Jetsada Taesombat _ a transgender _ embodies the charms of a young woman who exudes confidence and style. With an innate talent for public-speaking, the 27-year-old seems suited for the position of coordinator at the Thai Transgender Alliance (Thai TGA), which promotes activities to help overcome prejudices society may hold against them.
Known to her friends by her pet name, Note, she is one amongst many transgender women in Thailand who have faced insults and harassment for choosing to lead the life of a woman in public.
The younger of two children, Note hails from a close-knit middle class family in Korat province, and aspires to join a non-governmental organisation one day.
She has had a happy childhood with virtually no signs of dysfunctional behaviour within the family to suggest she would one day desire to become a woman.
"I have been blessed with a role model, my father, whom I have always been close to and a mother that I equally love," said the demure Note. "It isn't that as a child I spent more time with a particular parent, or my elder sister, to suggest it formed the basis of my desire to become a woman.
"Since my earliest recollections I just knew I wanted to be a woman. I was just being me."
Growing up in Korat, Note recalls the unusually long stares people gave her when she passed by, making her wonder what the fuss was all about. She was in the seventh grade when the message hit home, that she was different, when a male classmate called her by a derogatory name reserved for transgenders. Not sure how to react, she took the name-calling in her stride, and convinced herself that she was not doing anything wrong by being the person she was meant to be.
"I can't speak for transgender people in general. For me, I don't adhere to the 'born to be' philosophy, rather I do believe in gender of choice," said the human rights and social development major from Mahidol University.
"This is the lifestyle I have chosen for myself. Everyone has the right to choose their own lifestyle. I really don't believe we should stereotype transgender people because they come in all forms, sizes and personalities.
"Not every transgender is loud, obnoxious and wears heavy make up _ or for that matter is stunningly beautiful. Movies and commercials making fun of us seem to send the wrong signal that we are all the same.
"Most of us have a sharp tongue because we have been ridiculed for so long, it is our way to hit back. I have learned to control my tongue after attending an empowerment seminar where I was taught the power of words, and to think before speaking. I do my best not to display emotion when I am trying to get a message across to someone."
Note's high school days in an all-boys setting were filled with eve teasing and harassment at the hands of all who found her an easy target to bully. Despite excelling academically, there were few teachers who made an effort to stop students from heckling her.
Instead most of them opted to blame her "outgoing" behaviour for provoking students to behave with her in that manner. It was in her senior year at school that she decided to take female hormones, suggested by like-minded friends who had already been on them for a while. Despite being close to her family, her decision to start looking like a woman was her own. In the back of her mind, she knew her family would never give her the permission to go ahead with this life changing step.
Needless to say her mother was devastated when she found hormone pills in Note's bag. It was an unsettling moment for her mother, firstly because she never viewed her "son" as a transgender. Effeminate maybe, but more as a well mannered teenager who did well in school.
Trips to the psychiatric ward followed soon after, in the hope that she would give up her idea to look like a woman.
"The only positive side to taking me to visit the psychiatrist was that my family and I were able to sit down and talk about the transformation taking place in my life," Note said.
"It also highlighted the fact that psychiatry in Thailand is still in the dark ages, as the first thing the doctor asked me was whether I wanted to go join the transgender Tiffany cabaret show.
"The handful of times I attended the counselling sessions, accompanied by my parents, the psychiatrist tried to persuade, no actually, negotiate with me to become a gay man rather a transgender woman. He said it would not only ease my passage into society, but also give me better job opportunities.
"More than that it would make my parents happy. After all the emotional blackmail, he recommended that I spend more time with my father, indulge in man-like activities with him. Needless to say nothing worked."
Note went through a period of depression and often questioned her parents' hostility towards her desire to bring out the woman trapped in a man's body. Pursuing good education was one thing that kept her going, and she set the goal to make herself a worthy person in society. Thereafter, sexual harassment was her constant companion. It followed her to Songkhla province, where she went for further studies, and during military conscription.
"Life has certainly not been easy as a transgender woman, but this is what I am. It's not a choice. Nobody in their right mind would like to go through all that I have been on purpose. My sincere hope is that through Thai TGA, we will be able to address problems we face at the national level, especially human rights issues of transgender people, and what needs to be done so they could coexist with others in society regardless of their sexual orientation," said Note.
About the author
- Writer: Yvonne Bohwongprasert