Thailand: The Tale of the Pink Toilet - Transgender Rights in Thailand

By Paisarn Likhitpreechakul
In 2007, sexual rights activists in Thailand came together as a coalition to demand that their rights be included in the new constitution being drafted by the Constitution Drafting Assembly. Their demands included the rights to non-discrimination, same-sex marriage, and inheritance rights for same-sex couples, as well as the right of gay men and transgender individuals to seek and receive legal redress for rape. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission wrote to the Thai National Assembly (parliament) in support of our Thai colleagues and urged Assembly members to recognize sexual diversity and sexual rights in Thailand. Unfortunately, despite the strong backing of Thailand’s Human Rights Commission, the vote on the proposal to include these rights in the new constitution was narrowly defeated in the National Assembly. Eventually, the political upheavals in Thailand altogether delayed the adoption of the new constitution. For Thai activists the fact that the parliamentary debate on the new constitution was nationally televised is worth celebrating since, for the first time, issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity received a level of serious scrutiny.

Within this context, IGLHRC was interested in examining the implications of designating separate toilets for katoey college and high school students in Thailand. The term, katoey is used broadly for transgender identified people, transsexuals, cross-dressers, or effeminate men in Thai society. In 2004, a private vocational college in Chiang Mai, Thailand offered its katoey population of 15 students the option of using separate toilet facilities. In 2008, a public high school set up a separate toilet for katoey students. What do these gestures signal for Thailand’s katoeys who are considered inferior even as they are acknowledged in Thai society?

Thai gay activist and newspaper columnist, Paisarn Likhitpreechakul provides this report and analysis for IGLHRC.

In June 2008, the media brought the existence of transgender toilets in a Thai school to the attention of the local public. Shortly afterwards, the news reached the gaze of an international audience. The media’s focus was on the toilets in Kampaeng High School, a secondary school in North East Thailand. According to reports, the toilets were constructed after a survey of the school’s 2,600 students revealed that approximately 200 of them identified as transgender. 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.

Appearances Matter

The facilities at Kampaeng High School stirred a lot of interest as they are probably Thailand’s first in a public institution. But there have been other toilets built specifically for this section of the population (at last count, two at temples, two at private vocational colleges and one at a gas station).

The motivation for constructing these toilets is not fully benign. Male-to-female (MTF) transgender people have increasingly been turning to female toilets in order to avoid harassment in the men’s rooms. But many female students have complained about uneasiness when sharing restrooms with transgender people who are unknown to them. The new toilets at Kampaeng High School, while accommodating transgender students, are also a way to give the ladies room back to female-born students.

In fact, it may be more accurate to say that transgender toilets in schools were built with an eye on appearances rather than diversity. Kampaeng School director Sitthisak Sumontha implied as much by saying that the toilets in Kampaeng School were also meant to "protect the school’s image"—so the school won’t appear to visitors as "lacking principles" by allowing students of both sexes to share toilets.

If there is any lingering doubt about the priority of appearances over diversity, one can turn to another area where it is made abundantly clear: uniforms. No school, including Kampaeng School, allows cross-gender uniforms. Even in universities where exceptions are made, cross-gender uniforms are virtually prohibited at graduation ceremonies. In other words, when it comes to tolerance, appearances matter more than substance.

A quick glance at the comments sections of a variety of web sites also undercuts the idea of Thai tolerance. Under the cover of anonymity, many Thai citizens blatantly air transphobic attitudes, accusing transgender "freaks" of causing everything from moral decline to human extinction.

Furthermore, many Thai Buddhists ignore the core Buddhist principle of compassion and hold a questionable belief that one is born transgender (or gay) as a retribution for sexual transgressions in a past life. According to this way of thinking, transgender people deserve low status and no empathy. The only thing that prevents this contempt from developing into overt intolerance is the local culture of non-confrontation that forces individuals to keep their disapproval to themselves.

While outsiders may think that Thailand is a "transgender paradise," a little digging below the surface therefore reveals a very different picture.

