Transsexual Thai air hostesses: gimmick or equality?

With her crisp uniform, immaculate makeup and hair swept up, Mew looks like any other air hostess, but she's one of a handful of Thai transsexuals blazing a trail in the skies.

Fledgling Thailand-based carrier PC Air has hired four transgender cabin crew in a highly publicised recruitment drive that has divided opinion over whether the move is in the spirit of equality or exploitation.

"I like a job where I can show my ability and I love to wear beautiful suits," said Phuntakarn Sringern, better known by her nickname Mew, embarking Friday on the airline's first commercial flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong.

"This is just like my dream come true, and maybe this is a first step for transladies, transgenders, to have a good job in the future," the 25-year-old said.

In their neat black uniform and fiery orange scarves, Mew and her colleagues ushered passengers to their seats, demonstrated safety features and filled coffee cups -- offering little indication that they were any different from the other air hostesses on the flight.

Some passengers, perhaps having seen PC Air's advertising, asked the transsexual cabin crew to pose for pictures with them, but many seemed unaware there was anything unusual about the flight attendants.

"Oh, I did not hear before about it," said Bay, a Thai passenger. "They look really beautiful, and they are really nice... it's pretty cool."

Thailand has a culture of tolerance on issues of sexual orientation and gender, and "katoeys", as transsexuals are known in the kingdom, are considered a "third sex" in their own right.

In spite of this, more conservative elements of society find it hard to accept, with some families sending their children to monasteries to be "re-educated" and transsexuals struggling to find work in many areas.

"In my heart, I always want to be a flight attendant but I was waiting for an opportunity," said air hostess Chayathisa Nakmai, aged 24. But until now "every airline is open only for men and women, transgender is not accepted".

PC Air's initiative is being welcomed by some activists, who applaud its efforts to offer a chance of ordinary work to transgender people.

The company "helps promote a positive image of Thai transsexuals, beyond certain stereotypes", said transgender advocate Prempreeda Pramoj Na Ayutthaya. But others are sceptical about the motives of the company, which has actively sought to publicise its recruitment drive.

"They use the zany, outrageous, bizarre side of transsexuals," said Yollada Krerkkong Suanyot, president of Thailand's TransFemale Association of Thailand.

"This emphasises the way that society has regarded these people as if they were strange, special, bizarre. Come see them, these are stewardesses!".

Buddhist Thailand is spared from the "weight of the Judeo-Christian sexual repression", but had in the past been influenced by some Western ideas that presented transsexuals as "mentally disordered", said Sam Winter, a psychologist and gender specialist at the University of Hong Kong.

The result is "a practical and bureaucratic intolerance" towards a group of nearly 180,000 people, he says.

With few avenues for employment, growing numbers of Thai transsexuals are moving into sex work as a way to make money and for a "rare chance to affirm their identity as women", said Winter.

Despite their sex change operation, the law does not recognise Mew, and her transsexual colleagues as women -- a situation that forces PC Air to contact the destination country in advance, to avoid trouble at immigration gates.

PC Air currently has three planes and will operate charter flights from Bangkok to Hong Kong and other Asian destinations.

The company's boss Peter Chan, who lent his initials to the airline, is proud of being a "pioneer".

He denies any intention to use the transsexual crews as a marketing ploy and highlights reasons of the "heart" and "human rights" to justify the policy.

"It was never about money," the eccentric 48-year-old told AFP, before embarking on a rendition of "My Way" by Frank Sinatra as if to prove his point.

The slogan is also painted on the company's aircraft: "I believe it's 'my way'".

Mew, who had sex change surgery two years ago, is now hoping that others will follow in the company's footsteps, in the air and elsewhere.

"Maybe in the future," she said, "all transladies, all transgenders could get a job like a flight attendant or be prime minister."

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