Thailand’s katoey pioneer was once a beautiful boxer

Thai MSMs may have few role models, but at least one katoey (a Thai man who dresses as and wants to be a woman) has struck a blow for the LGBT cause. Nong Toom, a 23-year-old actress and model, used to be a champion kickboxer—and a man. Like many young Thais, she started kickboxing, at 12, to earn money for her family. “And,” says the shy, soft-spoken Toom, “to get the strength so no one would beat me up.”

Muay Thai, as Thai kickboxing is known, is a macho, often bloody sport, but as a teen, Toom never hid her determination to have sex-reassignment surgery, which she did in 1999. Even before her transition, Toom’s story won the hearts of Thais nationwide and landed her in ads and on soap operas. This year, The Beautiful Boxer, a movie based on her life—“she fights like a man, so she can become a woman,” the tagline promises—was released internationally (for more info, go to

“I’m worried about HIV,” says Toom, who says that despite her star status, “katoey are not accepted by everyone” and that “it’s common for families not to accept a daughter or son who is lesbian or gay. Historically, it hasn’t been OK, and it’s not getting better.” She has fought back by supporting gay organizations, receiving a 2003 Utopia Award for contributions to the Asian gay community and speaking at Bangkok’s Gay Festival. If they’re lucky, young Thai MSMs will find their way to Toom. “I teach kids kickboxing,” she says, “and then I become a kid again.”