Trapped beneath the transgender glass ceiling
Shut out and harassed, young professionals who defy gender stereotypes are struggling to get ahead at work
Fluent in both English and Russian, 30-year-old Kaona Saowakun is freelancing as a translator and interpreter to pay the bills. When he can, he puts aside some cash to save up for his dream of undergoing gender reassignment surgery, which he hopes he’ll be able to afford a few years from now.
“The process of becoming a man is longer and more expensive than becoming a woman,” said Mr Kaona, who has a sharp haircut and goes about in a crisp metrosexual outfit — a fitted black T-shirt tucked into his pants and matching leather shoes.
At his age, it’s normal to be pursuing career goals. But Mr Kaona has been discouraged since graduating from Thammasat University with honours in Russian Studies almost a decade ago.
He has tried working in marketing, banking and international business, but has shied away from the typical office environment after experiencing workplace discrimination, both directly and indirectly.
“I used to work in the headquarters of one of the biggest banks in Thailand and one of my colleagues was perceived as a ladyboy,” he said.
“People in the office used to ask him questions like, ‘did you clean your a*** this morning?’ I felt so sorry for him.
“In my case, I was asked whether I was going to use the male or female toilets. I was also pressed to tell my colleagues whether I was attracted to men or women on a daily basis.
“I quit after a year and have not worked for a major corporation since.”
Mr Kaona’s experience is far from unusual. Many transgender people encounter harassment and discrimination in the professional sphere. While Thailand has a reputation for tolerance, tomboys and katoeys are often stereotyped and sidelined into jobs in the entertainment and service sectors.
Those who do enter white-collar work face a hidden glass ceiling. Advocates and researchers say that even with equal qualifications, they are treated less seriously, denied employment or promotions, and effectively barred from executive positions. Some encounter physical and sexual assault.
In the public sector, they are forced to wear clothes and uniforms that match their birth gender. The hierarchical nature of the organisations also works against them, since they are perceived as being less conservative than their colleagues.
Young, gifted and trans: Kaona Saowakun has been discouraged from pursuing career goals since graduating from Thammasat with honours in Russian Studies almost a decade ago.
FORCED INTO A BOX
Though unemployed, Mr Kaona is currently the chairperson of Ilga — the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association — a position from which he advocates for others facing similar struggles.
According to Mr Kaona, the internationally-accepted abbreviation Sogie is useful for understanding the conflicts facing transgender people.
“S and O stand for sexual orientation and G stands for gender, or who we are born to be. I and E stand for identity and expression. These letters represent what we choose to be.”
In his role as Ilga chair, Mr Kaona travels abroad to countries that do not have the concept of katoeys, toms or dees.
Toms are women who dress in a masculine style and cut their hair short. They may or may not have female partners, but people often perceive them as lesbians. Dees are lesbian or bisexual women who conform to female gender stereotypes, but have relationships with toms.
“Foreigners have a different approach than Thais when it comes to sexual terminologies,” he said. “Thais tend to categorise, but foreign concepts tend to be more fluid. For example, a mother of two could receive hormones to become a man. She can later marry another man, while maintaining the identity of being father to his two children.
“I personally prefer to be called a transman. I don’t want to be called a lesbian because that refers to a woman being attracted to women. But I am a man.”
To the letter: Ramkamhaeng University has issued a document to tell staff that Mr Kaona can wear trousers during exams. He is proud of winning the exemption, but it reminds of the stigma he faces.
LOCKED OUT OF WORK
Mr Kaona is currently doing some part-time work at a translation office where two of his colleagues are transwomen. Like him, they have experienced rejection, discrimination and humiliation in the job market.
For transgender people, even those holding university degrees, part-time and freelance work seems to be the most convenient way out.
The work hours are more flexible, reducing the potential for harassment and confrontation from co-workers, while the job requirements are usually lower, allowing them freedom to express their gender identity, which is almost never out of vanity, but necessity.
Many are also unwilling to repress themselves for jobs that do not accept them as they are.
“I have experienced all sorts of professional discrimination,” Mr Kaona said. “I’ve met HR personnel who are fine with the way I dress, but ask me whether I could wear a proper skirt for a second interview with an executive.
“I didn’t go back for the interview. If a man is not asked to wear a skirt, then I shouldn’t have to.”
Mr Kaona believes all people should have the right to express their gender identity in legal terms.
While working on a translation assignment in a courthouse, he was told that his statement would be recorded word for word, except the male pronoun pom would be replaced by the female dichan.
“The judge said dichan was the correct term, because the court papers must follow my legal identity on my ID card,” Mr Kaona said.
“I recited article 30 in the 2007 constitution, which guarantees equal rights to all Thais and bars discrimination on the basis of gender, race, age, physical condition, and economic or social status.
