The relatively large number of sex changing operations, the easily available hormones and the accompanying tourism, the pleasant attitude towards gay tourists who openly kiss or hold hands, all confirm that image. The assumption is even that there are a disproportional number of transgenders in Thailand. The Thai call them kathoey. You can translate this respectfully as ‘third gender’, but in practice only transgender women and feminine men are called kathoey – flamboyant, but vulnerable.
The image of Thailand as a transgender sanctuary is wrong. In 2015, Thailand introduced the Gender Equality Act, which penalizes discrimination based on gender or sexuality. However, transgenders notice very little of it in practice.
Many Buddhists believe that transgenders are being punished for mistakes in a former life. Reports of ‘corrective’ rapes, mutilations and brutal murders are frequent. Young people are sometimes also forced to join the monastery. Hate crimes are not registered as such and transgenders are often blamed: they would provoke the violence.
In Bangkok (and other cities) there are numerous transgender women and men who want to have an impact on Thai society. Among them are social worker Kath Khangpiboon (30), who was fired as a university lecturer and challenged that decision. Or counselor Nada Chaiyajit (37), who fought to get her correct name and gender on the certificate for her bachelor’s degree in law. And teacher in Gender studies Krit Chotidhanitsakul (33), who wants to be a role model for an invisible group of transgender men in Thailand. All three of them are demanding recognition for who they are.
Transgenders have therefore united themselves in organizations such as the Thai Transgender Alliance, of which Kath Khangpiboon is a co-founder, and the Transmen Alliance of Thailand, led by Krit Chotidhanitsakul. Pride events are organized in some cities, but the army and the monarchy keep a close eye on the people. According to activist Khangpiboon, the easy-going attitude towards people from the gay community is predominantly motivated by commercial interests: after all, Western LGBT tourists bring in a lot of money. Meanwhile, Thai LGBTs are laughed at, turned away by their family and excluded from influential positions. This double standard is very discouraging–to them, Thailand is not a paradise.
Meanwhile, transgender women in Thailand have to fight the image of the kathoey: the slim, sensual, heavily make-upped dolls that dominate the media in Thailand and abroad. “You have to be a beauty queen, so everybody fights for the crown” says Nada Chayajit. “In Thailand, beauty is all that matters”, adds Khangpiboon. “But not every transgender can look like a model, that’s impossible.” According to them, it is madness that even transgenders in Thailand have to conform to the rigid stereotypes of femininity (and masculinity).
I fight for my own rights
Nada Chaiyajit (37) worked in HIV prevention and studied law. She had to fight for a diploma with her correct gender on it.
“We have the best hospitals; everyone here has access to hormones. There are also enough facilities for HIV prevention, we even have PrEP (a preventive HIV medicine, ed.). I am now mainly fighting against the institutional discrimination of transgenders. Because I don’t have any influence on legislation, I decided to study law. I’m not going to wait until others fight for my rights. I’ve just completed my bachelor’s degree, but the unpleasant thing was that they didn’t want to issue a transcript with my correct gender and name on it, because the gender of transgenders is still not legally recognized. My diploma had to show a photo of a man and I also had to collect it wearing a toga for men. Transgenders come across this problem with each official document and each job interview. It’s a nightmare. After a frustrating six month-battle, I heard that the university will grant my request. It’s the first time something like this happens in Thailand, so it’s a great victory. I feel so strong! I can continue studying in England and get on with my life.”
Gender studies teacher Krit ‘Jimmy’ Chotidhanitsakul (33) had no one to look up to, so he decided to become a role model himself. He publicly came out as a trans man.
Many transgenders are kicked out of the house
“I started with my transition when I was twenty-five. I didn’t know any other trans men and I could find almost no information about them, so I got in touch with a doctor in America who wanted to give me a free consultation. With that information, I went to a Thai hospital. I shared my story in a well-known LGBT- magazine, which was picked up by a talk show. After that it exploded, I made headlines everywhere. That’s how my mother found out. She never accepted me when I was going through life as a tomboy. But when she saw that I received a lot of positive reactions to that interview, she suddenly thought it was okay. My father still doesn’t know about it, he doesn’t watch TV. I’ve set up the Transmen Alliance of Thailand, with over six thousand likes on Facebook and between a hundred and one hundred and fifty active members. That might not seem like a lot, but before my coming out nobody in Thailand knew that trans men even existed. People often don’t notice that I’m transgender. Sometimes they think I’m a homosexual man, which I don’t mind, by the way. When I tell them I’m trans, I often get inappropriate questions like: can I see your penis and how do you have sex?” Unfortunately, Thai people know nothing about human rights, let alone that they understand anything about transgenders.”
Social worker Kath Khangpiboon (30) was hired a teacher at university, but was found too controversial and was fired
“When I used to talk to my mother as a child, I felt that we were the same. I didn’t identify with my father. My parents never said anything about it, but they did observe it. They both work for non-profit organizations, so they have always encouraged me and my older brother and sister to be ourselves. I realize I’ve been lucky: I have received a lot of support from my family. Many transgenders in Thailand don’t get that kind of support and are kicked out of the house.”
“I have studied social work at Thammasat, a liberal university. My transition started during my first year. Students and teachers have always supported me. I even wrote my final thesis on transgenders. After that, I applied for the position of teacher. I was hired, but months later I was fired again because I’d placed a photo on Instagram showing a lipstick in the shape of a penis, with a witty description. That was seen as ‘inappropriate behavior’.
I’ve sued the university, but that case could take years. I’m not going to wait quietly, I’ve got work to do. I’m not really angry. Because of all the media attention, I now have a platform to talk about transgenders and I’m giving lectures everywhere.”
71 gender options
It is unclear how many transgenders there are worldwide. It is not documented and moreover: how exactly do you measure this? In addition to man, woman or transgender there are many, culturally specific terms for someone’s identity. On Facebook alone, users can choose from as many as 71 gender options. Even so, the assumption is that there are a relatively large number of transgenders in Thailand. According to research at the University of Hong Kong, that number ranges somewhere in between 1 in 300 and 1 in 3000. More than in Western countries.