Trans Thailand

Whether or not Thais are favorable or ready, transgender people are becoming more visible and self-confident, and the conventional silence around trans issues is becoming harder to maintain. Part of this self-confidence involves, for some transpeople, a rejection of the concept of transgender toilets. Although transgender students at Kampaeng High School have welcomed their new facilities, other trans people, such as those who participate in transgender-oriented web groups, such as, disagree, viewing separate transgender facilities as walls of segregation. Most say they will continue to use ladies’ rooms and access transgender toilets, and the ridicule that comes with them, only as a last resort.

One thing is clear. Irrespective of whether transgender toilets exist or not, transgender people face problems in Thailand, where they live without the protections offered by anti-discrimination or anti-violence laws.

Pigeonholed into certain low-paying positions in sales and services, trans people in Thailand often turn to prostitution for survival, and fall victim to violence. Recently there has been repeated news of high-level police persecution of transgender people in the tourist cities of Chiangmai and Pattaya.

Discrimination in Thailand

Although long a part of Thai culture, katoeys—as MTF transgender people are known locally—have been at the receiving end of discrimination. These are the most flagrant incidents to date:

  • In 1997, the Rajabhat Institute—a nationwide group of teacher’s colleges—announced that "sexual deviants" would not be enrolled. Although the plan was defeated after public outrage, more subtle forms of discrimination continue in various educational institutions.
  • In 1999, the Government Public Relations Department issued a memo asking television channels to ban appearances by "sexual deviants."
  • During 2005-6, transgender people who showed up for the compulsory military draft had ‘psychosis’ written on their military papers as a reason for their discharge. Prospective employees are legally required to see these papers, and as a consequence many transgender people have been denied job interviews.

Despite these gross systematic abuses, the few transgender groups in existence mainly concern themselves with health and transition issues. However, a handful of transgender people have recently joined existing gay and lesbian organizations. Working together as the "Sexual Diversity Coalition," these organizations have been vocal in their advocacy of LGBTI rights in Thailand in recent years.

  • In 2006, the Coalition filed a complaint against the Ministry of Defense for writing ‘psychosis’ on transgender peoples’ military discharge papers. The case is pending in the Administrative Court.
  • In 2007, citing the Yogyakarta Principles and other documents, the Coalition lobbied the Constitution Drafting Committee to explicitly specify ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ as grounds for protection against discrimination in the constitution. It was a qualified success, as ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ are now explained in the "letter of intention" to be included under the category of sexual discrimination in the constitution.
  • Also in 2007, the Coalition, working with women’s organizations, successfully demanded the amendment of the "rape law" to include marital rape and rapes committed against men and transgender people. They also succeeded in pushing for the "titles law," whereby women can freely choose to be called "Ms" or "Mrs." However, language allowing transgender people to choose their titles was dropped from the bill.

Challenging the Status Quo

The recent, and successful, campaign to boycott an international hotel that forbade transgender people from entering its nightclub is a powerful example of the type of action that could shift conditions for trans people. But it is important for more transgender people to come out and demand equality and non-discrimination in proactive and strategic ways.

Another important challenge for transgender people in Thailand is winning broad acceptance from non-trans women so that they are no longer viewed as "second class." The coalition of trans- and non-trans women that fights against patriarchy and sexism will be stronger for it.

Cautious Optimism

But things are not all bad. Look more closely and there are reasons to be optimistic that transgender people will eventually be accepted in Thailand. Again, the toilet debate is revealing. To some degree, transgender people are already accepted by non-trans women. "Toms" —butch lesbians/female-to-male trans people—are generally seen as fundamentally female and have no problems in women’s toilets. And although many female students complain of uneasiness when sharing toilets with transgender people they don’t know—especially those lacking appropriate manners—the same female students readily admit to having no problems sharing with their transgender friends.

Here schools should take notice of how personal relationships can turn prejudice into acceptance, and assist such positive changes by educating students about sexual and gender diversity. This would bring positive change to transpeoples’ lives—change that transcends separate toilets and everything they symbolize.