Being a trans woman in Thailand: A long march to legal recognition

This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2021, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to Gender and Diversity, Green Recovery, and Emerging Economies.

 “…What’s wrong of being me,
Who cares what people see,
Different only a body,
I’m just a woman, like you and me…”

(Lyrics from the song, “I’m just a woman” by a famous
Thai trans-woman singer, Jern Jern Boonsoongnern)

In Thailand, trans women are referred to as kathoey or second-type women. They have been categorized in between a spectrum of “neither man, nor woman throughout their life.” Although trans women reside in every sector, ranging from financial to entertainment, and society increasingly accepts them as part of the community, they continue to struggle with legal recognition. Yet, Thailand finds it difficult to address the existence of transgender persons under the law. This article aims to unfold the life of trans women in Thailand and follow their unfinished fight over legal recognition. In the end, it seeks to provide possible recommendations.

Today, trans women in Thailand are stuck in the middle of nowhere because society is reluctant to categorize them. A traditional patriarchal structure and religion were the main discourses of locating trans women to an unpleasant status in the past. As a result, Trans women were looked down on by a community and could not live their normal life. Furthermore, they were provided few opportunities to access education and career. Finally, they ended up in the middle of the gray areas, such as prostitution or entertainment sectors. Similarly, Buddhism, the largest religion to be practiced in Thailand, has occupied the thought of the society toward trans women that they are a result of ‘karma’ from the past life. Thus, this is the life they deserve to pay for their actions in a past life.

A few decades ago, the media had ridiculously alienated trans women and made fun of them. Before 2011, trans women could not be drafted into the military conscription process because they were regarded as ‘psychopaths.’ For over a decade, the existence of trans women has been incrementally acknowledged in Thai society. In 2015, the enactment of the Gender Equality Act moved Thailand to another step of protecting gender discrimination, though the Act does not directly and specifically concern any LGBTIQA+ individuals. Even though there seems to be a better atmosphere of social acceptance, the life of trans women in Thailand is still struggling with the absence of legal recognition when their gender identity contradicts their  gender assigned at birth. They can love but cannot get married to their same-sex partner. They can easily access sex reassignment surgery but cannot be called women. They are uncomfortable using a female toilet despite dressing as women.

With the recent development of trans women’s acceptance, there are two possible approaches to legally uphold the status of trans women, including the third gender recognition and legal gender change. However, the concept of third gender recognition faces social resistance due to the mainstreaming gender binary perspective that revolves around society. Like many other countries, Thailand views only two genders, male and female, accepted under the law. At the same time, not every trans woman in Thailand favors the third gender recognition. Most of them prefer the society to view them as ‘normal women,’ not something else in between. Moreover, having another spectrum besides male and female would break the long tradition of the gender binary, and this would allow further discrimination against them.

Another possible approach which is legal gender change, can be an alternative. Principle 31 of the Yogyakarta Principles Plus 10 stipulates that everyone has the right to select a gender title that belongs to their gender identity, while Principle 32 reads self-determination and autonomy. Therefore, everyone should have the right to choose their preferred gender without any medical requirements, such as sex reassignment surgery or psychological diagnosis.

With this cause, trans women can obtain necessary official documents that belong to their gender identity. Nevertheless, initiating legal gender change in Thailand is still challenging. Many people believe that when permission to change legal gender happens, they will never identify the ‘real’ or ‘fake’ women. Because of this issue, Thailand should increase awareness to understand the diversity of sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression. Besides protection, an entire transgender community should also be empowered in legislative participation and community development to fully exercise their fundamental rights without discrimination.

In conclusion, legal recognition of trans women in Thailand is considered a long march. Though societal discrimination against sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression has significantly declined, legal discrimination continues to play its roles. Therefore, this article urges the relevant authorities in Thailand to legally recognise trans women by legal gender change and empower them in a more inclusive community.

This article was written by Saittawut (Matt) Yutthaworakool, edited by Dhini Hardiyanti, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse.

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