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The beautiful BOXER : On July 24, 2006

For Parinya Charoenphol, it took a lot of strength _ physical and otherwise _ to become the person she always knew she was

Nong Toom's mother gives her a bath every time she visits and the famed boxer still loves to run around in front of her parents, who laugh and say that she'll never grow up. Whether as a young boy or now, a grown woman, Nong Toom loves to make her parents laugh.

Born a biological male, Parinya Charoenphol, began to make a name for herself as a gay teen boxer who managed to knock out several male opponents in the distinctly male arena of the Muay Thai boxing ring. With a heavily made up face, lips painted red, Parinya _ better known as Nong Toom _ had a formidable record of 20 wins and 18 TKOs.

Her story _ how she fought to save money to take care of her mother and to eventually have a sex-change operation _ has been widely featured in the mass media. Indeed, her story is so well-known and colourful that it was made into a movie, Beautiful Boxer, three years ago.

What happened to the beautiful boxer afterwards?

Parinya succeeded in having a sex-change operation five years ago. To all appearances, she is now a woman. On her identity documents, though, Nong Toom remains male, a trace of the past that she can't change _ not yet.

Even before she entered the boxing ring, Nong Toom was a fighter. A good part of her childhood was spent moving around the country, living wherever her parents could find a job. The family finally settled in Chiang Mai, where her mother looked after an orchard.

As the Charoenphol family struggled to put food on their plates, Nong Toom tried to find ways to alleviate her parents' exhaustion and financial constraints.

As a boy, Nong Toom received free education from monks. She eventually was ordained as a novice _ a form of help which improved the situation at home since she no longer depended on her parents' money. Nong Toom gave some of the food she received while making alms-rounds to her family.

"Becoming a novice monk was something I did for my parents. It was like making merit on my parents' behalf. And I thought that since I was born a boy in this life, I should fulfil my duty as a son just in case I am to be born as a girl in my next life," Nong Toom said.

While semi-retired from the professional boxing ring, Nong Toom still enters the ring from time to time, especially for fights abroad.

She currently runs a business selling cosmetics and female boxing gear.

For as long as she could remember, Nong Toom wanted to be a girl. She wanted to dress up and wear long hair like girls her age. Her mother was the model of what she wanted to be. Whatever her mum did, Nong Toom copied. Naturally, the young girl in a boy's body had to deal with constant teasing from her peers. But while she was uncomfortable with her body, Nong Toom said that she didn't have time to think about herself. The hardy child was more preoccupied with helping and cheering up her family.

"Sometimes when I saw that my parents were tired, I wanted to make them laugh. I would don a skirt and put make-up on my face and do a little dance for them. And when my parents laughed, that made me very happy. Sometimes they teased me, calling me tood [sissy], but they never yelled at me for being who I am. My little brother sometimes criticised me. My school friends sometimes made fun of me, but I didn't care. It could get uncomfortable, but as long as my parents accepted me, nothing else mattered."

It was this dogged sense of duty that made Nong Toom decide to go into Thai kick-boxing. The first time she earned money from a fight, her family celebrated with food they rarely got to eat, she recalled fondly. Her talent and winning streak made her well-known in the boxing scene. But when her coach discovered that his star boxer was a woman on the inside, Nong Toom became a national sensation _ and a new brand of boxer.

Her coach wanted Nong Toom to be herself as much as possible so she could fight without inhibitions. It was his idea to have her wear make-up in the ring while she gave a more dainty twist on the dance traditionally performed before each fight. These stunts naturally attracted both positive and negative public attention, especially when Nong Toom began to kiss her defeated opponents on the cheek at the end of each match. As a woman living in a man's body and fighting with men in a man's world, Nong Toom had to celebrate her many victories with an apology.

"When you feel like a woman, to be fighting like a man is very difficult. You're a woman doing the manliest thing. When men fight with other men, it matters differently than when they fight with me and lose. And that made them fight extra hard. They were yelled at by their coaches. Their friends told them to quit fighting because they lost to a transvestite. They thought I was less than them. That was why I kissed the opponents whom I defeated. When I won, I could see that my opponents were crestfallen. I would go up to them, say 'sorry' and kiss them on the cheek. And I apologised sincerely. I didn't kiss them because I thought they were cute."

Even though Nong Toom was earning more money than she ever had before, with her career on the rise, the idea of having a sex change operation was always there at the back of her mind, like a distant dream.

"When I was a kid, I knew you could get a sex change operation, but the results weren't great. I dreamed that one day I would change myself. I wanted to become a full woman, but I knew it was too expensive. I thought that I could never find that kind of money, no matter how many matches I fought," she said.

Each day in the body of a man became a greater struggle for Nong Toom, who was 17 at that time. Her body was, in fact, in limbo. She began taking hormones after she started living in a boxing camp. The side effects _ weight gain and the development of breasts _ complicated her already difficult situation in the ring. She was the first and probably the only Thai kick-boxer who ever wore a shirt during a match.

