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The other side of the rainbow – The struggle of trans people in Asia’s queer ‘paradise’

By Anna Lawattanatrakul

Photo: Tananchai Keawsowattana/Thai News Pix

Thailand promotes itself as a ‘paradise’ for queer travellers, but its LGBTQ community faces a different reality, struggling for rights and recognition.  

 

Two women hold hands and kiss in what looks to be a hotel pool. They hold each other while looking at elephants standing under tall trees, before bathing and feeding the creatures. The scene then cuts to the couple in white dresses, walking towards a wedding ceremony in a lush, green garden and dancing with each other on the beach. The caption on the screen reads, “In Thailand, we believe diversity is amazing.”

These scenes come from a video clip released as part of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT)’s Go Thai Be Free campaign. With video clips and photos featuring happy same-sex couples walking through the streets of Bangkok, visiting temples, running after each other on the beach, and swimming together in the crystal-clear water, the campaign aims to encourage LGBTQ tourists to visit Thailand, which the TAT is painting as a safe haven of acceptance.

A short message on the campaign website even says that Thailand “welcomes the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans ( LGBTQ / LGBT+) community with pride” before inviting potential visitors to check out “LGBT-friendly” destinations listed on the site. Scrolling down to the bottom of the page, the website says that Thailand is “the most LGBTQ/LGBT+ welcoming country in ASIA” and that “we’re proud that the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans community – and all people – no matter how they identify; and whom they love.”

But LGBTQ people in Thailand remain without legal protection and continue to face harassment and discrimination. Trans people are yet to be allowed to alter their identification documents, and continue to be discriminated against at school and in the workplace. Meanwhile, the marriage equality law, which would allow marriage registration regardless of gender, is currently going through the legislative process but has been met with opposition from conservative and religious members of parliament.

The TAT’s narrative of a queer-friendly Thailand has drawn criticism over the years from those who see the country as lacking in terms of human rights and only tolerating rather than accepting the existence of LGBTQ people. 

Trans rights activist Nachale Boonyapisomparn believes this narrative is one of the main obstacles to improving the LGBTQ rights situation: It is assumed that Thailand is accepting of LGBTQ people because they are present in all levels of society. Once it is seen as normal, she said, any demand for rights is seen as wanting privileges, which is a misconception.

“We are not demanding privileges. We are demanding the rights that [cisgender men and women] have, but we can’t access, don’t have, or aren’t recognized by the authorities,” she said.

But while Thai tourism officials want the country to seem like Southeast Asia’s queer paradise, LGBTQ people in Thailand often face a reality of discrimination and violence. 

“Once I am called up for a physical exam, I walk back to the table in the front where the recruiting unit’s doctor is sitting. I sit down on a chair next to the officer who seems young and friendly. He starts chatting with me about some trivialities and asks me for my personal information, my name, my address, and current occupation with a casual tone. While I’m unguarded, he reaches up his hand and pulls my hair until my head tilts with the force of his hand. 

“Alright. That’s real hair.”

He says, and after that, he asks me.

“Now, let me see your chest.”

[…]

The officer opens my shirt with one hand, while his other hand reaches into my bra, touching my breast in front of everyone, and looks inside to check whether I have breasts or not. When the officer’s hand touches my breast I feel as if I am really becoming a non-living object.

In her Master’s thesisA kathoey’s record: exploring the definition and self through personal archives and narratives,” a study of her own personal archives and her experiences as a kathoey – the Thai term used for trans women, gay men, and intersex people – researcher and PhD candidate Chanathip Suwannanon described her experience of going through military conscription, which every Thai citizen who was assigned male at birth must go through when they turn 21 if they did not sign up for the reserve officer training corps in high school.

Not only did an officer touch her in front of the crowd of men waiting to be examined by the recruiting officers, another officer also attempted to ask her out, making her uncomfortable and afraid. When she refused, the officer made her even more uncomfortable by the way he showed his anger.

She also noted how trans women are required to “pass” as women as much as possible, to avoid being drafted but also to avoid having to go through the process of getting the certifying documents which diagnose conditions like gender identity disorder that would exempt them from military service. She sees this as a stigmatising process. Meanwhile, trans women are often objectified and sexually harassed while going through the recruitment process, but in most cases are silenced when they speak out against it.

‘Justice for myself’

“[LGBTQ people] in Thailand are familiar to Thai people, but we don’t know that things we think are small issues are actually big problems to them,” said B-Floor Theatre director Jarunun Pantachat.

In September 2022, Jarunan co-directed a play with German director Anna-Elizabeth Frick. Titled “I Don’t Care,” the play was produced based on interviews with eight  trans people in Thailand and Germany conducted by researcher Jürgen Berger. With dialogues drawn directly from the interviews, the play depicts the stories of how they live as trans people from the childhood experiences of being forced into gender roles to changing their bodies until arriving at one that matches their identities. In one scene, an actor hung the boys’ school uniform of a white buttoned shirt and blue shorts from their neck before talking about being forced to cut their hair to match the dress code. Another actor held up a fluffy pink dress and talked about being forced to wear it to church. 

In another scene, the dialogues described gender confirmation surgery, the process of constructing new genitalia, and the risks that could threaten the lives of those receiving the procedure. But even if they knew the risk, the actors said, they would have done it nonetheless.

Towards the end of the play, an actor interrupted the performance by saying that they needed to go to the bathroom. The three actors then launched into a long discussion of which bathroom they should use, their lines noting that a trans woman may not be able to use the women’s bathroom comfortably, while a trans man may not be able to use the men’s bathroom safely.

Arriving at the theatre, front of house staff would also whisper to audience members to ask them which gender they identify as before making them to draw lots to determine whether they will sit on the blue or pink side of the stage they will sit on, which several reviewers have noted as symbolising not being born into a body that matches one’s identity. 

