If you’ve ever been to Thailand, or if you live there, maybe you saw them. Walking down the street, in markets, shopping malls, restaurants, everywhere, couples in which there is a masculine woman, particularly caring and attentive, and her more feminine partner. In Thailand, these women could be described through identity terms “tom” and “dee.” Terms borrowed from the English words “tomboy” and “lady”. In many Western countries, women who subscribe to these relationship roles are often casually referred to as “butch” or “femme” lesbians. When coupled, one acts more masculine, while the other is typically feminine. Well, the reality of these kinds of relationships in Thailand is vastly more complex than what might casually be observed.
Through the insightful ethnographic study Toms and Dees: Transgender Identity and Female Same-Sex Relationships in Thailand, by Megan J. Sinnott, this historically narrow understanding of gender identity and relationship roles in female same-sex couples is re-examined, showing the issue to be more complex than imagined.
Attention reader! Because Sinnott’s work is, ahem, academic (dense and complicated!), the QueerMango team has spent painstaking hours to bring you a simplified “most-aspect” explanation of the phenomenology of toms, dees and lesbians in Thailand. The QMG team must remind you that most of the points of view shared in this article are from Sinnott’s book and are not necessarily the views of the magazine, our writers, or our readers, though we are more than open to discussing all of them with you!
Warning: before beginning this article, make your mind a blank slate; what you think of as queer or lesbian in your country may not be the same in the world of toms and dees in Thailand.
A short introduction
Let’s rewind a bit and explain what it means to be gay in Thailand. If in Western countries, for example, what defines a lesbian woman is her sexual orientation (e.g. her attraction to other women and the preference for same-sex relationships), in Thailand what distinguishes non-heterosexual people is the fact that they are gender non-normative. In the Thai language phit-phet roughly translates to “mis-gendered” or “mis-sexed” in the English language. The term “tom” is often used for biological women in Thailand who adopt masculine behavior and appearance, or for “Kathoeys,” male-to-female transgenders. The fact that toms prefer relationships with people of the same sex is viewed as a natural consequence of their preference to act more masculine. Within that same understanding it follows that couples in Thailand are ordinarily expected to be composed of gender opposites: a masculine and a feminine. Women who date toms and men who date kathoeys are usually considered heterosexual because they maintain their feminine or masculine attributes even though they prefer, for various reasons, to date someone of the same sex.
Question! When did the terms tom and dee first appear?
The words “tom” and “dee” were first introduced in the 1980s when this new group of women started to become more visible and noticeable in Thai society. Not to say that non-heterosexual experiences did not take place before. Even during the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767) royal accounts tell stories of concubines “playing with friends” (len pheuan). Throughout the 20th century female same-sex relationships were quite common. Women who preferred masculine dress and manners were defined as mannish, or called kathoeys, and presumed to be attracted to other women. It was only in the 70s that toms and dees emerged, growing in public presence throughout the 80s, as a result of socio-economic changes experienced by the country and increased attention from the media and academics.
With the boom of industrialization and urbanization in Thailand during the 1970s and 1980s, Thai women, moving to bigger cities to work in factories or in the service sector, had increased access to higher education and began to find more prestigious, better paying jobs. This increased their financial independence and gave them the ability to economically support their families which, in turn, lowered the familial demands on many Thai women to get married at a young age. With marriage acceptable later in life and increased economic power and social independence, Thai women had the opportunity to more freely explore their sexualities. In a society, such as Thailand’s, where premarital heterosexual encounters could “ruin” a woman and her reputation, same-sex experiences between women are often seen as innocent and harmless adding to the acceptability of female same-sex couples. With these factors working in tandem, the appearance of toms and dees in Thai society grew.
In the 1980s toms stopped being defined only as “mannish” or as kathoeys. Yet, like their predecessors, toms continued to dress in men’s clothes and refer to themselves using masculine pronouns (phom) but their identity became more defined and noticeable in Thai society.
