Taking a Stand for Equality in the Ring
The Lady Boy of Muay Thai
Parinya Charoenphol, known simply as “The Lady Boy,” became one of Thailand’s best-known Muay Thai fighters.
What makes this accomplishment noteworthy is that Parinya professed to be a woman stuck in a man's body, and she wanted to be a professional Muay Thai fighter.
Her actions broke centuries of traditions that sent shock waves throughout the entire nation, shaking the traditions of the sport to its very core. Parinya drew a line in the sand in an era when women were forbidden to even train in a gym alongside men, let alone fight them in a ring.
She is called “The Lady Boy” because, although born a man, Prinya used her winnings for a sex change operation. The moniker given to her by the press brought both smirks and standing ovations throughout her career in the ring.
She Kept Her Desire to Be a Woman a Secret
As a child, Parinya was already aware of her female gender identity. This was a constant struggle during her tenure as a Buddhist monk.
Although she remained true to her religious beliefs, her calling was to be inside a Muay Thai ring, not a monastery.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a girl,” says Parinya. “As you can imagine, it was not something I wanted to tell my friends or parents. I kept it a secret until I was 14.”
The national sport of Thailand became an intricate part of the youngster’s life when at age nine, Parinya began training in Muay Thai. By age 12, the teenager showed great promise as a fighter but needed to be seen on a bigger stage to go pro. To do that, Parinya left her small village in Northern Thailand and moved to a larger and more intense camp in Chiang Mai.
Do You Have a Pen?
This is a snap of Parinya (on my right) and me with one of her friends, a well-known actress in Thai movies. Everywhere we went, someone wanted an autograph from the two celebrities. My job was to make sure that we got our pens back from their fans.
A night on the town in Bangkok is pretty much an E ticket ride on anyone’s fun scale. And when you add hitting the clubs with two of Thailand’s most celebrated personalities on your arms, it’s red carpet treatment all night long.
Over the next few days, Parinya was kind enough to share with me the successes, the failures, and the frustrations that surrounded her notoriety.
Walking a Mile in Parinya's Shoes
“In Thailand, we do have women that train and fight in Muay Thai; however, they are not allowed to train in the same ring as men,” says Thakoon Pongsupha, head trainer and owner of the Sasiprapa gym in Bangkok. “This has nothing to do with chauvinism.
We are a very traditional people and it is out of respect to the ancient tradition of Muay Thai that we segregate the training. We have women who train in the same gym as the men; they just aren’t allowed to fight in the same ring.
It brings us bad luck if a woman gets in our ring. If one does, we must bring in a monk to exorcize the evil spirits from the ring.”
Fighting for Her Right to Fight
“I knew once I publicly announced my decision to become a female that it would change my life forever,” Prinya says. “But it was something I had to do. There was no doubt in my mind that I could win in the ring. However, one of my primary concerns was how the other fighters and the public would accept me. I did not want to be a joke or made fun of. This wasn’t a publicity stunt. I was and am a serious muay Thai fighter and was willing to prove myself in the ring.”
Not taking Parinya for a joke was a lesson hard learned by the Lady Boy’s opponent in her first major fight. It was 1998; Bangkok’s Lumpini Stadium was packed to the rafters for this much-heralded and sold out match.
Before the buzzer had even sounded the start of round 1, her opponent loudly mocked Parinya. His corner men laughed, as did some of the fans. But they weren't laughing for long. Parinya's opponent was about to pay a price for disrespecting the fighter he mocked by blowing fake kisses to her.
Parinya entered the ring in full make-up, looking more like a showgirl than a fighter. But it only took her a couple of rounds to prove that she was definitely not a joke. The Lady Boy quickly defeated her much larger, muscular16-year old opponent, which brought the crowd to their feet. But, when she strolled over to his corner and laid a big ol’ kiss on his cheek after kicking his butt, the crowd went nuts!
Not Yet a Woman
When Parinya told the press that he was a woman trapped inside a man’s body, the media dubbed him, “The Lady Boy.” Muay Thai fans loved it. Although Parinya hadn’t yet gone under the surgeon’s knife to change nature’s handiwork, Parinya insisted on being referred to in the feminine rather than the masculine. The reviews were mixed about her decision to openly declare her sexuality. The media hype surrounding Parinya drove thousands into the stadiums to see if “The Lady Boy” could fight.
The fans may have loved the idea of Parinya being in the ring, but her fellow fighters, not so much. They weren’t too thrilled about squaring off with a man who wanted to be a girl.
“If I win, I beat up a girl,” says one fighter. “If I lose, I got beat up by a girl.”
The uproar over The Lady Boy's victory added fuel to the media firestorm. Parinya was now under more pressure than ever. She had to prove to all of Thailand and herself that her first win wasn’t a fluke; and that she deserved to be respected as a fighter.
“There were a few fighters that showed me respect and treated me like family,” says Parinya. “But the majority of them looked down on me. I was considered a joke, and I had to prove myself to them [the public] every time I entered the ring.
And every time Parinya entered the ring, she made a grand entrance. Adorned from head to toe, and wearing make up, “The Lady Boy” was quite a sight. I was in a nearby corner and overheard some fighters crackin’ wise, “She’s so pretty I don’t know if I should fighter her or as her to dance.”
Because of the public interest that surrounded Parinya, she quickly became the darling of the media. Whenever she fought, “The Lady Boy” packed the stadium. Parinya’s notoriety was worth big bucks to stadium owners and the gamblers who wagered thousands on Parinyas’ fights. As a result, the fighter that was too pretty to fight was paid considerably more than her manly counterparts; that did not sit well with many of them.
After more than a decade of fighting as a woman in a man’s body, Parinya had finally saved enough money to have a sex change, but first, she had to undergo psychological counseling.
“They wanted to be certain that I was of the correct mindset for the way this operation would change my life,” she says.
The operation not only changed Parinya’s physical appearance, but it also altered her ability to fight. Much to her surprise, the once-great Muay Thai fighter discovered that the surgery and the implants had greatly diminished her capacity in the ring.
“The hormones I took for my breast enhancement greatly reduced my power and endurance,” says Parinya.
The adverse effect of the surgery was painfully evident during her first fight following the operation. Because she was now anatomically a woman, Parinya was not permitted to fight another man in a may Thai ring in Thailand; thus forcing her to fight outside of Thailand.
I hadn’t seen Parinya since her surgery; Bob and I picked her up at the airport and welcomed the former “Lady Boy” to California. Since she wasn’t allowed to fight in her on country, she came to ours.
“I came to California thinking that I was to do an exhibition bout, but to my surprise it was scheduled as a semi-main event,” says Parinya.
Bob was her corner man; I was nearby snapping pictures. The arena was packed to the rafters and the crowd was giving the Thai champion a rousing welcome. The girl from Thailand had the Americans in the palm of her hand. That is, until a few seconds into the first round.
“The first round was very lackluster,” says Bob Chaney, a well-known trainer. “Brian (her opponent) was going about 30 percent, taking it easy on her and Parinya wasn’t do much more. It started to take on the appearance of an exhibition, and the crowd didn’t like it one bit.”
Boos and a wide range of crude remarks aimed at Thailand’s “Lady Boy” replaced the adulation that only moments prior had filled the arena. The fight, if you can call it that, started to look like a sophisticated game of tag.
Eventually, her opponent stepped up the pace and the fat lady started to sing. Parinya was unable to continue and the fight was stopped.
The story of “The Lady Boy’s” life was made into a feature film, Beautiful Boxer. I saw it a few years back and it was a fitting tribute to her courage and determination to achieve her dreams.
© 2018 Terry L Wilson