Nada Chaiyajit, Gender Activist, Advances Rights for Trans Students in Thai University

As a trans female student, Nada Chaiyajit, gender activists from Thailand, faced severe barriers in accessing her education, continually being banned from sitting in exams when she dressed and presented herself as a female, and facing discrimination and harassment from teachers and students. Nada eventually dropped out of school and did not pursue her Bachelor’s degree again until 2013 at the age of 33. The second time around however Nada took it upon herself to challenge her university’s regulations and succeeded.

Nada not only won her case to change her university’s policies, but she became the first individual ever to succeed in using Thailand’s new Gender Equality Act successfully to uphold the rights of trans individuals in the country.

Rashima Kwatra, Communications Officer at OutRight Action International, had a moment to sit with Nada and ask her for more details about her case and what she thinks it means for trans students in Thailand in the future.   

Can you tell us a little about your story and what obstacles you faced while trying to receive your diploma?

When I graduated and submitted a request for the university to issue my certificate of graduation and my transcript, I was denied. In Thailand, you have to attach your photo to your diploma - in the photo you have to wear a specific gown which is gender specific.  All my classmates received their certificate and transcript on time, except for me.

One day I received a call from the registrar who said that there was a problem with my photo. They said that my photo did not match my title - which is listed as Mister on my national identity card. They said, as a “Mister” I could not  wear my hair long and present myself as I did in the photo. They asked me to do everything possible to change my photo and make sure I expressed myself as a male, for example to tie my hair back.

I said I could not. This is why I studied law. I wanted to be lawyer to fight for my rights. It is against my own faith to do something different to what I believe. The administration then said that they could not do anything else. I even pleaded with them knowing that I had applied to a series of notable scholarships around the world that required my diploma, but they still said they could not do anything about it. So I started a petition in my university and at the same time submitted a complaint to the Committee on Consideration of Unfair Gender Discrimination (WorLorPor), as part of Thailand’s new Gender Equality Act.

What are some of the problems associated with this regulation for trans students, and were you the first person who tried to challenge these rules in your university?

Before I tried to change the regulations, there was a transgender group in the general student body that tried to get a petition signed to allow them to dress in a way that relates to their gender identity and expression, but the regulation said clearly that every single student must wear a uniform in the sex of birth assigned. That’s why trans students face a lot of stigma and discrimination because of this regulation. Students who study in the field of science, pharmacy, medicine, nursing, they face a lot of problems because it is difficult for them to attend exams or any official event hosted by the university, and of course the graduation ceremony as well because the robes/ uniform is gendered.

What was the process of challenging the regulations in your University?

In Thailand public universities have their own Acts which give them legal power to manage the education system in their own universities. So I found out who I had to contact, what discretion of power they had, and how I could submit my petition to change the school’s regulations. I searched for specific regulations about student affairs and I found the regulation about uniforms. I drafted a petition and submitted it to the office of the president of the university, but at the same time I also submitted a complaint to the WorLorPor.

I also worked to find out which other trans students in my graduating class wanted to receive the same rights and protections as me. So, in total, 7 of us were able to express ourselves to match our gender identity on our certificates and transcripts as well as be able to express ourselves as we wished during our graduation ceremony. This was the first time in the history of the school where this was allowed. The President announced this historic moment during our graduation ceremony.

Can you tell me more about working with the Gender Equality ACT and how it was navigating this new law?

At the national level I submitted a complaint to WorLorPor. It was really difficult because the Committee needed to call both parties to the table. This was worrisome as the university could have filed a lawsuit on defamation, which is why this type of challenge has been very difficult in the past. However, this time there was political will to push this challenge forward, both from the side of the WorLorPor and from my university as I had spoken with them and submitted an internal petition in school already.

As a challenge, the Gender Equality Act is a privacy rights based law, so individuals have to submit complaints themselves, which makes it a bit harder. Since I was a law student, I was able to write my complaint in a way that was easily accepted by the WorLorPor, this was an advantage. Also as an activist, I had helped others in submitting a complaint, so I understood the Act well. My complaint was the third complaint to be submitted to the WorLorPor but it was the first to receive official consideration. The committee was newly established at the time, so they did not work particularly well together, and there were 9 people in the committee itself. This meant that the challenge was that it took a lot of time for my case to be considered and for a decision to be made. Once I won, the case became legally binding and my university had to follow the mandate of the committee.

What change do you think this ruling will bring nationally?

At the national level, once the consideration has been issued, it will set a standard for government agencies and entities in private and public areas that any kind of regulation that is against transgender people because of their gender identity or expression is illegal. This has the ability to change regulations in all educational institutions so that trans people can wear clothing of their preference and appear as they wish on school documents. However, I still need to take this issue up with a higher committee which is chaired by the Prime Minister, if the petition passes this process and the national board, then perhaps there will be a reform to all the laws that govern Thai educational institutions on gender expression at schools. It ultimately can allow trans people to live a life of greater self-determination.