“The judge replied that dichan must be used to prevent ‘confusion’. ”
Skin deep: Research has found transgender people find acceptance as long as they ‘fulfil’ their chosen gender role in line with society’s expectations.
FIGHTING TO WIN
With an interest in banking, Mr Kaona is about to obtain a second bachelor’s degree, this time in economics from Ramkhamhaeng University.
Aside from his studies, his time at Ramkhamhaeng has inspired him to fight for transgender rights at educational institutions across the country. During an examination session almost two years ago, he turned up dressed neatly in student uniform, but was barred from entering the exam room.
“A staff member had my ID card in her hand and switched glances between the card and my face a few times,” Mr Kaona said.
“I could not take the exam that day and as a result I took the matter to the Human Rights Commission.”
The university and the Human Rights Commission negotiated an agreement on Mr Kaona’s case, with the help of NGOs.
Ramkhamhaeng decided to provide him with a document — signed by the rector — acknowledging his right to wear a male uniform.
This counts as a small victory for Mr Kaona, but the acknowledgment still means his case is exceptional, and discrimination against transgender people is the default position.
Mr Kaona wishes there was a blanket regulation that would permit all students to dress in line with their gender identity.
According to Mr Kaona, the document serves primarily to address to confusion among staff, rather than indicating tolerance from the authorities. It also marks him out as different.
“I carry this paper as matter of pride and of stigma,” he said. “As I fold it in my wallet, I am always reminded that I am different from others, but also I am reminded that I shed sweat and tears in the battle for it.”
No choice: In the public sector, all employees must wear clothes that reflect their birth gender.
TAKE ME AS I AM
As the years have passed, Mr Kaona has come into his own. He is now unafraid of how the public perceives him. But for a long time, he chose to repress his true self.
For his first degree, Mr Kaona enrolled at Thammasat University, since it doesn’t require students to wear uniforms.
But despite graduating with honours, Mr Kaona took an eight-month break before braving the world of work, afraid of the discrimination he would face.
“I didn’t apply for jobs right away after graduation because I knew what was going to happen to me,” he said. “The first job I applied for was in the international division of one of the public service departments. I left after two days because I had to wear a skirt to work.”
He then worked with his sister, as a means of “evading the job market”.
After that company shut down came the job at the bank headquarters, where he and transgender colleagues were bombarded with questions and harassment.
His decision to quit led to three unsuccessful and traumatic job interviews.
In two, his ability to represent the company was questioned because of his appearance, while he was asked to show his ID card in the third.
“During one job interview, I was asked, ‘How would a VIP customer with 10 million baht in his briefcase feel if he was greeted by you at the front door?’ I didn’t reply but I knew they were thinking I was a freak.”
After brief, often painful stints here and there, Mr Kaona decided to take himself off the job market, but he still maintains a CV, on which he refuses to use a title in front of his name. This might not seem entirely honest to would-be employers, but is a way of being true to himself and preserving his rights and freedom.
“With my educational qualifications, I know finding a job should not be difficult. But I decided to accept myself first, whether or not other people can,” he said.
“I have tried everything. I tried avoiding using either the male or female public toilets by using the disabled ones instead. In various offices, I faced questions about which toilet I would prefer to use.
“But I am happy to say that I’ve chosen to use the male toilets for more than a year now. I used to feel very uncomfortable looking at women putting on make-up in public bathrooms, but now I don’t have to, and I have never experienced any kind of rejection using the male toilet anywhere.”
In March, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) released a study on gender identity and sexual orientation in Thailand, which challenges the general consensus that the country is transgender-tolerant.
“From the outside, Thailand seems to be a very tolerant country on transgender issues, given the number of transgender entertainment venues and the high profile of transgender people in the media and press, most often as entertainers,” said ILO researcher Busakorn Suriyasarn.
“But looking in closer, it is a different scenario entirely. Despite transgenders’ educational qualifications, they are barred access to full-time positions, executive positions or work promotions in both the public and private sectors.
“Repeated refusals from employment discourage them from trying to engage in the professional world further. They are often discouraged from entering the job market or the professional world because they have been refused on the basis of their gender identity.
“Different treatment in the workplace also cuts their careers short because they cannot withstand daily discrimination and humiliation.”
Ms Busakorn’s research interviews with transgender people revealed a wide range of harassment — verbal, physical and sexual.
She said cases of sexual harassment point to the deep-rooted and male-dominated mindset that is prevalent in Thai society, even among the most educated people.
“There are cases where tomboys in the office become the target of rape from male co-workers, since the men think they can ‘fix’ them,” she said.
“Many educated men working in offices believe that giving tomboys a heterosexual experience would encourage them to come to their senses, and become the woman they were born to be.”
