News (World)

What it’s really like to be transgender in Thailand

BANGKOK (AP) — The most dangerous place in high school for Jetsada Taesombat was the boys’ bathroom. Her makeup, her lipstick, her accessories became signals to fellow students who targeted her with cruel jokes, insults and physical abuse. But Jetsada refused to hide her transgender identity.

The visibility of transgender people, especially in Bangkok, might make Thailand appear more liberal than other countries regarding their identity. But the reality, they say, is that transgender Thais face deep discrimination, scorn and aggression. Often, it happens in bathrooms, where closed doors and expectations of privacy ensure secrecy for the perpetrators.

When Jetsada complained to her teacher that she had been sexually harassed in the bathroom, the teacher blamed it on her makeup. When she appealed the teacher to act, the teacher said the harassment was a consequence of being a sexual deviant.

“Growing up in an all-boys school, I didn’t feel comfortable going into the boys’ toilet,” said Jetsada, now 32. “I was afraid for my life. I was afraid of getting bullied or sexually harassed.”

Jetsada always chose to use the girls’ bathroom, despite the risk of being scolded or reprimanded. Facing a teacher’s wrath was the better option. If she couldn’t get access to the girls’ toilet, Jetsada would wait until school ended or she brought a transgender friend to stand guard in the boys’ bathroom.

Transgender Thais say the situation here is similar to the United States, where conflicting state laws and federal policy on the matter are being hotly debated. Lawsuits have been filed to challenge the Obama administration’s directive allowing transgender people to use bathrooms matching their gender identity, as well as a North Carolina law requiring people to use bathrooms of their birth gender.

In Thailand, the discrimination partly comes from religious beliefs about sexual behavior.

Most Thais are Buddhists, who are supposed to live by the Five Moral Precepts — the third of them being to avoid sexual misconduct. People born with the wrong gender identity are believed to have brought it on themselves by sinning in a past life. Thais also consider a transgender life miserable because they think a person born in the wrong body won’t find love.

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