Rights and Lives of Transgender Women, Dimmed Hopes in Times of Hopelessness
We could say Pattaya is the ‘capital city of transgender women.’ It was once a city overflowing with career opportunities, the chance to a life with dignity. But sometimes the line between dignity and indecency is so thin that we cannot see it, and with now the pandemic, all hopes are shattered. Restaurants and entertainment establishments are closing down, one by one.
We had the chance to talk to Thitiyanun Nakpor, Director of Sisters Foundation, an LGBTQ+ activist who incessantly fights in what seems like an epic battle, for the dignity of transgender women.
What do people tend to not know about transgender women in Pattaya?
When I started working at the Foundation, there would be more than 300 tickets in our drawer with various accusations, being a transgender women would get you fined 300 baht, being a sex worker would get you fined 500 baht. Once a transgender showgirl was just getting home from work at night and was arrested by the police. The officer claimed that if she dressed up like that, she certainly was a sex worker. The woman was taken to the police station, stayed there overnight and was forced to sign a confession that she was a sex worker. Once I found out, I rushed there in the morning with some news reporters. The transgender woman’s face was bruised and she was shouting ‘help me.’ I asked the policeman for evidence, and he said she was also arrested for theft, but there was no evidence whatsoever. She was so scared that she ran and jumped downstairs. I got her out eventually, but I can’t help everyone like this, can I? Transgender women face this kind of situation all the time. There was no transparency in the process.
Transgender Women: The Sisters Foundation does not discriminate against transgender women based on their apperance. Some transgender people cannot afford hormones, some work in governmental agencies and cannot come out. To be a transgender woman is simply to be, regardless of whether the person has undergone physical transition or not.
What do you think is the root of the problem?
It’s the same old stereotype. People think kathoeys are savages. Let’s say there’s a case of a traveller getting robbed, the police will come to seize transgender women first. Lots of them. And fine each of them 200-500 baht then pick a scapegoat. Once I attended a meeting with the Mayor of Pattaya and asked him about the standard of the penalty, and where does the money go? It’s getting better now. But we had to fight for this. In the past, just being a kathoey is a wrongdoing already.
Kathoey: The word ‘kathoey’ is commonly used in Thai to refer to a transgender woman
But we have to accept the fact that some transgender women are sex workers.
Sex work is work! We have to understand that there are people who become sex workers willingly, and unwillingly. We can’t say that everyone has no other option. But if you ask why many transgender women become sex workers, several studies have shown it is because they are discriminated against. I graduated with honours but I couldn’t get any jobs. Transgender women can be a teacher, they can be a doctor, but they have to face obstacles. With no job, there’s no money. There are few options left, being a sex worker or a showgirl. It’s a limited career path for transgender women.
But society has become more open towards LGBTQ+ now?
It is better. But it is no better than five years ago. A work by Prof. Dr. Vitit Muntrabhorn also states that among all the LGBTQ+ sub groups, transgender people are discriminated the most. Most workplaces still adhere to the binary gender box. If you’re gay or lesbian, you still express yourselves according to the binary gender expression. But people notice transgender women from just a glance. So we are targeted, bullied, and discriminated against. Especially when society loves only the beautiful transgender women, there’s not much space left for the others.
Is it important to legalize sex work?
Think about how sex workers have sustained this country’s economy. But now they are not getting any help from the government because sex work is not leaglized so sex workers can’t fill in their profession as such when they contact social security. But this is basic human rights. You think everyone can be a sex worker? No! Sex workers are professionals. They have to meticulously protect themselves.
If sex work is legalized, the sex workers will not get exploited and they can pay taxes directly. We should never forget how long they have driven the country’s economy. Don’t just use the word ‘morals’ to hinder access to human rights. Still, in terms of legal protection, there is rarely anyone who fights for this. But if we look at the trend now, there is hope. Now if someone discriminates against a transgender woman on social media, people will defend the transgender woman. Some sex workers now come out to talk about their experience openly and get praised by the public. I think society is changing.
Besides legalizing sex work, we don’t even have the legalized same sex marriage, which seems easier to achieve. Do you think this affects transgender women as well?
A study from Transgender Europe under the Trans Murder Monitoring Project has found that a transgender person is killed every 72 hours across the world. This is the result of gender-based hatred. For same sex marriage, some homosexual couples have been together for decades but if their parter gets into a serious accident, they cannot even visit the partner in ICU. They cannot say goodbye to their loved one. The possessions they have together are confiscated despite the fact that they have earned them together from love. Another example is sexual assault. In the past when a transgender woman was raped and went to the police, they would be laughed at, and asked ‘what did you do to the guy first?’ The law also recognized that sexual assault can only be committed between men and women, but now the law has been changed to between two persons. Gender is removed altogether so we don’t have to depend on vague interpretation.
What is Sisters Foundation focusing on now?
We advocate in every way we can. Our focus is at two levels: the policy level and individual level. The latter is about creating an understanding for transgender people about what welfare they are entitled to. It’s super unfair that everyone pays taxes but only us who don’t get welfare. Society must understand and accept transgender people.
Now I’m focusing on the project ‘Trans Win.’ We send food supplies for transgender women who’ve been out of work for two years or more. We try to send words of encouragement, embrace them, and give them advice. I try to tell them to be realistic that Pattaya will never be the same again. Some have been showgirls all their lives so they’re worried about what to do next. We try to help create positivity. Now I’m creating makeup and cooking tutorial videos for them. I don’t expect them to get a job out of this. I just want to keep their spirits high, and forget all this madness for a while. Mental health comes first.
Which governmental organization should actually be doing this job?
I don’t know, really. I just know that the pandemic doesn’t discriminate between gender nor sexuality. A lot of transgender women in Pattaya got infected and when they went to a field hospital, there’s a problem when the staff don’t know whether to put them into a male or female ward. Transgender women are not comfortable being put in the male ward. We should have welfare for transgender people such as free hormones. Most people don’t know that lacking hormones affects a transgender person’s physical and mental health; it can cause depression to the point of suicide, not to mention osteoporosis. We pay taxes, we should get welfare in return.
Is it still a long way to go in building understanding about transgender women?
We worked with UNDP to provide gender sensitivity training for police officers especially on the arrest of transgender women. They can’t just see every transgender woman and arrest every one of them, or else it also affects tourism. Some of my transgender women friends don’t want to go walk in Pattaya at night, for fear of getting arrested. And there are things people don’t see; migrant transgender women who are sex workers cannot access COVID testing at all. There is a saying that ‘kathoeys are the same’ but we are not the same. Some migrant transgender women are tested positive for HIV but they cannot access free medication. So I support them not because I pity them, but because they are human beings.
What is the next step for Sisters Foundation?
What we are doing and have alway done is being more than a health care center for transgender women, we care deeper to the level of wellbeing. We focus on day to day needs and lifestyles more than policy. So we focus from community level to national level since changing policies need those data and information to support. There are more things to do, more to fight for.