Have you ever heard of Parinya Charoenphol?
This article is the first in a series of profiles on influential members of the LGBTQ community. Covering people from all different time periods and parts of the globe, this series aims to teach you a bit of LGBTQ history and introduce you to a bunch of famous kick-ass queers.
Kicking off the series (you’ll get the pun later on) is Parinya Charoenphol, more commonly known as Nong Toom. In her life, Nong Toom has been a monk, actress, singer, and model. Most famously, she was a Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing) champion. From a very young age, she knew she was transgender (male to female), and she faced constant bullying because of this. In order to learn to defend herself, she began learning Muay Thai. Little did anyone suspect, she would go on to become one of the sport’s most famous champions.
Through hard work, Nong Toom became one of the top Muay Thai competitors at the training camp she attended. It wasn’t long before she started competing in official matches and making a name for herself. She was raised in a poor family and used her earnings from Muay Thai to support her parents financially. Even though she found success in the ring, Toom was constantly struggling with her gender identity and the dysphoria that came with it. When alone, she would put on makeup as a way of embracing her femininity. It wasn’t long, however, before she began wearing it in the ring. She was tired of being unable to express herself, and her promoter believed that it would help her gain popularity. Her opponents all laughed and jeered at her, but Nong Toom just used that as inspiration to work harder. When interviewed, she explained, “I wanted to prove that I could do [Muay Thai] as well as them. I took this point to encourage myself to go on.” Toom beat many of the toughest fighters in Thailand, winning twenty-two matches, all but four by knockout. Because of her fierce style of fighting, many believed that Nong Toom did not really consider herself a woman. They thought it was all an act to attract media attention, but Nong Toom stood firm. She said, “To be a woman, you do not have to be weak.” Her confidence, skill, and individuality made her into a boxing sensation in the 1990s. Her popularity among fans (which was not limited to the LGBTQ community) was in part due to the presence of a third gender, known as kathoey, in Thai culture. The term “kathoey” refers to a range of identities, such as transgender people, intersex people, and effeminate gay men. Because of the acceptance of alternative gender expressions in Thai culture, Toom’s identity wasn’t as shocking or outlandish as it might have been had she lived in a different country. Still, the hyper masculinity and homophobia that so often accompany professional sports was certainly present in Muay Thai.
As Toom won more matches and her income increased, she began to save up in hopes of being able to afford sex reassignment surgery. In 1999, Nong Toom finally got her wish. Not everyone supported her decision, though, including the Thai kickboxing commission. Legally a woman, Nong Toom was barred from professional Muay Thai.
Instead of giving up Muay Thai, however, Nong Toom took the opposite approach: she opened up a gym where she now teaches it. In addition, she is also pursuing other careers such as acting and modeling. When asked if she was discouraged that she could no longer fight in professional Muay Thai, she simply said, “Courage is more than fighting.”
Many wonder how Nong Toom is able to have such an unusual mix of traditionally hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine careers at the same time. To her, she says that it is not about trying to incorporate two opposing extremes in her life. On the contrary, she says that she feels more at peace than ever before, just doing the activities she loves the most.
Have a Gay Day everybody!
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