GUEST COLUMN By Kath Khangpiboon
Kath Khangpiboon is a Master’s Degree student in the Faculty of Social Administration at Thammasat University, Thailand. She is a co-founder of the Thai Transgender Alliance (www.thaitga.com/index.php)
I had been born as a man, but I never felt comfortable living as a male, wearing men’s clothing, acting masculine, and conforming to male gender roles. That did not mean I necessarily wanted to be a woman, but rather somewhere in between male and female.
I was, and still am, transgender or kathoey in Thai. In elementary and high school I could not express this identity openly. I had to wear uniforms for boys and have teachers call me by the male name given to me at birth, despite my objections. When I first came out as transgender in high school, others treated me as a joke, a source of entertainment, or thought that I was going through a phase. Some Buddhist teachers expressed their sympathy for me being transgender. They believed that
I became this way due to misdeeds in a past life. Needless to say, I felt ashamed and struggled to reconcile my religion with my identity. Growing up as a transgender student, I often found myself feeling misunderstood and ostracized by students and teachers alike. Education policy in Thailand has focused on promoting “education for all” and “gender equality,” but what do these terms truly mean and have they been achieved?
While the needs of many disadvantaged communities have begun to be addressed, this progress has yet to be seen for transgender students. Transgenders, whose gender identity does not match the sex of their birth, routinely feel out of place at school as we do not fit easily into the dichotomy of male and female students and face harassment from peers.
As advocacy for gender equality has rightfully strengthened, it has failed to acknowledge that there are more than two genders; male and female, thereby rendering transgenders invisible.
Yet in order to fully realize “education for all”, we need to recognize that gender equality should be truly universal to all human beings — including transgender people.
As a Thai transgender activist and researcher at Thammasat University, I aim to educate others on transgender issues and campaign for transgender rights. Prior to 2010, there were no organizations dedicated to addressing stigma and discrimination faced by transgenders in Thailand. As such, I helped found the Thai Transgender Alliance, a national network of individuals working for transgender rights, and began working on HIV prevention and care and support for transgenders.
Today, 30 years into the AIDS epidemic, transgenders remain disproportionally affected by HIV. Stigma and discrimination that limit our access to education also limit our access to comprehensive sexuality education that can equip us with the information and skills to protect ourselves from HIV and to access treatment and care.
Through my work in Thailand, I attended the UNAIDS Youth Summit in Mali in April and the High Level Meeting on AIDS at the UN General Assembly in New York in June. While attending the summit, I realized that transgenders are extremely underrepresented because I was the only transgender person out of over 150 participants.
The principle of including transgender youth in the HIV response is because we have unique issues at the policy and programmatic level. In particular, we need to
separate male-to-female transgender issues from Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) because we have completely different sexualities and identities
***Transgender definition Transgender is a broad term for all people who do not identify with or choose not to conform to the gender roles assigned to them by society based on their biological sex. It is a common misperception that transgender people “wish they were the opposite sex“. While this is true for some, most transgender people are perfectly comfortable with their bodies. It is also common for people to confuse sexual orientation with gender identity/expression; transgender individuals can have any sexual orientation. (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network 2003: www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/all/news/record/1292.html)***
We do not see ourselves as men and our gender identity is separate from our sexual orientation. As a transgender person I may dress in women’s clothing but that does not mean I am necessarily attracted to men.
This common misconception is often a reason why transgender students feel out of place at school. Transgenders are often conflated with gay men or lesbians and teachers lack an understanding of the needs of transgender students.
For one, in Thailand there are different school uniforms for boys and girls and transgender students cannot wear uniforms of the opposite sex. However, being transgender means that our gender identity does not match our sex at birth.
This does not mean that all transgenders want to have a sex change, but rather that we do not want to be boxed into a gender role that we do not identify with.
An easy way to change our gender presentation is through physical appearance, especially clothing, but we are not given that option in school, or may face consequences if we do.
In my own experience, I have encountered discrimination because of how I dress. A few years ago I applied for a university scholarship to study in Japan and, due to
my high school grades, received it. Then I sent the organizer a picture. At the last minute the scholarship was revoked on the grounds that they could not find adequate housing and proper care for me as a transgender student.
On official forms asking for my gender, I can only choose between male and female, and as Thai national identity cards do not allow for a change in gender, I have to choose male. With this checked box, however, come expectations as to how I look.
This is not “education for all.”
Fortunately my current university and faculty are more open to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, but they are the exception.
In some faculties of medicine, law, business, engineering - and even education - transgender students may face tremendous discrimination if they try to enter these fields.
One of my transgender friends who completed a university degree in engineering was unable to find a job because companies would only hire her if she stopped dressing as a woman and cut her long hair.
Given these barriers, many transgenders do not pursue higher education because they do not believe that attaining a university degree will help them; they may be qualified but no one will hire them because they are transgender.
I know many transgenders who only completed high school or dropped out so they could attend vocational school, where they could wear female uniforms, or begin working in the entertainment industry in Pattaya. In effect, our choice of profession can be limited to work in beauty salons, cabaret shows, and sex work. It may seem as though the situation is fine, but sometimes there is no choice.
To address these problems and truly support “education for all,” educators need to foster a supportive learning environment for transgender students and support them to attend college.
Some schools have empathetic teachers who call transgender students by names and pronouns of their choice, allow them to wear uniforms of the opposite sex, and provide sexual health information.
However, if transgender students wish to modify their body, such as beginning hormone use, they usually have no one to turn to for advice.
This often leads them to go outside of the education system, to surf the Internet or use other unreliable sources of information.
When we talk about gender equality in education, we need to move beyond the narrow definition which concerns only men and women, disregarding the fact that there are other genders. At the policy level, we need to understand that human genders and sexualities are very diverse in order for teachers to become sensitive to the needs of transgender students.
Gender equality usually implies ensuring that women have equal rights as men, but that is only part of it. Every person in the world has gender and in advocating for gender equality we must ensure that gender never serves as an impediment or basis for discrimination in education.
Compiled by Jamison Liang, HIV Prevention and Health Promotion Unit (HP2), UNESCO Bangkok
VOICES, No.27 July - September 2011