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What it’s really like to be transgender in Thailand

Transgender people appear to be able to live openly in the Thai capital, attracting little attention on the streets and in restaurants and shopping malls. But the country does not legally recognize gender changes, same-sex marriages, adoptions by same-sex parents or commercial surrogacy.

Discrimination in employment, the provision of goods and services, hate speech and crimes were made illegal only last September when the Gender Equality Act became effective. Before 2015, transgender people had no laws to protect them against being unjustly turned down for a job or harassed.

And transgender people are still targets of violence.

A research project by Transgender Europe on killings of trans and gender-diverse people in 65 countries, counted 137 reported murders of transgender people in North America from January 2008 to December 2015.

Thailand has only seen 14, but the number is deceptive. Police in Thailand, as well as in many countries, often identify victims as men, rather than transgender, according to Jetsada, who now is executive director and co-founder of the Thai Transgender Alliance, which works to raise awareness and understanding about the identities and rights of transgender people in Thailand.

“Even though many foreigners think we’re LGBT-friendly in Thailand, there’s still so much violence and hatred toward us,” said a government liaison officer, Chinnarat Buttho.

“Although in high school, I had not started dressing as a woman, I always knew that my heart was one of a woman’s. But I was always taught by society’s rules that I have to go to the boy’s room. I looked like a boy but I showed female mannerisms. I was bullied a lot because of it.”

Chinnarat, now 32, started dressing as a woman when she pursued a master’s degree, and her friends and family have become more comfortable and accepting of her choice. She has not used the men’s bathroom since then.

Many transgender people, despite holding university degrees, are unable to find work in their respective fields, said Jetsada.

“Many people I know still struggle with discrimination at job interviews; many times they don’t get hired because of their identity,” said Jetsada. “When faced with the question of whether they’re willing to cut their hair short, stop wearing makeup, act like a man for a job, many are unable to disclaim and lie about their identity. The sex industry becomes their only option.”

Chinnarat and Jetsada believe that allowing a transgender person to use the bathroom where they feel most comfortable is a decision that would lead to a more inclusive and accepting society.

“How do you live in the same world with people who have such differing opinions and perspectives from yourself?” asked Jetsada. “You teach people ways to coexist and in the long run, just hope that it gets better.”

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