Among those (admittedly few) Americans who pause to think about global transgender issues, most probably think of Thailand as an isolated haven of progressive attitudes about non-conforming gender identity and expression. This positive image is largely due to the “industry” of surgeons in Bangkok who perform gender confirming surgeries at relatively inexpensive rates, and to the global media’s focus on some Thai models who happen to be transgender. After meeting this week with many remarkably resilient and determined Thai trans activists, I now see this for what it is – a huge exaggeration at best, a cruel myth more probably.
The Thai culture has very rigid views about gender roles. Transgressing such roles through a gender transition exposes Thai trans people to extremes of exclusion, discrimination, disadvantage, and stigma. Economically, the only “careers” really open are in the private sector: in the entertainment industry or on the streets in sex work. There’s no option of legally changing one’s gender identity in Thailand, no option of ever getting a legal marriage, and no escape from public institutions that rigidly enforce gender binary standards based on sex assigned at birth. Discrimination starts early; high schools refuse to allow transgender Thai students to sit their final exams unless they present in their sex as assigned at birth; for example Thai transwomen would need to get their hair cut short in a masculine style and dress in “boy clothes” to even be allowed into the room. Many Thai universities also enforce gendered dress codes that do not allow trans people to dress authentically. Public sector jobs are nearly entirely off-limits for transgender Thai people. Public hospitals are notoriously abusive and humiliating to transgender patients; they go so far as to refuse permission to let post-operative transgender people be placed in the gendered part of the hospital that aligns with their authentic identity. Thai transgender women also face bureaucratic challenges from the Thai military, who still consider them as men and hence subject to enforced military service. While exemptions are possible, they’re not easy to obtain, and are based on the determination of mental disability – a thorny stigma that carries on into that transwoman’s future. If a transgender woman gets arrested and sentenced for any serious offense, real or not, she’ll face her imprisonment in the men’s jail.
For transgender Thai women, the degree of societal acceptability – while very narrow – is largely determined by the extent that such transwomen are able to conform to highly traditional Thai notions of femininity within this highly patriarchal society. Naturally not every Thai transwoman is going to be competitive or even interested in the world of beauty pageants and stylized, objectified traditional femininity. Once they are past their mid-20s even that option ceases to exist. The possibilities for aging Thai transwomen to succeed – or even just get by – in life are few.
As for those much-touted surgeons who carry out all those gender confirming surgeries, almost without exception these professionals view their work simply as a lucrative commercial enterprise. They do nothing to sensitize the medical profession or policy makers about transgender issues, needs, diversity, or rights. Similarly, almost all other mental health professionals and counselors ignore transgender Thais. Health care professionals aside, there are few sources for allies within Thailand for transgender Thai persons. Public knowledge about non-conforming gender identity and expression is nearly non-existent. Even among the usual support base found in other countries, the feminists and human rights communities, Thai transwomen are often viewed at best as “second class” women, and Thai transmen are largely unheard of. Sadly many Thai transwomen have internalized these views, now perceiving themselves as second class women.
There are organizations such as the Thai Transgender Alliance working very hard to make life better for transgender Thai persons. Their daunting challenges within this very traditional culture are only surmountable if such activists are able to retain and build upon their heroic resilience and their demonstrated commitment to working very hard for a better future.
Perhaps the efforts of such activists would be helped by shedding some light onto the myth of a trans-tolerant Thailand, and hopefully by mobilizing the global transgender community and their allies to advocate with them and on their behalf. Thailand is hardly unique in its discriminatory ways, and so much work remains to be done to sensitize the public everywhere that gender diversity is a fact of life, that it is part of human diversity, and that respect for human dignity applies to all persons regardless of their gender identity.
Will such efforts open the doors for a better future for transgender Thai persons? We can but try, and the time is now.