Jarunun said that, as a straight person, she found over the course of producing the show that there is still much she did not know about the plights of LGBTQ people. Many things that seem easy, such as the simple business of going to the toilet, are not easy. And although she does not want to say if representation perpetuates stereotypes, she said that some tropes can become so familiar that they become representative.

Trans people in Thai media have been portrayed as either the funny kathoey whose role is mainly that of a comic relief, or the beautiful but tragic trans woman destined to be rejected by her love interest because she is trans. These are the kind of representation Jarunun said her generation is familiar with.

Stories are important for Jarunun. For her, stories can uphold power or change people’s views or raise awareness, depending on how they are told, and having the space for many different kinds of narratives open up space for diverse perspectives and possibilities. For her, it does not mean that familiar tropes should not be used, but they should be played with so people can see that there is more to a story than there was in the past.

“Whatever story anyone wants to tell, they should have the right to tell it,” she said.

For Chanathip, meanwhile, representation can be oppressive, having grown up with stories that tell her she is undeserving of love or opportunities because she is trans. Religious beliefs also inform beliefs that being trans is a sin or a waste of lives. Although the way trans people are represented in the media is changing to become more positive, Chanathip said people should be aware of whether representations also set standards, noting how at one time it was clear that the standard set by the media is that, as a trans woman, if one cannot be beautiful and smart, one must be funny, and vice versa.

She would like representation to be more diverse so one would be able to see the possibilities of what one could be, but she also wants people to be aware that the trans community is as diverse as that of other people, and that there are many kinds of lives for trans people in society.  

She finds that being able to tell her own story is freeing. Going through her personal archive while writing her thesis, she said that even official documents are used to construct a narrative. Pieces of documents like report cards from her school days, where teachers would write that she was polite and effeminate, are records of who she was made to be through the power of others. Being able to tell her own story is therefore doing herself justice, as her story is no longer written by anyone else.

“I know that talking about my experience now might be too late to demand the justice that I deserve, because I don’t know where I would be able to find the evidence to confirm these things,” she wrote in her thesis.

“But if writing is a great power, then I would like to free myself from the bonds of my own weakness, cowardice, and my ignorance at the time. I will use this record to share my story of the draft to return justice to myself.”

A way forward

“I think Thailand is also in transition,” the director Jarunun said.

The past two years of pro-democracy protests have brought many social issues into mainstream discourse, including LGBTQ rights. Activists and protesters took to the streets to demand a wide range of changes, petitions were signed, and laws proposed. When the activist network Rainbow Coalition for Marriage Equality launched a petition to propose their own version of the marriage equality law, it gained more than 100,000 signatures overnight and currently has more than 350,000 signatures. 

Jarunun said that social media has made it easier for people to access information and speak out. If songs like “Pratuang”, which makes fun of trans women by describing the singer almost falling in love with a beautiful woman only to be shocked when discovering that she is trans, are released today, people would be calling them out for the mockery. Social media also makes it easier for people to find their own community beyond their immediate neighbourhood. She said she saw possibilities, and there should be space for diverse stories so that people also see the possibilities of what could be.

Reflecting on her own work, Jarunun said she realised that “I don’t care” was ultimately a play made by straight people to communicate with straight people, and that they did not include stories that would heal and empower the LGBTQ community. But judging from the feedback, she thinks that goal at least was accomplished at some level.

And although Jarunun said she doesn’t know if it is true that Thailand is LGBTQ-friendly, she said that she sometimes felt that, as a straight person, she cannot truely understand LGBTQ issues. Nevertheless, she asked why people who are not marginalised have to make life more difficult for those who are.

“These days it’s not easy for people to be happy with themselves. I may not be happy with the place I live, or my job, or other things, but for [trans people], they might have those things, but they are weighed down by having to live with their body, having to face it, find it wherever they reach. It’s so difficult, and for those of us who do not have as hard a time, why do we have to make rules so that it’s hard for other people?” she said.

For trans rights activist Nachale, “when the society is unaccepting, then the law must grant protection.” She is now working with the Foundation of Transgender Alliance for Human Rights (ThaiTGA) on a new gender recognition bill, which she said would lessen the discrimination trans people face in Thai society. If it becomes law, the bill would allow trans people to change not only their titles but also their gender in all identification documents.

If the bill passes, Nachale said it will help trans people access their rights. State authorities might be required to adjust their infrastructure and policy in line with the new legislation, and officials might have to be more sensitive, because they would have to follow the law. They might have to be more careful with gendered titles on documents, or trans women may not be allowed to stay in women’s wards when admitted to a hospital.

The current version of the bill is not the best, Nachale said, and holding these focus groups to hear from people who feel that they are not protected by the bill, which can be used to improve it. Nevertheless, she said that the working group is facing many limitations, including that Thai legislation is very much based on the gender binary. 

“Gender for the government means that, if you are not a man, then you are a woman,” she said, “so with our bill, it is very difficult to find a way to write it so that it does not go against other acts.”

For Nachale, having a gender recognition law or any other law is not the end goal of the movement for LGBTQ rights. As an activist, her goal is to make Thai society understand that there are identities beyond the gender binary and to not judge people based on their gender. The fight, she said, is against the overall gender system that has been passed through the different social institutions.

“Whenever we see the same goal, we will keep pursuing it until every LGBTQ person can live in society with dignity and without being made to feel uncomfortable,” she said.

Anna Lawattanatrakul is a Bangkok-based journalist writing for Prachatai English. Anna covers LGBTQ rights, gender equality movement, and community rights, and in 2021 was part of the team which won Amnesty International Thailand’s Human Rights Media Award.

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