Rewriting the book on transgenderism
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Rewriting the book on transgenderism

How Parith Chomchuen is challenging outdated notions still prevalent in school texts

Rewriting the book on transgenderism

When transman Parith Chomchuen was younger, he was forced to wear skirts and do what girls are supposed to do. Later, when he grew up and realised the gender he was born into wasn't the gender he wanted to live by, it seemed people around him did not approve of such a thought -- not his family, friends, teachers, not even the textbooks.

All these told him that how he was feeling was simply "confusion", and that it was plainly a psychological disorder.

"There was no source of knowledge to tell me what my emotions were and what I was to do. There was only negative information telling me that my disposition was abnormal," Parith recalled. "As a child, no one told me that it was a choice, that I didn't need to be a man or woman as society had defined them."

Having felt that Thai textbooks caused misunderstanding and bias with regard to gender diversity, Parith, together with Supanat Aneknamwong, a 12th grader and member of the Education for Liberation of Siam activist group, earlier this month submitted a letter of complaint to the Foundation for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Rights and Justice (FOR-SOGI) to ask the Committee on Unfair Gender Discrimination Complaints Group for a modification of health-education textbooks for grades 1-12 whose contents fail to deliver proper knowledge and understanding regarding transgenderism, which could result in gender discrimination and possible sexual violence. Some of the content in the textbooks, for instance, defines transgenderism as a sexual deviation which, according to Parith, rips human beings of dignity and value.


Supanat, a straight male, also believes the textbooks currently in circulation around Thai schools highlight content that creates misunderstanding, generalisation and stereotypes regarding not only the LGBT community, but male and female gender roles.

"The textbooks mostly say our gender comes from our sex of birth. Whatever sex you were born as, you have to act like this and you have to behave like that," he said.

With his own personality not fitting into the terms of masculinity as defined by the textbooks -- he didn't enjoy playing football as much as a "normal" boy should, for example -- Supanat was often subject to bullying. "I seemed weak," he said. "My friends would tease me for being gay, and I couldn't do anything about it."

It has been decades since the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially unlabelled homosexuality as a mental illness, yet students in Thai schools are still be taught the same conventional values of gender roles and sexuality. Textbooks still refer to transgenderism as a psychological illness and homosexuality as a sexual-deviation problem. Even when it comes to heterosexuals, girls are still expected to wear skirts, and guys, trousers.

Despite Thailand's reputation as an LGBT-friendly nation, known as a gay paradise and ladyboy heaven, its educational and judicial systems, as well as its social environment, reflect the contrary.

Although Supanat's current high school gives lecturers liberty in teaching content -- teachers are allowed to choose their own class materials and ideology as long as the they follow the provided syllabus -- many of his friends are still being taught the same traditional concepts about sexuality.

A paragraph from a grade-11 health textbook reads: "Sexual deviation is a problem found among both males and females. Those affected may demonstrate inappropriate sexual behaviours such as gays and lesbians, creating disapproval in society and countering its set norms."

This is merely one example from countless textbooks distributed across the schools. These books are often based on doctors who hold conventional ideas of sexuality, and, in many cases, are distributed and published before the Ministry of Education's evaluation.

"It's scary that [this mentality] is in our education system," said Malee Pruekpongsawaree, president of the secretariat of the Committee on Unfair Gender Discrimination Complaints Group. "When it's in the textbooks, everyone thinks it's correct, but it's not."

With a report entitled "Gender Diversity In The Thai Curriculum" by researcher Wichit Wongwareetip, FOR-SOGI has directed the issue to the Ministry of Education, to request a revision of Health Education textbooks in Thai schools, which don't seem to align with sections under the Gender Equality Act of 2015.

Naiyana Supapueng, adviser to the Committee on Unfair Gender Discrimination Complaints Group and former committee member of the Office of National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, noted that the Ministry of Education has simply justified the delays by citing the 10-year term fixed upon the revision of schools' core curricula.

"How could we allow some documents to be given more importance than the security, livelihood and awareness of our children?" she questioned.

While the public has the right to file for gender discrimination to FOR-SOGI under the Gender Equality Act, like the submission by Parith and Supanat, the organisation does not receive many. Malee pointed out that women are less likely to speak up, possibly due to the fear of exposing their identity. However, under the law, individuals may submit cases with anonymity, and are encouraged to do so.

"This is the hope for Thai society in creating acceptance and diversity," Malee said.

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