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Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Fighting mars the battle for 'katoey' rights
Beauty-queen glamour and moving oratory have made Yolada Komklong the champion of transwomen in Thailand. Three cheers for that.
Indeed, our society needs to accept that there are indeed people who are struggling in bodies that do not fit their innate gender identity. Many need sex reassignment surgery to redress the problem. And their need for legal identity as females should be heeded.
Yolada is chairperson of the Transwomen Association of Thailand which boasts 2,000 members. The advocacy association has been active in campaigning for legal rights for transwomen to use the gender prefix Ms or Mrs as well as for state medical assistance for sex change operations.
These demands have already been met in many countries around the world. The "katoey" community here should therefore be happy to have someone speak up for them, shouldn't they? Why, therefore, is Yolada and the transwomen movement being fiercely attacked as seriously subverting the katoey's rights movements as a whole? And for a very good reason, too.
Their emotional and ideological rifts were played up to the hilt for rating in the popular TV talk show Woody Kerd Ma Kui last month. Tears rolled down Yolada's cheeks as she made an emotional plea for public sympathy. But when other transgender panellists questioned her claim to being a "full woman" since she has no womb and cannot give birth, she switched to cat-fighting mode, attacking them as being mere victims of mainstream society which tells katoey they can never be fully accepted as women.
"I used to call myself a katoey, but no more. I am now a full woman," she declared.
It is a big political step for any katoey to dare assert their own identity. The question is: At what price? And who is paying for that?
These are the questions many advocates for sexual diversity are asking. Transwomen like Yolada who have a strong aversion to male sexual organs and need sex reassignement surgery are just one part of the much larger transgender community. Many katoey do not want a sex change operation, although they similarly want to rid society of discrimination against those who do not fit the male/female mold.
Mental disorder is one of the social stigmas the katoey rights movement has been fighting against. They took the military to court for dismissing katoey from the military draft by branding them as being inflicted with "permanent mental disorder", which consequently destroyed their future job opportunties. The military has now stopped using this term.
It is understandable, therefore, that they cannot accept Yolada's campaign for legal rights and access to sex reassignment surgery which runs on the very premise that being a katoey is a mental disorder.
Yolada argues that she is just following the definition of the World Health Organisation which sees transsexualism as a gender identity disorder, a mental illness which can be easily fixed by sex reassignment surgery. The patients should then receive state support for medical assistance, which would pave the way for their other legal rights as women, she argues.
Her insistence that she is only fighting for the rights of transwomen has triggered many criticisms. Some say her campaign is chained by oppressive heterosexual values which force people to be either men or women, uncaring about the sufferings of others who do not fit the gender binary.
Others say Yolada dismisses the variant degrees in transexualism, misleads young minds into believing sex reassignment surgery is the only solution, and fails to bring to light the many physical and medical problems many katoey face after their sex change operations.
And if Yolada has her way, the larger katoey community will have a much harder time battling against the mental illness stigma and loss of civil liberties.
Three decades ago, homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder by the World Health Organisation. It is no longer so. Transsexuals can fight for the same revision. After all, the change they want won't change things for the better when it hurts others and is still trapped in old bigotry.
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