‘Third sex’ get chance to fly Thai high

Her eyelashes and her stockinged legs are long enough to warrant a double-take from passengers on board. It may seem a form of harassment to some, but 25-year-old Thai flight attendant Punthakarn Sringern relishes the attention.

Sringern — or Mew, as she likes to be called — is one of four “ladyboys” working for PC Air, the first Thai airline to employ transgender people.

Finding work beyond the entertainment and cosmetic sectors is difficult for Thailand’s “third sex”, who are said to be more numerous here than anywhere else in the world. So this job, says Mew, is “a dream come true”.

PC Air is so named because its founder and president is Peter Chan — the title does not allude to political correctness. Chan, a property developer, began the airline last year and immediately confronted a “question of human rights” in this generally open-minded but still socially conservative nation of 69-million.

“Ladyboys in Thailand don’t have good jobs,” Chan said. “They work as dancers or entertainers or in shops, because society doesn’t accept them in other jobs.”

Chan hopes Thailand and the world will eventually accept transgender people – known here as kathoey – in everyday life. His airline, which also employs a female-to-male transgender pilot, first flew in December — from Bangkok to Vientiane in Laos. It plans to fly to Hong Kong, China, Japan and South Korea.

Chan also plans to employ people with disabilities and those aged over 60 in the airline’s office. The ambitions of PC Air’s kathoey, on the other hand, are a bit more personal. “We hope this job will change [Thai] politics, that this is the first of other opportunities,” said another attendant, Chayathisa Nakmai.

PC Air’s passengers have, to date, been welcoming, say the flight attendants. “I think they’re excited about flying with us,” said Mew.

The airline has just recruited 30 attendants. But of the five kathoey applicants, only one got a job.

“The other ladyboys’s English was good, but their looks no good,” said cabin-crew manager Natcha Mitsumoto. “You still have to look like a lady to work here.” —

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Kate Hodal
Kate Hodal
Writing and reporting on the @guardian's Global Development and Modern-Day Slavery desks. Former @guardian Southeast Asia correspondent.

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