgenders still face ridicule and are discriminated against in the workplace.
Many transgenders have turned to prostitution, a tolerated but risky profession in Thailand, where less than one in three sex workers are educated about HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
At a counseling center for transgenders in Pattaya, called Sisters, a group of transgenders sit on the entrance floor chopping a large papaya and green beans for a spicy salad.
Standing at a table just behind them are several more transgenders with long hair and wearing mini-skirts. They are mixing eggs, flour, and other ingredients into a blender to make cookies.
Sisters is Thailand's first counseling service for transgenders, providing them with advice, support and activities such as cooking.
The walls of the center are decorated with posters promoting condom use and a table near the door is piled with pamphlets about safe sex.
On one wall, a series of framed photos shows the Sisters grand opening in 2005, which was attended by the mayor and blessed by a Bhuddist monk.
Neung, who like most Thais prefers to use a nickname, is Sisters outreach supervisor. Neung says there are close to 2,000 transgenders in Pattaya.
"We have many transgender working as sex worker," said Neung. "Many kind of
transgender but nobody come to take care and teach them about protecting
themselves against HIV or STIs. That's [why] we have to open the Sisters."
As night falls, Neung and other members of Sisters take to the streets of Pattaya's "hot zone," where prostitution is an open trade.
The group wears a signature pink T-shirt with the slogan 'Sisters, where our second home is.'
They distribute education materials and condoms to transgenders and encourage them to visit the drop-in center.
Many of Pattaya's transgenders are not accepted by their relatives and Sisters is the closest thing they have to family.
Prempreeda Pramoj Na Ayutthaya, a researcher on transgender issues and is also a transgender, says if they are truly to be accepted the Thai government must offer them more specific legal protections.
"Every policy and funding which is try to support transgender need to separate transgender from gay or male who have sex with male. Of course, if we focus in terms of biological sex, transgender is a male as well," said Prempreeda Pramoj Na Ayutthaya. "But, if policy focused on the male who have sex with male and maybe activity might not go so far from the term 'male'. But, the life of transgender is go beyond the term male. Even it's not might fit to the term female, but we have another way of life."
Prem says Thai authorities have taken some steps towards improving the rights of transgenders and to recognize them as separate and distinct from homosexuals.
But what Transgenders really want is the right to legally change their gender to female so their ID cards and documents can match the way they feel and appear.
A change in the law would also allow transgenders in Thailand to get married, which is currently prohibited between two men.