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Their Visibility Belies Scorn, Harm Transgender Thais Face

FILE PHOTO: Officials, including lieutenant colonel Piyachart Prasannam (center), attend a conference held by the Thai Transgender Alliance, of which Jetsada Taesombat is the executive director and co-founder. Vichan Poti/Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images

BANGKOK, Thailand — The most dangerous place in high school for Jetsada Taesombat was the boys' bathroom. Her makeup, her lipstick, her accessories became signals to fellow students who targeted her with cruel jokes, insults and physical abuse. But Jetsada refused to hide her transgender identity.

The visibility of transgender people, especially in Bangkok, might make Thailand appear more liberal than other countries regarding their identity. But the reality, they say, is that transgender Thais face deep discrimination, scorn and aggression. Often, it happens in bathrooms, where closed doors and expectations of privacy ensure secrecy for the perpetrators.

When Jetsada complained to her teacher that she had been sexually harassed in the bathroom, the teacher blamed it on her makeup. When she appealed the teacher to act, the teacher said the harassment was a consequence of being a sexual deviant.

"Growing up in an all-boys school, I didn't feel comfortable going into the boys' toilet," said Jetsada, now 32. "I was afraid for my life. I was afraid of getting bullied or sexually harassed."

Jetsada always chose to use the girls' bathroom, despite the risk of being scolded or reprimanded. Facing a teacher's wrath was the better option. If she couldn't get access to the girls' toilet, Jetsada would wait until school ended or she brought a transgender friend to stand guard in the boys' bathroom.

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Transgender Thais say the situation here is similar to the United States, where conflicting state laws and federal policy on the matter are being hotly debated. Lawsuits have been filed to challenge the Obama administration's directive allowing transgender people to use bathrooms matching their gender identity, as well as a North Carolina law requiring people to use bathrooms of their birth gender.

In Thailand, the discrimination partly comes from religious beliefs about sexual behavior.

Most Thais are Buddhists, who are supposed to live by the Five Moral Precepts — the third of them being to avoid sexual misconduct. People born with the wrong gender identity are believed to have brought it on themselves by sinning in a past life. Thais also consider a transgender life miserable because they think a person born in the wrong body won't find love.

Transgender people appear to be able to live openly in the Thai capital, attracting little attention on the streets and in restaurants and shopping malls. But the country does not legally recognize gender changes, same-sex marriages, adoptions by same-sex parents or commercial surrogacy.

Discrimination in employment, the provision of goods and services, hate speech and crimes were made illegal only last September when the Gender Equality Act became effective. Before 2015, transgender people had no laws to protect them against being unjustly turned down for a job or harassed.

And transgender people are still targets of violence.

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A research project by Transgender Europe on killings of trans and gender-diverse people in 65 countries, counted 137 reported murders of transgender people in North America from January 2008 to December 2015.

Thailand has only seen 14, but the number is deceptive. Police in Thailand, as well as in many countries, often identify victims as men, rather than transgender, according to Jetsada, who now is executive director and co-founder of the Thai Transgender Alliance, which works to raise awareness and understanding about the identities and rights of transgender people in Thailand.

"Even though many foreigners think we're LGBT-friendly in Thailand, there's still so much violence and hatred toward us," said a government liaison officer, Chinnarat Buttho.

"Although in high school, I had not started dressing as a woman, I always knew that my heart was one of a woman's. But I was always taught by society's rules that I have to go to the boy's room. I looked like a boy but I showed female mannerisms. I was bullied a lot because of it."

Chinnarat, now 32, started dressing as a woman when she pursued a master's degree, and her friends and family have become more comfortable and accepting of her choice. She has not used the men's bathroom since then.

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Many transgender people, despite holding university degrees, are unable to find work in their respective fields, said Jetsada.

"Many people I know still struggle with discrimination at job interviews; many times they don't get hired because of their identity," said Jetsada. "When faced with the question of whether they're willing to cut their hair short, stop wearing makeup, act like a man for a job, many are unable to disclaim and lie about their identity. The sex industry becomes their only option."

Chinnarat and Jetsada believe that allowing a transgender person to use the bathroom where they feel most comfortable is a decision that would lead to a more inclusive and accepting society.

"How do you live in the same world with people who have such differing opinions and perspectives from yourself?" asked Jetsada. "You teach people ways to coexist and in the long run, just hope that it gets better."