At Thailand’s P.C. Air, transsexual flight attendants are taking to the skies—and boosting acceptance of the country’s “third sex” while they’re at it.
Four transsexual flight attendants completed their inaugural flight over Thailand earlier today, serving drinks and snacks en route from Bangkok to Surat Thani province. That comes ten months after the recently-launched P.C. Air announced it would consider applications it had received from more than 100 transvestites and transsexuals. Four made the cut and joined a cabin crew that also includes 19 female and seven male flight attendants.
Peter Chan, the airline’s president, told Reuters that the new recruits faced the same stringent application process as applicants who were born female. Bosses judged them on criteria that included femininity, attractiveness and proficiency with English and Mandarin. They also had to demonstrate feminine posture and vocals. He believes that transgender flight attendants will prove more versatile than the airline’s more traditional recruits. “They might provide better services because they understand both males and females. And they’re well-trained according to the aviation standard,” he said. “I’m a pioneer, and I’m sure there will be [other] organizations following my idea.” (The airline doesn’t draw its name from its politically correct approach to recruitment: P.C. refers to Chan’s initials.)
Known locally as ladyboys or katoeys, Thailand’s transsexuals enjoy greater acceptance and visibility than their counterparts anywhere else in the world. Skilled surgeons have turned Bangkok into a capital for gender reassignment, and relatively low costs make procuring a sex change more realistic than in the United States, where fees can easily run into the six figures. The Miss Tiffany pageant—Thailand’s most prestigious beauty contest for male-to-female transsexuals—is broadcast nationally every year. And millions of tourists flock to transgender musical shows, like the Simon Cabaret in Phuket.
P.C. Air’s newest trolley dollies hope their work will allow other katoeys to explore careers off the stage and away from the beauty counter. “This is the beginning of the acceptance of transsexuals in Thailand, giving the opportunity for us to work in various fields,” 22-year old Tanyarat Jirapatpakorn told Reuters. “Maybe in the future we can get any job that transsexuals never did before, such as police, soldiers or even pilots.”
For now, though, they’re content to scratch flight attendant off the list. Twenty-three-year old Dissanai Chitpraphachin, a former winner of the Miss Tiffany pageant, told the Associated Press her new gig was a dream come true. “When I was young, I couldn’t take my eyes off those nicely dressed ladies in the airline commercials every time they came on the screen,” she said before starting her new career. Now, as you can see in the commercial below, Thailand has its eyes on her.
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William Lee Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.