At the same time, their partners, dees, ceased to be considered only as normal women, in that they still prefered masculine partners, and emerged as a distinct group, even though often only recognizable through their relationship to toms. This defined space for toms and dees in Thai society is also due to increased attention from media and academics who publicized the issue. Consequently, communities of toms and dees solidified in their communities by establishing their own magazines, web forums and venues, and providing cultural references and models for these identities.
Ok… who are the toms?
According to Dr. Sinnott’s book, toms can’t be categorized within Western conceptions of sexuality.
Toms are not transgender
and they don’t seek
a sex change.
Different from kathoeys, femaleness is a condition of their identity, this is acknowledged by toms and by the rest of Thai society. Many toms see themselves as born “incomplete men.” Their breasts, for instance, are often a constant reminder of this incompleteness. Many toms hide their breasts through binding. Women who are not particularly feminine in their physical appearance and behavior are sometimes labeled a “tom” in their childhood, some follow this socially assigned role as they grow. Other women become toms because they engage in a romantic relationship with a woman. Toms are usually expected to financially provide for their girlfriends and take care of them. They are expected to be the leaders in the couple. Toms are also seen as the active sexual partner, initiating and dominating intercourse. Toms generally enjoy more freedom from societal norms than dees as they are not expected to heterosexually marry.
What about dees?
Dees are understood as “ordinary women” who are attracted to masculine people, men or masculine women. In her book, Dr. Sinnott examines the way in which toms categorize feminine women into groups: “real dees,” if the women have relationships only with toms, “fake dees,” if they also go out with men. The term dee is not as well known in Thailand as the term tom. Many women in relationships with toms don’t identify themselves as dees.
Dees are feminine in behavior and dress,
and different from toms in that they are
publicly recognizable only
in association with toms.
Unlike toms, dees suffer the burden of Thai gender norms. When they grow older, if they are still with a tom, dees receive pressure from their families to marry a biological man. In these circumstances, many toms feel pressure to leave their partner in order free the dee to fulfill her “natural duty” and family’s wishes.
The dee stereotype: a helpless woman in perpetual need of her partner. Sexually, dees are seen as passive receivers and are not expected to reciprocate.
Toms and dees might seem complying with gender roles but in reality are re-shaping them in a unique way. Both roles don’t strictly imitate the model of masculinity and femininity as prescribed by Thai culture.
Though the tom archetype presents some stereotypically negative masculine characteristics, such as being insincere, drinking and smoking, and being unfaithful, the ideal tom is different. Stereotypically, as Dr. Sinnott notes, toms like to be protective and conform to the masculine norm of “taking care” of a wife. But, they do it in a distinctive way from the traditional male role. Toms seek to satisfy dees not only financially, but also emotionally. Toms are able to understand their partner’s feelings and needs in order to make them happy. As a sexual partner, many of them are considered “untouchable.” Toms often do not undress or expect reciprocation, they just want to meet their partner’s sexual desires. This “caring” is often associated in Thailand as the woman’s duty. In this way, toms break-down Thai gender roles.
The dee stereotype: a helpless woman in perpetual need of her partner. Sexually, dees are seen as passive receivers and are not expected to reciprocate.
Wait a minute, so toms and dees are more than a stereotype created by an ingrained understanding of male-female relationship roles?
That is exactly what Sinnott’s book explores when the author defines toms as a gender “hybridity.” Toms are a blending of typically feminine and masculine characteristics that are both partly rejected and partly accepted and acted.
Dees, even though portraying feminine roles, also challenge the representation of women in Thai society. Different from the role of traditional women, believed to lack sexual needs but obliged to sexually satisfy their husbands without reciprocity, dees can enjoy more sexual freedom and gratification. They can demand sexual pleasure from their partners and they are free to frequently change partner. Dees are a revolutionary character in Thai society because they are attracted to a kind of masculinity usually attributed to men but at the same time don’t reject their desire for women or their femininity. But here is the catch! As revolutionary as these women may be, they are always assumed to be seemingly ordinary heterosexual women, identifiable only as a dee by their relationship with toms. Only through their association with a tom are dees visible to their communities.
