ABOVE: Yollie and Sam at a coffee shop in Bangkok. Photo by Ana Salvá
Sam and Yollie love each other as much as any other ordinary couple.
What makes them different from many others is that both are transgender: Yollie, who identifies as female, was born in the body of a man, while Sam, who identifies as male, the body of a woman.
Now, two years after beginning their relationship, the couple are fighting to have their gender identities officially recognized so they can marry and consider adopting a child. “We think about our future,” explains Yollie.
Thailand is a country that holds an annual beauty pageant for transgender people, Miss Tiffany’s Universe, and where clinics offering sex changes are advertised in the newspapers. But the rights of the transgender community are far from being equal to those of other men and women. For starters, they are not even legally recognized.
Sam and Yollie have each undergone a complete sex change operation, but their official documents reflect their gender at birth as Thai law does not allow transgender people to change their gender status after surgery. They cannot marry because unions between a transgender person and another person are considered same-sex marriages and have no legal validity in Thailand.
Yollie and Sam on holiday in the Maldives. Photo courtesy of the couple
“Legally we cannot get married the way we are. Sam would be my wife and I would be her husband. If we adopt a son, Sam will be the mother and I will be the father. Do you think I want to marry Sam as a husband or that he wants to marry me as a wife? Do you think I want to be the father of my son?” asks Yollie, who is the president of the TransFemale Association of Thailand. Next year the association will be renamed the Transgender Association to allow transmale people like Sam to join.
The story of Sam and Yollie is one of love at first sight.
“When I saw him for the first time, the day he came to the association, I thought… wow!” says Yollie.
“I was in shock. I had seen another transmale on YouTube, but never in Thailand. We organized several encounters, and that is how we got to know each other.”
The association presided by Yollie estimates that around 5,000 transgender people live in Thailand. However it admits that is a very conservative figure and it is likely the real numbers are much higher.
Unlike in neighboring Malaysia, Thai transgender people can publicly express their identity without fear of persecution. By and large, this overwhelmingly Buddhist society tolerates them, but many don’t accept them. According to the Buddhist principle of karma, transgender people are believed to be adulterers in their previous lives and so are receiving the punishment in this life of being trapped in a body that is not theirs.
The Transmale Alliance of Thailand estimates that 100 transmale people live in the country, but they are much less visible.
“People think that there are not many transmale people in Thailand. There are many, but we do not want to come to light,” says Mukk, a transmale who began his transformation four years ago and was vice president of the alliance until October.
“Often they call us tomboys, meaning a woman who acts like a man. But the truth is that there are lesbians who love being women, on one hand, and, on the other, gender reassigned transsexuals like me. When someone calls me a tomboy, I feel very upset.”
The obstacles that transgender people face do not end if they undergo surgery. After the gender reassignment operation, their identity documents do not show who they really are and they are excluded from education, employment and social services.
Transgender people face problems when they are required to show their identity cards, for things as normal as opening a bank account or traveling abroad, because their appearance does not correspond with the gender on their documents.
“I have been refused seven times a visa to travel to the United Kingdom. I was also refused a student visa to go to Australia because I am a ladyboy. They judge me by my sexuality,” says Ni, a 28-year-old transfemale model.
Transgender people also face obstacles when they are looking for a job. “We can work at two or three things: makeup artist, cabaret artist and the last option, sex workers,” complains a Thai transsgender person, who declined to be identified.
“Some careers require wearing a uniform, one for men and one for women. They ask me to use the clothing of a man. How am I going to wear men’s clothes? How will Sam wear women’s clothes?” asks Yollie.
In an attempt to validate her identity, Yollie once tried to change her gender on her identity card, knowing this was illegal.
“They locked me in a men’s prison for several hours before going to court and I feared for what might happen if I stayed,” she says. The Thai penal code does not recognize that she has a vagina, so if she suffered a rape, she would not be able to bring charges against anyone.
“This is not a paradise for transsexuals,” says Preecha Tiewtranon, a well-known Thai surgeon who has performed around 4,000 sex change operations in his 30-year career.
“The country has earned this reputation because many foreigners come to get surgery attracted by the good prices and the high quality of the medicine.”
However the rights of transgender people in Thailand have seen some advancement in recent years. In 2012, the Department of Health removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. This decision helped to pave the way for the Thai military to be prevented from dismissing transgender recruits on the grounds they had a “severe mental disorder”, a label that made their career prospects very grim.
The Thai government is also studying the possibility of recognizing transsexual people in its constitution as a third gender, not identifying them as either male or female. But it is not considering allowing people to change their gender status from that of birth in their official documents.
“I just want to be recognized. I am a woman and Sam is a man. The approval of the third gender is only a first step,” says Yollie.