While many may regard Thailand as an LGBT-friendly country because of its vast normalization of transwomen and ladyboys (locally called kathoey), but the Thai society is more than what meets the eye. Conservative culture and values still remain.

"I don't know what to say but everything I am is just who I am, it's not something I created or wanted to be, I am just who I am.

Since I was very young and didn't even know the word 'Tom' I was punished by my mother because I walked like a man so I cried and asked my mom 'How to walk nicely?' Mom heard me and so she stopped punishing me and forcing me about how to walk. I got bullied when I was young but it disappeared when I grew up. 

I want to tell the society and the parents who do not understand us to be more open-minded. People any sex can be bad and good. Love is beautiful. Love is understanding, taking care each other, and compromising. Please do not judge that we are wrong or different, we're just like you who have feelings, who have hearts, and we work for our family. Please do not be disgusted by us as long as we do not disturb you or the society."

Jib, age 25

Oversized shirts. Breast binders. Tattoos. Ear piercings. Short hairstyle. What makes a boy a boy? What makes a girl a girl?

It’s never an easy task for most Thai teenagers to develop their self-esteem and fully express themselves, especially when they’re identified as butch lesbians, or tom (ทอม) in Thai (as a short version of tomboy). The term is commonly used to describe a female-born person who exhibits masculine characteristics and/or chooses to dress like a man/boy.

Whether you’re a Bangkok resident or a tourist visiting the city on vacation, you’ll notice tomboys walking down the street, commuting on a BTS skytrain or eating som tum at a street stall.“Somebody asked me, ‘Why are you a tomboy? You’re prettier if you’re a girl,” said Kewalin 'Yok" Wadwaree, who identifies herself as a tomboy. “My family cannot accept it. They keep saying things so I could change my mind.”

"Everybody is equal but our thoughts are based on what we experience and judge LGBT that they have to be like this, like that . I wan them to understand and be more open minded. LGBT is like straight people except for their outside identity. Besides, I think most LGBT people are cute. :-)"

“I first realized that I’m a tomboy when I was a fourth-grader. People told me I would change my mind when I grow up. Now I’m studying in grade 10 and I haven’t changed my mind,” said Taddao Panpana.

Yok, age 24

 

"I think I want to be a man because men can take care of women. They are strong. I think that even though we can't choose how we're born but we can choose to be what we want to. Being a tomboy makes me feel like I'm physically one of the men, but softer inside like a woman. 

I think tomboy can take care of women and making people happy. It's not hurting anyone to be a tomboy, most importantly I like to be a tomboy because girls likely to understand girls the most.

Firstly I have to say that I was born in a family that are very open minded about homosexuality. So, my family and friends don't really think this is matter. Mom always tells me that I can be any gender that I want just to be a good person and don't bother anyone, that's enough. I don't know when I was realized that I'm a tomboy until I fell in love with a girl, whenever I see beautiful girls I like them and feel shy.

People should be more open minded for LGBT. We deserve all the rights just like heterosexual. Don't be bias in the workplace toward us because there is some company does this. We should be more open like those in western countries that already have legalized the gay marriage. Most importantly, I want people to know that we are just like everybody that go with our normal lives, we attracted to the same sex but we don't harm anyone."

Oi, age 24

Within Bangkok alone, a full spectrum of gender expression lies among tomboys. While most of them carry masculine traits, some are comfortable to exhibit their feminine characteristics such as wearing lipsticks or eye makeup. A few rejected the label “tomboy” they’re given by the society. 

“Actually, I don’t want to be defined as a tomboy. I want to be a man. In the future, I’ll be a transgender man,” 21-year-old Phatchaporn Eiam-sakul said.

American photographer Derek Brown, who has been living in Thailand for 13 years, captured over 65 Bangkok tomboys as part of this project. The photography exhibition aims to give voices to LGBTQ teens and adults and promote greater acceptance of gender diversity of the capital city.

“Working with the Bangkok lesbian and tomboy community opened my eyes,” said Brown. “One gets so used to seeing toms out and about in Bangkok, often with their girlfriends. It all seems all accepted and normal. Getting to know the individuals closer I learned of their struggles with family and society along with some of their day to day challenges.”

Shooting the subjects for three months, Brown, also the owner of Studio Soi Six in Bangkok, learned that there is “no single monolithic ‘tomboy’ sexuality.”

“Like all people of all genders and orientations, there’s a range of gender fluidity,” Brown said. “There is not one tomboy bucket you can drop everyone into.”

“At the end of the day it’s about celebrating our uniqueness,” said Brown. “It was a real pleasure to work with subjects from the Bangkok LGBTQ community who taught me something about the power being comfortable in my own skin and self.”

"I came out when I was in grade 7, my friends always told me that I'm not like those pretentious tomboys, which made me lose me confidence a little. Other people and family didn't say anything bad because I never bother anyone. Some people admired me and I'm glad they do.

