Transgender rights takes step forward

Newly released research provides a framework for gender recognition law, but will it be enough, activists ask

Presenting the research. Photo: Melalin Mahavongtrakul

Laws and the LGBT community, at times, are like water and oil. They just don't seem to agree with one another. Same-sex marriage legalisation, if it's even possible in this country, is a long way away. Adoption and surrogacy are not allowed for homosexual couples. Transgender individuals can't change their legal title to the one that befit their gender identity.

A law guaranteeing basic rights for all people is sorely needed. Sadly, the gender equality bill released last year didn't quite deliver its promised equality.

But, it seems Thailand is seeing a glimmer of hope. The Department of Women's Affairs and Family Development at the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security partnered with the Faculty of Law at Thammasat University to present their study on gender recognition and law. The scope of study was to analyse laws on gender recognition in different countries in order to organise a draft of possible Thai law.

The research presentation was done earlier this month at Thammasat. Students, academics and gender activists filled the auditorium. Then, head researcher Asst Prof Dr Mataluck Or-rungroj, lecturer at the university's Faculty of Law, took to the stage with her colleagues.

The report was divided into different sections. One section offers a comparison of gender recognition laws in different countries. We learned how the United Kingdom passed its Gender Recognition Act in 2004 that allows transgender persons to change their legal gender, as well as similar cases in other countries including the United States, Canada, Argentina and Japan.

So, why is this important to Thailand, anyway? Is it for Thailand to take after any of the routes paved by foreigners? Mataluck said it isn't quite so.

"It is indeed interesting and exciting to see how far other countries have gone," she said. "It doesn't mean we have to follow them, but rather see how we should go about the matter in the context of our Thai society."

That can be a scary word: context. If this so-called context is based on the conservative culture and belief that gender diversity is a sin rather than an individual's right to gender expression, then the Thai LGBT community is very much doomed.

Another part of the research was attributed to a set of questionnaires evaluating people's attitude towards the prospect of gender recognition in the country. The result came out quite contradictory. While more than 70% of the people -- straight, LGBT and civil officers -- believe gender recognition is a personal right and that trans individuals can choose what to call themselves, they also agree that it should come with certain conditions. This includes seeking medical operations for a full-body transition, as well as a mental evaluation before anyone can legally change their gender.

The section that seems most problematic is where the research attempted to explain the "causes of sexual abnormalities" that pushed someone to "choose a new gender". Yes, these words -- and even "sexual deviation" -- can be found in a study that may lead to our gender recognition law.

Mataluck clarified that such terms are based on medical definitions, which could lead to protection and "cure". The researcher said some countries consider gender dysphoria an illness, and that the transgender population in such countries are OK with it if it means they can gain access to gender confirmation surgery.

This is worrying. While their intention may be good, the LGBT community might be disappointed that it was based on a limited amount of understanding of LGBT-related issues. The team mentioned a lot about their literature review, though not much about if they've consulted any gender activists or organisations.

It's unclear how much this study will affect the content of the Thai gender recognition law, or even if we'll have one at all in the near future. But an urgent problem we're seeing right now is how little a say the LGBT community has in this matter.

"For a law to come out without hearing the voices of society, the people, their representatives, and especially those who live with the problems -- then such laws cannot pass with effectiveness," said Mataluck during the presentation. Maybe it's time the research team asked themselves if they've heard enough voices from those who have to live and suffer with the problems each and every day in their lives.

Aside from the not-so-inclusive nature of the research, other comments from attending gender activists suggested that the Thai law is very binary-based, meaning gender is divided only into two. What about a gender non-conforming person? Do they get recognised, too?

"It's a common belief that a transgender individual wants to cross from one box to another. But there are also people who feel they don't belong in either of the boxes. If they want to be accepted and recognised by law, how should they go about with it?" asked gender activist Nada Chaiyajit.

Looking towards the future, activist Jetsada Taesombat of the Thai Transgender Alliance said the law is not going to correct all discrimination. Still, it's a necessary foundation in order to build up everything else.

"The important thing is to change society's mindset. It's not that if a katoey can change her legal gender then the prejudice will be gone," she said. And while Jetsada applauded the researchers' efforts, she suggested that the team could involve more transgender individuals and allies in its work.

To Jetsada, it's crucial to encourage communications between different parties in society in order to create a better understanding as a whole.

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