Lost in transition: How it really feels to be transgender in Thailand (South China Morning Post)

, ,

Despite its international reputation as a haven for members of the LGBT community, growing up teen transgender in Thailand can be tough – as Ari’s story shows

I wrote this article for South China Morning Post

The winners of this year’s ‘Miss Tiffany’s Universe Thailand’, an annual transgender beauty contest. Photo: EPA

Teen transgenders in Thailand 

Ari has always felt lonely, but he never really thought about it too much. He just figured that he must be a little different from everybody else. That was until a few months ago, when he stumbled across an article that had been shared by one of his contacts on Facebook.

It made him wonder if something else might be going on. Was there another reason he felt different from his peers? Was he trapped in the wrong body?

The 17-year-old, who was born a girl, now identifies as a transgender man – but he’s yet to tell this to any of his friends or family.

At home with his parents in Bangkok, Ari (not his real name) is a self-professed nerd, preferring to stay in his room reading comic books than going out with friends.

Soon, as with many teens his age, he will have to make some big life choices – and study hard if he’s serious about earning a degree in computer engineering.

But Ari faces other choices that are unique to his situation. If he wants to stop menstruating and develop other typically masculine characteristics, such as a deeper voice, then he needs to start hormone therapy – which in Thailand, at his age, requires parental consent.

“My family does not know yet, nor my friends. I do not want to disappoint them, I prefer to wait until I start university because I will be able to take care of myself,” he said.

At the all-girls primary school he went to when he was younger, Ari’s classmates used to call him a tomboy. Whereas now, at a mixed-sex secondary school with stricter uniform rules, he wears a short skirt, long hair down to his shoulders and is forced to use the women’s bathroom.

He says that once he realised he was trans, he felt somehow relieved, because he had never felt comfortable with the societal norms surrounding what is acceptable for a man or a woman.

The Thai language itself adds an extra layer of complication, with gendered particles that have to be placed at the end of almost every sentence to be polite. For men its krap, whereas for women its ka – a distinction that can cause no end of headaches if you’re transgender.

For a while, Ari asked to be referred to using krap, but his parents and teachers were against this, so for now he accepts the feminine particle and keeps his true identity a secret.

It is not known how many trans people there are living in Thailand, because not all of them “choose to come to light, and many of them also do not have information on how to deal with bullying, gender-based discrimination or hormonal treatments,” said Suparnee Pongruengphant, the United Nations Development Programme’s national project officer in the country.

Thankfully for Ari, he found a confidante in the form of his high school music teacher, who introduced him to a collective of like-minded individuals. The group has almost 1,000 members, though not all of them are active. They meet often, and offer Ari a much needed source of support and conversation.

Thailand’s transgender community is known around the world for its high degree of visibility – especially in the bigger cities like Bangkok – but Pongruengphant said “social acceptance does not correspond to this. And acceptance by their family and social networks remains a major challenge, especially in rural areas”.

A UNDP study to be published later this year found that Thais are generally accepting of LGBT people – so long as they are not a member of the immediate family.

And the school curriculum does little to help the confidence of young people like Ari, either.

Cheera Thongkrajai, an official in the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security (MDHS), said that transsexuals were often depicted in schoolbooks as “deviant, not normal and unnatural”, with some texts even describing them as people “who are emotionally unstable” that students should avoid.

These textbooks also tend to present a very limited view of gender roles, with women who “wear skirts, be gentle, take good care of their appearance, do housework, (and like) knitting and flower arrangements”. Men, on the other hand, “should wear trousers and practise sports such as boxing or football”, Thongkrajai says.

Last October, a group of activists asked the government to review these textbooks. The complaint is pending, but the education ministry has told the press that it is looking into the issue.

Any change will come too late for Ari, however, who faces a whole host of other problems that will accompany him throughout his life, so long as he remains in Thailand.

As things stand, even after undergoing gender reassignment surgery, trans people in the Southeast Asian nation cannot change their name or gender on identity documents – opening up a world of problems when it comes to applying for visas, opening bank accounts or looking for a job. And if Ari ever commits a crime he will be sent to a women’s prison, as the law dictates that prisoners must be segregated according to their birth gender.

There is hope for change, however. In 2016, the MDHS introduced a bill on gender recognition that, if approved, would allow transgender people to make changes to their IDs. Thongkrajai, from the ministry, says the proposal generated “a lot of controversy and discussion”, which is why further investigations are underway “to find the suitable model for Thailand”.

Ari is just counting down the days until he can go to university, where he has seen “transsexual girls who wear miniskirts and transsexual guys who have short hair”. Many Thai universities allow transgender students to wear whatever they want, though some still operate strict uniform policies, despite overtures from the National Gender Equality Committee and the National Committee for Human Rights.

Thankfully, Ari shouldn’t have too much trouble finding something that suits him – his breasts are small and easily hidden, after all. He’s certain he wants a “military style” haircut once he’s at university, but he does not yet know how he will tell his parents that he is transgender.

He’s not even sure that they have any idea what a transgender is. But he thinks they’re going to be surprised when they find out he likes girls.