Thailand is known and admired worldwide for its cultural openness to transgender women. Note that the emphasis is on the word cultural. For when they enter the legal sphere, discrimination still hits at transgender women at every turn.
Many may find this fact hard to believe. Transgender women, or katoey in Thai, enjoy relatively high visibility in our society. They appear on television shows and dramas. Their cabaret shows attract tourists from around the world. They are famous fashion designers, hairdressers, dressmakers, and make-up artists. Many are successful entrepreneurs.
The country is also among the world's top destinations for sex change operations. Thailand is undeniably a haven for transgender women when suppression and severe social stigma are still the rule for most other countries.
All of that is true. Yet it is also true that we don't find transgenders as high-ranking officials, doctors, lawyers, scientists, or teachers in state-run schools and colleges. Nor as executives in the corporate world.
In short, the doors of government agencies and large corporations are still closed to transgender women. It is why they must be self-employed or work as freelancers.
Most work in the entertainment and beauty industry thanks to those professions' relative openness to sexual diversity. Working independently, however, they are robbed of job security and welfare benefits enjoyed by workers in the formal sector. More importantly, transgender women are barred from opportunities to fulfil their dreams and potential in other fields. This is basically a violation of human rights.
The crux of the problem is identity cards. The rules governing identity cards, to be precise.
According to ID card issuance regulations, a holder's attire must fit one's biological sex _ transgender women are thus forced to dress as men for their ID photos.
When ID card photos do not match the look of their gender preference, their job applications are thrown out the window.
This problem is also the reason why transgender women face difficulties in getting other legal documents such as driving licences and passports. Often they cannot even open a bank account. Every time they need to show their ID card, it invites a look of suspicion and even ridicule from the other side.
Bangkok governor MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra must be commended for his efforts to end this problem.
Earlier this week, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) decided to scrap the old dress code. Fingerprints, it said, are sufficient to prove one's identity.
From now on, people applying for ID cards in Bangkok districts will be allowed to dress according to their preferred gender. Transgender males will also benefit from this new rule.
To ensure this policy works, however, BMA policy-makers must make it clear to district officials that they must not add more red tape. For example, transgender people should never be asked for medical documents certifying sex change operations, because gender choice and biological sex are different matters.
The BMA's ID card policy will help unlock doors for transgender people. The Interior Ministry, in charge of civil registration for the rest of the country, should follow suit. So should the Foreign Ministry and the Department of Land Transport, which issue passports and driving licences respectively. The world is heading towards more respect for transgender rights. Thailand should follow.