The longer she stayed on the boxing scene, the harder she had to fight and the more complicated each battle became. The last straw for her was a conflict of interest with the camp that represented her at that time. Weary of a career that didn't seem to be getting her closer to her dream, she announced to the public that she was going to have a sex-change operation.

"I told everyone I didn't want to fight any more and that I wanted to have the operation. I thought it was time since I look more and more like a woman. Why should I tolerate this kind of life any longer? I'd endured it for 17 years. Many people said I couldn't become a woman because I was so muscular."

But it was her muscular frame that enabled Nong Toom to fully enjoy womanhood faster than most patients. Fortunately for the boxer, Yunhee Hospital sponsored her operation. So the financial concerns were resolved. Four days following the procedure, she was able to get up and walk around. After one week, she could kick a punching bag.

For Nong Toom, it was the boxing world that took her decision the hardest. Once a respectable and endearing figure among her peers, the gifted boxer faced their disgust over her parting with her penis.

"My peers thought I had a mental problem. They respected me because I could fight like any man, but they didn't want me to have an operation to become a woman. I think, for men, penises are very important. Some boxers have told me that a life without a penis was worthless. They kept asking me, 'Don't you miss it?' I wanted them to stop asking that question because that's not what it's about for me. It's not something that makes me happy."

Nong Toom's life story attracted many film-makers who approached her with their ideas. She received their attention with a certain amount of resignation and disinterest in the same way she had been reacting to her fame, which often made her feel like an exotic animal. There were times when it made her feel ashamed of who she was.

Her life story was eventually made into a film, Beautiful Boxer. For Nong Toom, the movie was one of the greatest gifts of her life.

"I was happy with the film. It was like a great gift for me _ greater than when I fought in the ring and won championships. People know me a lot more, but more importantly, they understand me better, that I had a reason for doing what I did and that I am just another human being _ another kid who has a dream to pursue, not just for myself, but for my family, too.

"The proudest day of my life was when the King's sister [HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana] came to see the film. I couldn't believe she came to see a movie about me. We were in the same elevator and she asked me whether I was happy. I didn't know how to answer. I was afraid I was going to say the wrong thing. But I think my parents must have been very proud of me," she said.

Another great gift in her life is her adopted child, whom she took in as a three-day-old baby from a friend who was too young to be a mother. Because of her busy schedule as an actress, model, boxer, product presenter and businesswoman, Nong Toom's daughter lives with her parents in Chiang Mai. She talks to her baby every day.

Nong Toom believes that the children of her daughter's generation will grow up to be more open-minded and understanding of transsexuals. "I never feel bad about not being able to have babies. I think I'm lucky that I can't make babies, but that I can give a child a good life. There are so many children out there who need love. I think every child appreciates love and warmth. It's about the way they're raised."

How has society responded to her unusual motherhood and what has it been like for her adopted daughter?

"Sometimes I worry that my child will get teased," she admitted. "When I talked to my older sister about it, she jokingly told me to teach my daughter to say, 'So what if my mum is a transsexual _ she's famous and she's a boxer. Do you want to fight with her?"'

When it comes to matters of the heart, Nong Toom knows exactly what she wants from a relationship and her expectations are clear. Yet there is also a heartbreaking sense of inferiority and resignation that comes with her outlook on love.

"I always tell myself that I will not be blinded by love. I have to find out for myself that he really is a good person. And he has to be accepted by my parents. I've built a lot of protection around myself against men. I've seen a lot of transsexuals out there who end up having to take care of their boyfriends. Some of them are completely submissive. Some women are like that too. I don't want to be like that _ to be lower than the man in my relationship. If that is going to be the case, I'd rather be alone and just surround myself with friends.

"I know true love is difficult for transsexuals like me. I tell my boyfriend that if he can find someone better than me or wants to have his own kids, he can feel free to go. These days even 'real' men and women find it hard to sustain their relationships. So what's left for us transsexuals? I think it's about coming to terms with the fact that the 'forever' concept is just an illusion."

As for now, Nong Toom is happy with her boyfriend, daughter and the way her cosmetic and female boxing gear lines are shaping up.

For Nong Toom, a strong body comes before a beautiful one.

"A lot of transgender women don't play sports because they're afraid that they'll get too muscular. Plus, their bodies, especially their bones, are weaker than most women because of all the hormones and medicine they have to take. Even I am beginning to have problems with my bones and joints. But I don't care about beauty that much. I'm content with what I have. I want a strong body first. So I play lots of sports," she said.

The only thing Nong Toom is not content with at this point is the fact that she's still legally a "mister".

"In some countries that I've been to, they issue new birth certificates for transsexuals. I don't expect that much, but I want to at least change the title in my passport and ID card from 'Mr' to 'Miss'. In almost every country I travel to, the immigration officers call everyone over to look at this woman who was once a man. I try to smile. I'm a Thai, like anyone else. Why can't my country recognise me as a woman? That's all I ask for."

In fighting for any kind of title, Nong Toom doesn't fight like a man. Nor does she fight like a woman. She just fights like Nong Toom, a champion boxer, a mother, a girlfriend, a selfless daughter, a human being.

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