Tiring of the attire debate
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Tiring of the attire debate

Aug 30 is going to be a big day for Baramee "Denjan" Phanich, and for the transgender community in Thailand. Denjan, 23, is among five transsexual students who have been granted permission to wear female attire during the graduation ceremony at Thammasat University.

It is not the first time transsexual students have been allowed to wear female attire during at the graduation ceremony, but the topic gathered buzz after the biggest-selling Thai Rath newspaper splashed it on the front page. Unfortunately, while it seems like good news for the LGBT community, a more complex dimension of the issue has slowly been revealed.

When briefly reading the news, I thought it was a ground-breaking move that these transsexual students were being treated kindly by the establishment. Graduation day is meaningful to many, and for transsexual students to be able to wear proper female attire _ and be themselves on one of their most important days _ makes it much more special.

It was a brave move for Denjan to follow her dream and fight for her right. For a transsexual, to be able to dress according to her gender identity is a comfort, a basic right that never harms anyone. Imagine if you are a man and being forced to wear women's clothes. It is as simple as that.

But what is left for us, and the transgender community especially, to ponder is the fact getting such permission required Denjan to obtain a diagnosis of "gender identity disorder" from a psychiatrist. Denjan admitted on one of her appearances on television that she was not pleased to be diagnosed by a psychiatrist, but it was the only way for her to wear female attire on her big day.

Denjan's case worries transgender activists who have long fought against labelling transgender as a disease.

Earlier this year when transgender former beauty queen Yollada Suanyos won a seat as councillor on the Nan provincial administration organisation, it gave us hope that gender rights was on the right track, following other places around the world where same-sex marriage is legal and gay parents can raise a beautiful family.

Now, we are back to the debate about whether it is a "disease".

The worst part of this phenomenon was when Denjan was on a talk show hosted by popular and sometimes controversial anchorman Sorayut Suthasanajinda on Channel 3. I believe it's difficult to hope for an improvement towards the issue when a prominent member of the media reports the news in a way that, to me, is very offensive and disrespectful to the guest.

It was shocking to see the host keep asking harsh questions such as: "Why can't you just cut your hair for one day for the ceremony, is it that important?" Or: "When you were young were you like one of those screaming skin-headed gay boys?" Later Denjan bared her soul and shared that even though her parents were very supportive about her sexuality, she wished to become a monk for her loved ones, if possible. Then the host shot: "So now it is obvious that you haven't had a sex-change operation."

If you look for the clip of this programme on YouTube, you can see how uncomfortable Denjan was with those questions.

And when I thought this tormenting moment had ended, Sorayut signed off the programme by pointing out that Denjan is very tall and asked her to stand next to him and kept saying: "Wow, you're so tall." He kept looking up as if something was wrong with her height, and his tone didn't sound like one of admiration.

I remember when the US gay magazine Instinct asked its readers on Facebook to guess which country in Asia was considering legalising same-sex marriage, most people responded "Thailand". No, they were wrong. Such a ground-breaking move is about to happen in our Asean neighbour, Vietnam.

Earlier this year, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar have hosted gay parades to celebrate gender diversity. Such promising movement from our neighbours shows that the world is now moving forward, and that gender rights, essential to human rights, are important.

As much as the country is perceived to be gay-friendly, there is still a long way to go for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community to be secure legally and treated equally.

The case of Denjan serves as a fresh example of how the debate and the campaigning will continue in the future _ hopefully for the best.

Yanapon Musiket writes on art and entertainment for Life and has a monthly column, Queer Eye, dedicated to gay rights and gender diversity.

Yanapon Musiket

Life Writer

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