Being trans in a pandemic

A recent seminar explored the government's lack of resolve to help the LGBTI community handle social stigma and economic hardships

Growing up a trans woman in rural northeastern Thailand for the first 16 years of her life, Minty* was often ridiculed and physically abused by elders in her family and neighbourhood children for her effeminate demeanour, which forced her to run away to an unknown future in Bangkok.

Arriving in the capital, she was befriended by the LGBTI community and tried her hands at a number of jobs until she was fortunate enough to land a gig as a makeup apprentice at a local cosmetic company. For seven years, she worked hard to rise up the ranks until she became a popular makeup artist at bridal events and fashion shows.

Just when Minty's career prospects seemed to be improving, along came Covid-19, a pandemic that has devastated economies globally and caused countless deaths in all four corners of the world, including Thailand.

Minty was among many that lost their budding career overnight. In fact, last year's lockdown under the new normal measures made a hesitant Minty take the difficult decision of moving back to the dysfunctional family environment she had left earlier.

With emotions running high within the family due to financial problems, it was only a matter of time until Minty became a target for others to unleash their frustrations. However, this time, they went too far and she was physically abused to the point that she had to be hospitalised.

Unfortunately, Minty's woes did not end there as her family was adamant to not let her return home, spreading false rumours that she had Covid-19 so that she would be forced to find housing elsewhere.

With the support of social service agencies working for LGBTI rights, she eventually found accommodations but not before promising to see her family again.

Minty is one of many vulnerable cases in Thai society that sheds light on Covid-19's devastating impact, made worse by a lack of support from family and apathy from civil servants in social and welfare services when the need arises.

Thailand presents itself as a haven for LGBTI tourists, but just how supportive was the government to its nationals under this spectrum during Covid-19 was questioned at a recent seminar -- which also touched on their need for socio-economic, health, and justice -- at a time when authorities are working to help Thais weather a pandemic with relief and stimulus packages.

Nachale Boonyapisomparn, the co-founder of the Thai Transgender Alliance (Thai TGA) and coordinator at the Asia Pacific Transgender Network, remarked that while the pandemic had impacted everyone, it had especially put vulnerable groups such as the LGBTI at greater risk, particularly the way they access resources.

The gender equality activist said this conclusion is based on an online survey of the impact of Covid-19 on LGBTI communities, conducted mid-last-year by UNDP Thailand and the Asia Pacific Transgender Network. The results revealed that 47% of the LGBTI population lost their job or were forced to go on unpaid leave because of the pandemic.

She said the data also shed light on how 51% of respondents did not receive any Covid-19 related government support while just 22% received financial support from the government. Moreover, another 69% stated that isolation and not being able to socialise, go outside, and working from home for lengthy periods had led to loneliness, increased stress, and depression.

Meanwhile, another 14% said they had experienced physical and emotional abuse within the family unit after they were forced to move back after being laid-off.

Local agencies that are working to support the LGBTI community during the pandemic include the Sisters Foundation, Empower Foundation, SWING Thailand, and Rainbow Sky Association of Thailand, among others. Besides supporting livelihoods, these agencies also provide basic needs such as food and water as well as personal protective equipment against Covid-19, hormone treatment, and help to cover costs of Covid-19 testing.

"Society often does not realise that for LGBTI people to seek government support, it requires mental toughness. Judging from how they behave around us, I would say that most civil servants in the social service industry often don't respect us. Their biased attitude could be the result of a lack of knowledge, however, it is enough to keep receiving the support needed to survive.

"Nobody wants to get bullied or looked down as a freak especially when their chips are down," said Nachale, while discussing the biggest obstacle LGBTI face seeking help.

Nachale also shared concern about the need to address the mental and physical health aspect of Covid-19's impact on her community.

"Mental health is a huge factor because many still opt to not acknowledge that there is something wrong. This makes it all the more necessary to have mental health schemes in place to address these issues," said the advocate, who has spent years bringing to light the need to treat the LGBTI community fairly by the government and society.

"As the entire country has to go through the pandemic together, I would like to ask the authorities how accessible are present government schemes for Thai LGBTI? And just what is being done to educate civil servants and medical staff to serve the public, which includes us, with impartiality?"

"While poor behaviour from people who should know better is nothing new in our society, I feel that Covid-19 has made the situation worse as everyone feels justified in displacing their pent-up frustration during the pandemic on the ones that are easy targets."

Nachale said that to see a positive change in addressing the needs of the LGBTI during the pandemic, there has to be more involvement at the decision-making level.

"I would really like to see policymakers welcome LGBTI to become part of a thinktank where they can share ideas on how to better support our community during Covid-19. It is a stretch to come up with solutions to problems you yourself have never experienced.

"Being a part of the community, we know first hand the best solution to address our present needs, be it health, finances, and justice against crooked law enforcement. However, we need to get involved in every step of the process.

"This is needed because currently, there are many transgender people who do not qualify for government relief schemes simply because they are too afraid to apply. Several barriers to access these benefits include the requirement of documents such as their income tax and legal gender recognition or government identification card."

Nachale also suggested that a study take place of the demographics of sexual orientation and gender identity in Thailand so that data could be conducive in drafting laws about their well-being.

* not her real name.

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