Transgender people are among the most marginalized populations in the world. They experience persistent poverty, social exclusion and poor health outcomes. This is exacerbated when they are required to use an identity document that does not match their gender identity or gender expression. As members of society, transgender people have duties and responsibilities and contribute to society, the same way as any other individual. For example, they help other people, such as donating blood to help injured or unhealthy people; they contribute to the civic society, such as voting in elections, paying taxes or abiding by the law. The lack of legal gender recognition restricts their ability to fully contribute to and participate in society, such as the difficulty of a transgender person to vote as their gender identity does not match the gender title on legal document. The achievement of legal gender recognition is, therefore, crucial for transgender people to fully enjoy all human rights and become active members of society.
In Thailand, UNDP, through its Being LGBTI in Asia and the Pacific programme, is working closely with civil society organizations such as the Foundation of Transgender Alliance for Human Rights (Thai TGA) to advance legal gender recognition. UNDP is facilitating discussions between government and civil society to draft a legal gender recognition law that is in accordance with international human rights standards.
In line with the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, UNDP believes that every person, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, has the right to lead a life free of stigma, discrimination and violence. Therefore, UNDP works closely with our partners to address barriers to social inclusion, access to health and social services and enjoyment of human rights for transgender people, to ensure that no one is left behind.
In this interview conducted by UNDP with Jetsada Taesombat (Note), the Director of the Foundation of Thai TGA, we discuss the importance of the legal gender recognition law and what is being done to bring it into reality.
Currently, what are the biggest concerns/challenges for transwomen and transmen in the community?
Note: My main concern is that in Thailand we’re now moving towards being an aging society and transwomen and transmen may not have access to the benefits they need to cope with that transition. We found that all the information and research available about trans senior citizens is very limited. As a transwoman, I am worried about how I can access benefits as a senior citizen. If necessary, we need to be able to have access to a shelter if our family can’t take care of us. Would a transman be put in a women’s shelter, since everything is based on gender marker?
Also, we can’t go to the hospital and tell them that we would like to consult about getting hormone therapy or gender-affirming surgeries. Everything costs money and the National Health Security Office (NHSO)and other insurance does not cover this.
Other than health care, we found that things are getting better in society and culture. There is more transgender visibility in the media. For the 2019 elections, many political parties are promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights.
Why are laws that allow people to change their gender on official government identity documents important for trans people? How can these laws change the lives of trans people?
Note: At the individual level, legal gender recognition would make a trans person to be more proud of who they are and feel more secure about their lives. Currently, trans people don’t have access to the same opportunities and resources as others since they are not legally recognized. A friend of mine got a scholarship to Japan, but when they saw that she’s a transwoman and the dormitory system they have there is only for two genders, she couldn’t go. If they recognized in the first place that she was a woman, this would never have happened. I see this as a lost opportunity.
Beyond the transgender people themselves, family is another important issue. We interviewed parents of transgender people from all different parts of Thailand, and we found out that the primary reasons why they don’t want their children to be trans is because they are worried that their children’s lives will be difficult.Many families are afraid that trans people will face obstacles in their lives, such as a lack of employment and access to other opportunities. That said, it’s not a lack of love that prevents families from accepting trans people but actually it’s an act of love.Due to the stigma around being transgender, parents don’t want their kids to be disappointed and fail to find jobs and success in life. And parents ask, who will look after them later in life? If the a legal and gender recognition law is passed in Thailand and our gender identity and expression can be legally recognized, acceptance would grow both at the society and family level.
Thai TGA serves as the secretariat to the steering committee to develop the draft legal gender recognition law in Thailand. How has the committee been supporting the development of legal gender recognition law in Thailand?
Note: We drafted this law by looking at the model from Argentina. The main concern is that we should give the rights to self-determination to trans people without needing medical proof, although we can’t deny that medical procedures may be involved in order to evaluate and give us guidance.
Secondly, legal gender recognition does not mean just changing the gender marker but also being recognized as who we are and granting access to health and education.
This is what we would like policy makers and the general public to understand.
The law is meant to protect each individual’s rights and their gender identity expression. One argument we’ve often heard in the media is if the law is passed allowing people to legally change their gender, how would men be able to tell if the person they’re marrying is a woman or a transwoman? Or if their spouse can have children? This is kind of thing we need to communicate better on to society – they are concerned about crime and deception that could potentially come with this law.
How can LGBTI allies and supporters help raise awareness and advance legal gender recognition?
Note: Actually, it is everyone’s responsibility to support this law on gender recognition. Of course, if you asked trans people, most would say yes they need this law, but we need support from the cis gender community as well. I want it to reach the level where everyone can talk about trans rights and no one would assume and say that person is gay or trans.
I have a friend who always helps me sign petitions for laws such as the gender equality act but when it comes to legal gender recognition, she says no. She does not support legal gender recognition because she feels like transwomen could eliminate parts of women’s rights and take up women’s space, because the law would allow transwomen to change their gender markers. I would like to explain that it is not about taking up women’s space, it’s about basic human rights. So I think we need to communicate more to the general public to understand that. One of the most important voices that could make the difference is from straight and/or cis gender people. I feel like I need to work more to reach people outside the LGBTI circle.
We would like to see more of the family network. If transgender people’s parents can also help support, that could be significant. Celebrities could also help and be vocal about it. I think if public figures who are not trans talk about it, it would grab more people’s attention.
By having legal gender recognition, it could change the perception and beliefs of Thai people in several ways. The first one is that by having this law, we do not get special treatment and rights. The second one is that transgender is not a mental illness and is not considered a gender identity disorder. Otherwise, this law would be born out of pity, and we don’t want that – it is about basic human rights.
Since the Gender Equality Act, B.E. 2558  has passed into law,how has it been helpful for raising issues of inequality? And how can Thai TGA help in monitoring the implementation of the Act?
Note: Talking about the gender equality act, there is still room for improvement in terms of promoting and implementing it. It can be promoted in all places, such as in the government sector, private sector and education settings. There was a case last year where a trans woman tried to check into a hotel in Phuket but was not allowed. The hotel stereotyped all trans women to be sex workers. She called us and we gave her advice on what to do. Now the case is closed and the hotel was shown to have actually infringed on her rights.
These are the benefits we get from the law. But only active citizens know this law and only those who are able to stand the pressure from society. I’m glad that currently more trans people are aware of their rights and know whom to contact when their rights are violated.
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Being LGBTI in Asia and the Pacific is a UNDP regional programme aimed at addressing inequality, violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, and promotes universal access to health and social services. The objectives and outcomes of the programme contribute to the achievement of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and its guiding principle to “leave no one behind”. For more information on Being LGBTI in Asia, visit: http://www.asia-pacific.undp.org/content/rbap/en/home/programmes-and-initiatives/being-lgbt-in-asia.html
About the author
Kawisara Limaksorn was an intern with UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub. She worked closely with Being LGBTI in Asia and the Pacific Team. Kawisara strongly believes in the equality for all.