By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)

When we think of transgender athletes who compete in combat sports and martial arts, there is a few names that come up. Surprisingly, one of the biggest stars of Muay Thai isn’t usually one of them. Parinya Charoenphol, better known as Nong Toom is a boxer from Thailand who helped to reinvigorate the fledging sport when she roared on scene in her teens identifying as Kathoey which is a Thai word for a transgender woman who has not undergone gender affirming surgery. At 16 years old in 1998, Toom caught attention of Thailand’s national media when she stepped into the ring at Lumpini Boxing Stadium wearing makeup to compete against a bigger, more muscular cisgender male opponent and won.

While the Thai government was not keen on allowing Kathoey athletes to compete, having blocked them from participating in the national volleyball team. The sport of Muay Thai was fledgling at the time and welcomed Toom into the sport to revitalize media and public interest. Despite being a novelty and competing as a Kathoey in the deeply masculine and conservative sport, Toom quickly exerted herself as a capable fighter in the men’s division and went on to compete all cross Asia with the goal of saving up enough money to afford gender affirming surgery. She garnered a lot of publicity and stardom with several magazine profiles and appearances in music videos up but despite this newfound fame, Toom had to deal with the controversy and criticism of being a Kathoey in this sport. Ekachai Uekrongtham, director of Beautiful Boxer explains,

“When Nong Toom first broke into the scene, people thought that she gave muay thai a bad name,” said Ekachai Uekrongtham.. “Then when she revealed herself as a very good kickboxer, she earned respect, but still a lot of people believe that she is tarnishing the image of something sacred. Kickboxing evolved as our ancestors invented ways of turning our bodies into weapons to fight the Burmese, and it is more than just a sport. It’s a sacred tradition that is at the heart of our national identity.”

This came to a head during a trip to Japan when Toom was invited to fight Kyoko Inoue, Japan’s top female wrestler at the time. Toom ultimately won the match but was confronted by a young Thai woman afterwards who had slapped Toom for “the insult she was bringing to Muay Thai.”  While Toom initially entered the sport to make money, but she fell in love with it and pursued it further despite her gender identity being seemingly at odds with the norm. For Toom, the sport is about more than just fighting, it’s about the historical movements steeped in the tradition of Thai culture.

In 1999, Toom announced her retirement from the sport and to proceed with the gender affirming surgery. In 2003, the movie Beautiful Boxer which is a biopic about Toom’s life and career was released, taking home several film festivals awards. In 2006 she returned to the sport, fighting an exhibition match to promote a gym named after her. She returned to professional fighting in 2007 and fought her first official fight as a woman against the Netherland’s Jorina Baars. She has become quite a celebrity in Thailand, but when asked why she chose such a masculine sport to make money, she explained,

I don’t equate femininity with weakness,” she shared. “I also knew that I had to be strong, and to protect myself and the people I loved. I was born into poverty and there weren’t many ways I could earn a lot of money.”

Toom has since gone on to open a boxing camp in Thailand to teach and coach boxing, Muay Thai and other formats of physical fitness. She also has appeared in various films, including National Geographic’s “Hidden Genders” and Mercury Man. Her story was also published as part of the book “Ladyboys: The Secret World of Thailand’s Third Gender.” She is also hard at work to promote the sport for the transgender community and inspire other LGBTQ+ athletes to get involved.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons courtesy Fairtex from Thailand