Transgender in Thailand, Part 1

The issue of transgender and transsexual rights and tolerance in Thailand is very nuanced. Western perceptions and Thai reality are in opposition of one another, and the incongruence between how Thai transgender rights are viewed and how transgender rights are carried out only serves to further harm the people caught in the middle. Cross-cultural transgender perspectives are sometimes used by transgender activists and GLBT writers as a means of deconstructing and challenging domestic cultural norms. Evan B. Towle and Lynn M. Morgan explore this idea in Romancing the Transgender Native, Rethinking the Use of the “Third Gender” Concept. They write, “…the cross-cultural perspective provides a welcome alternative to the heavily psychologized, medicalized, and moralistic analysis previously invoked in the West to explain gender variation.” However, the use of ethnographic evidence of gender variance in other countries should not be used to perpetuate the idea that such countries only harbor acceptance and tolerance of transgender and transsexual individuals.

Thailand has been idealized by the West as a paradise for gender variance wherein transgender and transsexual individuals express their gender identity free from ridicule, prejudice, or discrimination. In Thai for Gay Tourists: A Language Guide to the Gay Culture of Thailand, Thai culture is described as “gay-friendly” and accepting of identities and behaviors deviating from what is considered normal.

The media’s focus on Thailand’s “trans-friendly” aspects also paints an unfair picture of the reality of transgender discrimination. In 2008, Kampaeng High School, a high school in Northeast Thailand, became the focus of international attention. The school installed transgender bathroom facilities after a school survey found that 200 of the school’s 2,600 students identified as transgender. Parisarn Likhitpreechakul of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, wrote about the development, “Media reports indicated that the facilities were built to alleviate their students’ discomfort—showcasing Thailand as a country with a unique tolerance for diversity that extends to gender identity issues. But if tolerance means a respect for equality despite difference, then that is definitely not the case here. On the surface, the existence of transgender toilets suggests that Thailand is tolerant of diversity and has recognized a “third sex.” But scratch beneath the surface and it becomes clear that the toilets are just band-aids for a burning issue: transgender inequality.”

Some have argued that transgender bathroom facilities were built to placate female students and maintain positive appearances. Male-to-female transgender students became using female bathroom facilities to avoid harassment, but female-bodied students began complaining about sharing restrooms with transgender individuals. Kampaeng’s new transgender facilities were built, perhaps, first to give female-bodied students their bathrooms back and second to accommodate transgender students.

Kampaeng High School director, Sitthisak Sumontha implied that the transgender restrooms were built for appearances when he said they were to “protect the school’s image” so that the school would not appear to be “lacking principles” if the public were to find out that ladies restrooms were used by both female and male-born individuals.

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