Did You Know: Language

Did you know that across South and Southeast Asia, there are different terms for people who are gender nonconforming? Here are a few of them…


Bakla is a term used in the Philippines for men who are ‘feminised’. Some, not all, of them cross-dress and consider themselves to be women living in men’s bodies. Though they have sex with men, it is not accurate to refer to them as gay, because the bakla identity carries its own cultural meanings and does not have the same political connotations as ‘gay’.

Hijra is a term used in the Indian subcontinent and includes those who aspire to and/or undergo castration, as well as those who are intersexed. Though some hijras refer to themselves in the feminine, others of them say that they belong to a third gender and are neither men nor women. Within the hijra community, those who are castrated through a sacred ritual are more highly regarded than those who are not. The community consists of gurus (teachers) and their chelas (disciples).

Kathoey is a Thai term, used to refer to male-to-female transgendered people, who are sometimes also called ‘ladyboys’. Kathoeys cross dress, many take hormone replacement therapy and may use breast implants, and some undergo sex change operations. They are attracted to men, and see this as heterosexual attraction, because they consider themselves to be women. Many of them are famous singers, models and movie stars.

Kothi is a term used in India to refer to men who adopt feminine modes of dressing, speech and behaviour, and have sex with ‘masculine’ men. They refer to themselves in feminine terms. Most kothis are non-English-speaking, belong to middle, lower-income, and working class back-grounds. They do not identify as ‘gay’.

Mak Nyah is a term self-coined by Malaysian men who feel, think, behave, dress like and want to become women. Some of them undergo sex change operations. They dislike being called pondan or bapok because these terms refer to men who are ‘effeminate’ as well as to homosexuals, and mak nyahs believe that they have a completely different identity. They have sex with men but do not identify as homosexual, because they consider themselves to be feminine. The equivalent term for female-to-male trans-gendered people, is pak nyah.

Tom is a term used in the Philippines and Thailand; variants of it are used in Indonesia (tombois) and Taiwan (T) as well. It comes from the word 'tomboy', and is used to refer to a woman who behaves like a man and is romantically and sexually involved with a feminine partner, who is called Dee (from the word ‘lady’). Toms use masculinity as a basis of their identity and behave in ways that are congruent with acting ‘like a man’.

Waria is a term used in Indonesia. Warias are biological men who consider themselves to have the souls of women from birth, dress as women much of the time, and have sex and romantic relationships with men (and not with women or other warias). Some of them take hormone replacement therapy and silicone injections.