Finally, Sinnott writes that toms and dees negotiate and shape their own identity in relation to one another and define their own rules. One of the most important of these rules is that a feminine identity partner with a masculine identity and vice-versa. A dee-dee or tom-tom partnership is generally unthinkable and considered by many toms and dees to be deviant and unnatural. Many of these women subscribe to the belief that there is a need to have a dominant partner and a passive partner in a couple. This kind of dynamic could seem oppressive to Western feminists who might believe that instead of fighting unjust heterosexual norms toms and dees perpetuate and conform to them.
But wait! We already saw that toms and dees don’t just imitate gender norms, they deconstruct and reinvent what it means to be feminine and masculine in Thai culture. So, it should also be noted that rules imposed by the tom-dee community are often broken by anyone who finds them unjust, or is opposed to following strict norms.
Perhaps one of the greatest insights in Dr. Sinnott’s work is that tom-dee relationships are in reality very fluid. These relationships go far beyond the prescribed rules. Many couples decide to support each other equally, be it financially, emotionally or sexually.
Toms and dees therefore resist both gender norms dictated by Thai culture and norms dictated by the tom-dee system.
Now, a million dollar question! Why isn’t there “Pride” in tom-dee communities in Thailand as their might be in other countries?
Non-compliance does not manifest with direct confrontation. For example, demonstrations for LGBT rights on the streets, or open externalization, or declaration of people’s own sexual orientation is direct action. The fact that toms are not heterosexual might seem obvious as it is expressed through their external appearance and actions, but it is not verbally expressed. The concept of “coming out” is not prevalent in the gay community in Thailand. This creates a limitation to creating a shared identity, fighting against homophobia and the strengthening of tom-dee communities. Because Toms’ and dees’ perceived actions and attitudes to not directly challenge gender norms in Thailand, Thais are generally more tolerant of their existence. This can also separate them from the gay community. While protecting toms and dees from episodes of open discrimination (e.g. street harassment), this “acceptance” does not translate into real social acceptance. Though this separates them from other communities which endure public harassment and discrimination, not overtly showing a breach from gender norms in their sexuality can allow toms and dees to enjoy more freedom from tightened societal control so that they can shape their own world.
Okay so are all female same-sex relationships tom-dee couples?
Female same-sex love doesn’t restrict itself to tom-deeism. Many Thai women decide not to conform to any kind of social expectations regarding their sexual behavior. There are feminine women who prefer to have affairs with other feminine women, and masculine women who have affairs with masculine ones. It’s okay to break the rules. This kind of perspective is promoted by the local organization Anjaree. It has introduced the term ying-rak-ying (women who love women), equivalent to the word “lesbian”, to suggest a different model for female same-sex relationships that do not so strictly conform to gender-specific norms. Ying-rak-ying is seen as a term for women who prefer relationships with other women. It doesn’t have to be a certain type of woman, just women in general. This approach is more centered on the similarities between women, different from the gender division subscribed to by toms and dees, but does not deny women the freedom to identify as more masculine or feminine. It envisions an equalitarian kind of relationship with no obligation from either side to fulfill any gender role that leaves them unsatisfied.
Originally popular with middle and upper middle class Thais, Sinnott argues that ying-rak-ying is progressively taking ground in many communities. This change, as Sinnott writes, is befitting to the Thai lesbian community, which is always in continuous transformation and redefinition.
So! If our community is always changing, let your voice be heard! Do you want to ask any questions about the article? Maybe you have a suggestion? Leave a comment below, or contact us at queermango [at] gmail [dot] com
 Because it is used as a derogatory term, phit-phet can also be translated as ‘faulted-gender’.
 However, in Thailand, sometimes being toms is a transitional state to become a transman.
 This notion can still be contested according to our Thai manguette since part of the Thai traditional gender role does believe that in heteosexuals relationship, the ‘right’ woman will change the male ‘player’ into a caring and faithful husband.
 The term ‘lesbian’ and ‘les’ do not have the same meaning in Thailand. ‘Lesbians’ are girls who like girls (similar to the term ying-rak-ying in Thai) while ‘les’ is the word used specifically to identify feminine lesbian who fancy feminine lesbian.