Respect my body
As attacks and sexual assaults continue to mount, the LGBTI community demand laws that protect transgender people
When the subject of sexual assault and sexual harassment is raised, people automatically think of female victims. But while women are clearly the most susceptible, another demographic group often overlooked is the LGBTI, and especially transgender women who are vulnerable to harassment and violence due to stigma and prejudice.
The issue was recently addressed at the "Respect My Body Respect My Society", a seminar held at the National Human Rights Commission, which saw several advocacy groups come together for the discussion.
Last month, transgender university student Tanabodin Samanpan posted pictures on her Facebook account of bruises on her lips, neck and chest -- a result of a sexual assault by a taxi driver. She said she hailed a cab late at night to go to her home in Nakhon Pathom province. The road was dark and deserted, and she was alone when the driver threatened to leave her on the street if she didn't move to the front seat. In fear, she relented. The driver began asking prying questions about her transition and asked to fondle her breasts.
"He said 'It's OK. We're both men. What are you being shy about?',"said Tanabodin. The driver then assaulted her.
"I resisted. I tried to push him away," she said.
Eventually, the driver took her home. Tanabodin later reported the incident to the police.
"I decided to press charges so he wouldn't do it to anyone else."
The driver turned himself in after two days.
Aside from Tanabodin's case, harassment against transgender women happens quite frequently. According to the 2015 US Transgender Survey, 47% of 27,715 transgender respondents say they were sexually assaulted at some point in their life.
It is estimated that there are over 200,000 transgender people in Thailand. Yet the population is rarely the subject of any specific survey, especially when compared to men and women.
In Thailand, there have been reports of transgender women being sexually harassed during hazing and at the annual military draft. In recent years, gender advocates worked with military personnel to make sure the rights of transgender women are respected at the military draft.
Paradoxically, Thailand is also considered a paradise for LGBTI people -- as an open, tolerant nation whose population is allowed freedom in lifestyle, to a certain extent. Some universities allow transgender students to dress according to their gender for graduation. The Kingdom also is a famous home to an international transgender beauty pageant.
Still, problems lurk in the corner, and so gender advocates took to the floor to discuss what could be the cause of this harassment in somewhat tolerant Thailand.
"Transgender people are considered as another gender, not one they were recognised with at birth. Still, most people just don't see it that way. If an assault is done to the opposite sex, for example for a man to hurt a woman, or for a woman to hurt a man, people feel it's violence. But when it comes to transgender woman [being assaulted by a man], people just think they're all people of the same sex and hence no harm is being done," said Ronnapoom Samakkeekarom, representing the Foundation of Transgender Alliance for Human Rights (TGA).
Citing another survey conducted by Thammasat University, Ronnapoom said about 100 out of 134 transgender respondents have reported being intimidated by their own peers, teachers, security guards and even motorcycle taxi drivers at some point in their life.
When asked what they thought were the causes for violence, about half of the respondents believed it had to do with the way they dressed.
But researchers have since debunked this as a myth, as many victims of sexual harassment weren't dressed provocatively at the time of their assault. Tanabodin, for example, was dressed in a PE uniform, with a long-sleeve T-shirt and long pants.
"It's quite scary that people still believe that clothes are the cause of violence when it's rather about people not respecting one another's right," Ronnapoom said. From news coverage during the military draft and the wet-and-wild Songkran water fest to general posts on social media and television shows, transgender women are often presented as dressing in revealing clothes, flaunting their body and skin. This paints quite a harmful stereotype that transgender women dress to draw attention, which led some people to accuse them of asking for trouble, and inadvertently validating the perpetrator's action should an assault occur. What's worse is some people actually believe transgender women like to be "touched" because of the way they dress.
Ronnapoom, however, suggested that transgender women may just be seeking gender recognition from society by the way they dress.
"Some people do feel the need to reveal their body to gain acceptance from society and tell the public what gender they are and are not. Beyond their clothes, some take medication and get surgery. In some countries, they can change their gender on official documents too," he said.
Thailand may have the Gender Equality Act 2015, which states that individuals cannot be discriminated against based on gender. Still, it has yet to progress to include any form of a gender recognition law. People thrive on social recognition, but the lack of legal recognition still adds to the level of discrimination and assault against transgender people.
"Transphobia affects the treatment of minorities, as people who carry misunderstanding and prejudice still violate and treat transgender people with violence. It's true that we may be able to live quite freely. But when it comes to the law and the country's policy, there is nothing that validates our existence," said Thitiyanun Nakpor, from the Asia Pacific Transgender Network.
But whether there's a law to recognise a person's gender identity or not, we are simply not allowed to violate one another.
"A right to one's own body is a human right that can't be violated, even if the state has yet to recognise it," Ronnapoom said emphatically.
The activists applauded Tanabodin's courage in sharing her story to help raise public awareness. It's understandable how some victims would hesitate to publicise their experience as they would be judged and criticised by the public.
"Most people tend to stay quiet when something happens and choose to end the problem at themselves. Taking yourself away from the problem is good, but it's not solving the problem at the system," said Ronnapoom.