Photographs by: Mariette Pathy Allen, Essay by: Eli Coleman, Preface by: Zackary Drucker

Published on 10/01/ 2017


As intermediaries of the spirits, they can bestow good or evil. In Burma, they are called nat kadaw and in Thailand maa khii. Because people both worship and fear the spirits, this requires them to pay homage (and money) to the spirit mediums for their intercession and good fortune.

As intermediaries of the spirits, and for their good deeds, mediums are respected in the community by those who believe in the spirits. is is not always true in the larger community, which sometimes views spirit mediums as people who work in an unsavory profession known for “cheating” people.

e mediums, who are under the control of the spirits at all times, sometimes go into a trancelike state. is state varies in the degree of dissociation. It can be very subtle or quite dramatic (this mainly depends on the type of spirit system).


As we all know, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression are all different dimensions of our sexual identity. In Burma and ailand, almost all male spirit mediums are exclusively attracted to males.

They are attracted to what they view as “real men.” is means that they are attracted only to masculine men who are very likely to be “straight” or “mostly straight.” A number of male spirit mediums are attracted to younger straight men. It is extremely unusual for a male spirit medium to desire another gender nonconforming male (although I observed a few exceptional cases).

There are some males who adopt the “gay” Western label and related Western customs, as both of these cultures have been heavily influenced by the Western media and the Internet. Some use the English word gay but not in the Western sense.

That is, they are aware that there are middle-class urbanized, Westernized Burmese and Thai men who adopt the gay male Western construction, but most of the spirit mediums that I met did not identify themselves that way.

They view themselves as more feminine in their heart and soul but express their femininity to various degrees.

Gay and transgender individuals continue to be oriented in accordance with more traditional Burmese and Thai notions of gender identity and sexual orientation. they view themselves as more feminine in their heart and soul but express their femininity to various degrees, depending upon desire and societal influence.

Some identify as “transsexual” in the Western sense. In Burma, phyat pauk chout is a term for an individual who has underdone sex reassignment. It is derived from the Burmese words for “cut,” “hole,” and “sew.” Even though there is no access to genital surgery in Burma, the term is used for someone who has undergone genital surgery (for example, in Thailand).

Sao praphet song and phu ying praphet are Thai terms that mean “a second kind of woman.” These terms describe an individual who identifies as a transsexual or has underdone sex reassignment.

As described, the achout and katheoy who are spirit mediums range in the degree to which they express their gender identity as a female in society.

They are mostly gender liminal, being able to traverse the gender spectrum, moving fluidly between male and female roles. Perhaps the historical gender pluralism and lack of adoption of the Western constructions of gay, transgender, and transsexual contribute to their gender liminality. Rigid adherence to male or female stereotypes is rare, although this is more common in ailand, perhaps because there is more access to transgender health care and sex reassignment there.


Besides their revered status as spirit mediums, these individuals are also recognized for their economic power and good will. They often take care of their parents, their families, and their extended families, which is valued by Burmese and Thai cultural standards.

While their gender nonconformity was universally greeted with disdain by their parents when they were children, the parents and family members often develop an appreciation and respect for their role as spirit mediums and their economic status. Family acceptance is won and not given freely.

For most, this rejection changes as they become successful as spirit mediums and do well in business, whereby they can help support family members.