The good fight

Trans teaching hopeful says judge me on my qualifications, not my gender

Nada Chaiyajit, left, and Worawalun Taweekarn. (Photo by Melalin Mahavongtrakul)

Worawalun Taweekarn had always wanted to be a teacher and her teaching degree should make her a qualified candidate. However, the only thing that bars her from getting her dream job is that she is a trans woman.

The second runner-up of Miss Tiffany's Universe 2018, Worawalun has been trying to find a job as a teacher over the past two years. Finding a full-time position at schools has never been easy for the now-25-year-old. Worawalun's applications were rejected. Despite being qualified, she didn't get a chance to take an entry test at one school even when her peers did. Worse, a certain institution explicitly told her she is better off working as a showgirl or beautician, all because she dresses and looks like a Miss, while her ID card says Mister. Currently she makes a living as a maths tutor.

Discrimination within the labour market is no stranger to trans individuals. According to a study by the World Bank and its partner, three out of four transgender people face discrimination during job application and at work. Such social prejudice limits their opportunities in life, seeing them flourishing in industries involving beauty, fashion and showbiz -- but little visibility elsewhere, especially in a more serious setting and profession. Among such professions is teaching.

Worawalun recently reported her case and submitted a petition to the Committee on the Determination of Unfair Gender Discrimination, which was set up under the country's Gender Equality Act 2015. Per this law, no one should be discriminated upon on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. The committee will have a meeting to determine Worawalun's case tomorrow.

Worawalun is certainly not the first transgender woman to have issues with Thai educational institutions. Last year, Kath Khangpiboon won her case against Thammasat University after she was denied a lecturer placement despite passing the recruitment process. After a lengthy legal battle, she emerged a victor and is now teaching at the university's Faculty of Social Administration.

Worawalun and Nada reported their case at the Department of Women’s Affairs and Family Development. (Photo courtesy of Nada Chaiyajit)

During a recent interview with Life, Worawalun recalled the predicament she has faced on her road to becoming a teacher.

"I began dressing as a woman in university. But, at the same time, I wasn't allowed to do so on campus. The teacher said I can't keep long hair and go to class. So, I had to wear wigs to go to university for three years, and also to a teaching internship at a school," said Worawalun.

"Back then, I did know that choosing to become a teacher meant I may face discrimination. But even at the time, there were already some trans women who got a job in teaching and were allowed to dress as a woman. I thought that by the time I graduated, society would be even more open. Seven years later, I'd say it didn't change as much as I was hoping for."

After her graduation, Worawalun began applying for jobs, hoping to work at private schools for better pay and benefits. Some of the schools she applied to were all-male Christian schools in Bangkok where she allegedly faced gender discrimination.

The treatment and employment of transgender teachers in Thailand does vary according to the policy of each institution and its executives, said Worawalun and Nada Chaiyajit, an LGBTI activist who is assisting her petition. There is currently no standardised practice or policy. Certain schools -- both public and private -- may allow their transgender teachers to dress according to their preferences, while others are forced to conceal their identity on campus or risk losing their job.

"After years of fighting and advocating for this cause, we still find that most people decide to yield -- to either change themselves or change their workplace of choice," said Nada. "Discrimination affects many people. If no one gets up to speak now, then who will? I do hope that our effort will help set the standard when it comes to the employment and recruitment process. Each organisation's protocol must not discriminate its applicants on the basis of gender, race, religion, or even what institute they graduated from."

Worawalun also revealed that the purpose of her petition is not for the schools to hire her.

"I only ask them to obey to the law and allow me to take the entry test. Let me show my skills as a teacher. Whether or not they hire me is a different story. I hope they can get to know me before judging me and ruling me out.

Submitting a petition against gender discrimination at the Department of Women’s Affairs and Family Development.

"Some do ask why don't I just go to places that accept transgender women. But why should that become a limitation? Why isn't every school open to all and recruiting people based on their ability instead of focusing on gender? True, it's not that I don't have other choices in my career. I could've just let this go. But it'll always be a question why other transgender people and I have to face discrimination repeatedly. I don't know if I'll win or lose, but I hope future generations will at least get more opportunities in life and be recognised equally as a human being," she said.

Worawalun's case was met with both positive and negative feedback from netizens once her story was reported by local media. As some applauded Worawalun for standing up, others attacked her decision to apply to all-male Christian schools, comparing the act to selling pork in front of a mosque. She was also accused of having ulterior motives towards male students. It's disheartening that some of these comments came from LGBTI people and even advocates themselves.

"Some LGBTI people are in severe self-stigmatisation. Some do say we're being overly dramatic, that we're disgracing the name of the 'third gender' by asking for too much. It's just sad that society has oppressed these people to the point that they can no longer look up. They believe wholeheartedly that these organisations have absolute power to dictate over a person's body and identity," Nada said.

Other comments reason that, as private schools, these institutions should be able to set their own rules on who they wish to hire. Nada clarified that, while these schools are free to manage themselves, they still operate under the Ministry of Education and must obey the country's law, which includes fairness in employment.

The fact that they are Christian schools is irrelevant, the activist said. Despite their history and religious affiliation, these schools follow the country's core curriculum and are not teaching solely religious studies, and not grooming their students to become priests. Their students and staff are not all Christian either. Nada believes the Gender Equality Act will cover Worawalun's case, even though Section 17 says following religious principles isn't deemed to be discrimination.

Despite some restrictions, the Gender Equality Act -- as well as its working committee -- has proven to be helpful in bringing justice to the discriminated and marginalised. Since its introduction, the committee has taken on cases such as discriminatory job advertisement, university students being banned from dressing in their chosen gender-specific uniforms, transgender women having job applications refused for not dressing and looking like men, and many more accounts to multiple successes.

Worawalun noted her juniors can now attend teaching internships dressed as women because of this law. No more wigs, she added.

Nada urged anyone facing gender discrimination to make use of the available mechanism and seek justice for themselves. Everyone is welcome to ask for help from a local LGBTI advocacy organisation like the Rainbow Sky Association of Thailand, the Foundation of Transgender Alliance for Human Rights and the Foundation for Sogi Rights and Justice, among others.

As an alternative, they can also contact the Department of Women's Affairs and Family Development at the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. Hotline 1300 for Social Assistance Centre is available 24/7.