Transgender people are also treated with less dignity, Ms Busakorn said, citing the fact that ladyboys in offices are often the target of dehumanising jokes, which at times become physical.
“Men in offices can touch ladyboys’ genitals or breasts with the belief that those things are already fake to begin with. They believe such physical violation is less damaging, less violent.”
Standing up: Transwoman Kath Khangpiboon is fighting a landmark work discrimination case.
PLAYING THE PART
As part of her research, Ms Busakorn came across cases of transgender people who found acceptance, as long as they fulfilled their chosen gender “well enough”.
Transwomen should not be fat, for example, but rather look similar to the entrants to ladyboy pageants. Transmen, by contrast, should be one of the boys.
“There was one case where a tomboy who worked in a construction company was treated like a male employee,” she said. “The company has a rule that female employees must travel in pair for field assignments; while male employees can travel alone. However, this tomboy was allowed to travel alone all the time, while being called ‘papa’ by everyone else.”
Ms Busakorn said this kind of case is explained by the rigid gender rules in Thailand, which impose a clear distinction between the roles of man and woman. If a transgender person defies the barriers between these “boxes”, then insult is usually the result.
And even if they succeed in fitting in, society can always find ways to take advantage of their identity. “There are some tomboys who are employed only because employers specifically tell them they don’t expect they would take maternity leave,” Ms Busakorn said.
TAKING ON THE SYSTEM
In a case which has received broad coverage in the Thai media, transwoman Kath Khangpiboon is challenging Thammasat University after she was accepted for a job as a lecturer but prevented from taking up the post.
Ms Kath, 29, who has a BA and MA in social work from Thammasat, was told by the faculty that she had been selected for the role in June last year, but her official appointment had to be approved by the university’s screening committee.
By December, she had heard nothing from the committee. She waited for news until March 2, when the committee finally announced that it had voted her application down.
She was told she would not be offered employment because of “inappropriate social media activities, which could hamper the public image of a university lecturer”.
A day after, Thammasat rector Somkit Lertpaithoon said social media activities will form part of recruitment criteria for all future lecturer applicants.
Ms Kath has been appealing the decision and is set to appear before the committee again for the last time tomorrow.
In what could be a landmark case, she has vowed to take the matter to the Administrative Court should internal university procedures be exhausted.
Thammasat University has not issued any formal statement regarding her recruitment since she was announced as the winning candidate last June.
POSITION OF RESPONSIBILITY
Ms Kath understands that taking up a teaching position in Thailand means being a role model for the young.
There are other transgender teachers in Thailand, but she believes she has been targeted because she wears women’s clothes and is working within the establishment.
“Certainly I am not the first transgender person to teach in Thailand, at Thammasat or at university level.
“But other lecturers still fit in the male gender box, because they don’t dress like women. Those who do are often not in the ‘system’. ”
Ms Kath’s case stands in contrast to the appointment late last month of transgender woman Manabi Bandopadhyay as the principal at Krishnagar Women’s College in West Bengal.
Last year, India’s Supreme Court declared the transgender community as a legal third gender, granting them minority rights and privileges to education, employment and health benefits.
Since then, some Indian colleges have offered a transgender option on application forms.
In Thailand, the 2008 Female Title Act allows women the legal option to use either Miss or Mrs on their ID cards, passports and other legal documents. That right is still denied to transgender people, whose birth gender remains on their ID cards.
To Mr Kaona, the title a person uses should always be their choice. “During my trips to LGBT conventions abroad, I would be asked — regardless of what my title is on my passport — how I would like to be addressed, to which I always reply, ‘Mr’. ”
HOPES FOR THE FUTURE
For the majority of transgender people, any chance of job security currently requires them to conform to societal norms or put up with harassment from colleagues.
But researcher Ms Busakorn says sexual discrimination in the office is proven to have a range of negative effects on organisations in the long run.
“Office discrimination often leads to recruitment issues, since those who have left must be replaced. The process has a financial cost for the office.
“Discrimination also leads to poor performance, which is bad for everyone involved,” she said.
“Fairness in the office creates a positive working environment where people can be more proactive and creative.”
Ultimately, Mr Kaona and Ms Kath know that professional advancement is crucial to their long-term happiness and success.
Both are from middle-class families, with upbringings that opened doors to educational opportunities to further themselves.
Their battles so far have taught them they must rely on themselves more than ever.
“I am aware of my potential and how education has brought me social status,” Ms Kath said.
“I also know that I might have ended up somewhere much worse had I been given less opportunities, because I am a transgender.
“But I won’t be judged by my gender alone.”
Mr Kaona is unsure about what is next for him, but is ready to face a new chapter of life as an unashamed transman.
“I might look into running a business that involves products for the LGBT community, but I don’t know yet,” he said.
“The road ahead is not going to be smooth, but I am proud to have fought to be me.” n