Reveal who you are, of course there are people that accept and will not accept you, but to be yourself is better than caring what people think about you. It's not like a disease that we can cure, you will only have it if you created the conflict in your mind. If you are a tomboy because you think it looks cool I will not recommend because it's not that easy like snapping your fingers and bam!! You became a tomboy! People said that tomboys are girls who attracted to girls, having our breast hidden under the elastic tube and acting like a man. I don't like those ideas because then if you acting girly you will be called a fake tomboy. If you already came out, you will need to be yourself as well."

Tee, age 18

"Since high school, my friends were ok with me being a tomboy, but my family could not accept it.

LGBT is like straight man and woman, we can love, we can be good, we can be bad like everybody. I don't want anyone to look at us like we are weirdos."

Pat, age 24

"I like it they way I am, this is who I am and when I express my true self I'm happier. At the end I am what I am, I can't be anyone else. 

At the end or the day I am what I am, I can't be anyone else; 'Hate me as I am' is better than 'Love someone I am not'"

Nam, age 21

"It makes me happy to be like this - it's who I am.

I just ask people to respect who we are. It is not easy to be a tomboy. Some girls might want to be a tomboy because they follow the trend but really it is something want to be from your heart."

Import, age 17

 

"For me being a tomboy means expressing oneself and the truth. We can be whoever, we can like girls or guys, people just identify us as tomboys. Love has no rules.

It's been obvious since when I was in kindergarten, just like I was born this way. I feel this is a beautiful and special not strange at all. My friends and family told me that we can be anything but we have to be useful for society, nation and the land we were born in because we are Thai.

I want to say that whoever you are, please be yourself. Don't try to pretend to be manly if this isn't what you feel. The cuteness and individuality are in our mind. Girls nowadays don't like only those who are acting like manly tomboys but they will fall for ones that being themselves the most."

Pin,  age 19

 

"To be a tomboy is to be myself which is not just some trend I follow

I've been a tomboy since I was 5, but I didn't have any idea what it meant to be. When I came out, my family wouldn't accept me, they forced me to put on girl clothes, separated me from my friends and stuff. 

Now I'm much older and I have a job, take care of myself and at last my family can accept me. It's ok if you are tomboy since you were young, but I do not support that you keep switching yourself again and again, if you're happy with what you are, you better be it."

Timtim, age 25

"I don't feel that being tomboy is different from other genders or should be treated any differently. I can't say that it is an identity because I feel that I am just like anyone else in the world, just like other genders; I don't want others to limit what gender I am.

Since kindergarten I didn't like wearing something small and tight for girls except I had to wear the girls school uniform. 

At home, my family understood because I am still a good person and if I do something wrong it is not because of my gender, but my behavior and action.

As i said earlier, this group or people is ordinary people who cannot choose which sex they are born with but when they express their identity, please give them chance and be open minded because they are normal people who want to be accepted just like anyone else."

Prae, age 22

 

"When I started my high school, all friends were ok with me but family, teachers and other adults could not accept that I was a tomboy.

Third gender is nothing bad. There're good and bad people but gender is not always a factor. I want you to accept us and that we have same right and freedom like other genders including how to dress and respect us verbally at the workplace."

Milk, age 22

 

"Ever since I can remember I never liked boys, but I didn't know I was actually a tomboy until I was in grade 4. 

My family always give me freedom to be what I want just as long as I'm a good person. And my friends always accepted me as a tomboy as well.

Being tomboy, lesbian or homosexual is not a bad thing. I want the society look at who we are as a person not our sexual orientation."

Maprang, age 23

 

"Actually I don't want to be a Tomboy but I want to be a man, and I think I'm going to be a transman in the future.

Since I was a child I didn't like girly outfits, but I was forced to put them on. As I got older my parents stop forcing me and more accepted to who I am. They just want me to be a good person and be able to take care of myself. 

I want people to be more open minded and if they had children that are gays I want them to be more understanding than thinking of it as something must be wrong. Nobody wants to be a weirdo but none of us can choose how we were born. Gays are normal too, the abnormal is that the society won't accept us and it's their mind that think we are different than them."

Dia, age 21

 

"Being a tomboy doesn't mean anything to me, I am what I have to be

We cannot choose what we were born, but we can choose what we want to be. All sexes have the same love, feeling, knowledges and talents."

Jom, age 22

"Since I was a kid, I mostly play with boys; fun and adventurous. I couldn't reveal myself completely but did as much as I could when I was young. Mom sometimes dressed me up the way she wanted to but eventually everybody accepted me as I am. When I grew up, I can reveal myself more, my friends and people around me never look at me as any difference."

Nay, age 23

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Tomboy Bangkok was shot in the spring of 2018 with over 65 different tomboys coming to Studio Soi Six for a portrait sitting. 

See portraits of all participants.

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