Transgender activist takes on Thai university in battle for LGBT rights

Transgender activist takes on Thai university in battle for LGBT rights
By Saksith Saiyasombut & Siam Voices Jun 08, 2015 11:37AM UTC

“Thais like to consume transgender people, but are far from accepting them as equal.”

By Alexandra Demetrianova

We met in a park in one of the upcoming hipster areas of Bangkok – Banglamphu. She came in a bright white and blue striped dress and colorful accessories. Kath Khangpiboon is an extravagant person by style, an activist and academic by personality. She has hundreds of followers on social media and on the day we met she had just come out of two days civil society conference talks at the UN headquarters in Bangkok. The co-founder of Thai Transgender Alliance frequently campaigns and publicly speaks on gender issues in Thailand and is a well known figure in LGBT rights movements in Southeast Asia.

Kath has studied and taught at Thammasat University, one of the most liberal universities in Thailand and one that prides itself on being founded on democratic principles. After teaching as an external lecturer at the Faculty of Social Work, where she finished her Bachelor and Master’s degrees, Kath attempted to become a permanent member of the faculty. Her application was rejected based on “inappropriate” social media activity and statements. She immediately appealed the decision, saying the rejection amounted to gender discrimination and a crusade by the conservative elements at the university. Kath spoke to Asian Correspondent about her struggle.

What exactly happened at Thammasat University? Why was your application for lecturer rejected?

In my application, they singled out some of my posts on my private Instagram account, when I was a Bachelor student back in 2010. It was a photo from Halloween with a penis-shaped lipstick my friend brought for me from Japan, it was a joke and Halloween costume. They said this was inappropriate for a Thammasat lecturer. Normally the university doesn’t consider social media activity as criteria for lecturer applications. This was only my case. Basically this is the first time that social media activity was used as criteria in approving a Thammasat lecturer. The Thammasat Board Committee meeting decided to use this criteria. I passed everything else. I’m a graduate of this faculty, they approved and read all my articles and academic writing – local and international – I passed my interview and psychological tests. But I am confident I will win this case. My faculty and the dean support me, there are only a few people there who object to me becoming a lecturer. They are taking a long time on this case, in July it will be one year since the struggle started.

But you don’t think this is only about your social media posts? You feel this is about you being transgender and an activist?

Some people in the Board Committee are conservative, they are homophobic and transphobic. I am a transgender and LGBT activist, so I talk a lot about sexuality on social media and in public. I am lucky that I can access media and my faculty supports me. But on the Thammasat Board Committee and at the Faculty of Social Work some professors don’t like me because I was critical to them about the way they teach, or how they see social development in Thailand. There is a group of about five people at my own faculty, I’ve been told they collected data against me on social media. Maybe it’s because I’m pro-democracy, and not pro-coup. Some of the people at TU compared me to Aum Neko and her case of using sexuality to campaign for freedom and LGBT rights. But Aum Neko was more controversial, she meant to be shocking. In reality she’s a very nice person. I am also an activist and transgender, but I use different tools – I write articles, attend conferences and use social media to campaign for transgender rights. They fear this “will become another Aum Neko case”. They’re not interested in who I am, in my articles and my activism. They are judging me by what they don’t like my social media account.

But why you? Aren’t there other lecturers at Thammasat University, who are gay or transgender?

There are a few gays and also transgender. But I am the first one to apply as a transgender for a lecturer position. Other transgender members of the university came out after they joined. They weren’t openly transgender when applying. Even the conservatives won’t tell you or ask you directly… some even refuse to admit that such a thing as ‘transgender’ even exists.

Thailand is reportedly one of the friendliest countries in the world towards gay and transgender people. Is this an illusion?

In terms of LGBT people and their rights? Definitely. The truth is there aren’t only negatives, but we have to look at the overall progress in our country. There is much need for social change and change of attitudes. There is a lack of opportunities in employment, rights from authorities and the government. Access to education is also an issue. That’s why LGBT people in Thailand cannot express their identity, because they aren’t comfortable to be themselves in such a society. I think people have to improve their LGBT knowledge, to make sure that knowledge can help other persons. The society should accept LGBT people as equal citizens without conditions. Starting from the family level, parents have to know how to treat their LGBT child as a human being and help them develop to be confident in their identity. And it continues at societal level in schools and universities. They have to be allowed to study openly without discrimination based on gender. We have to create a strong policy to help LGBT people have equal opportunities, mainly in employment. Policy makers in the government should create policy based on gender sensitivity and provide social service directly to LGBT people. What LGBT people still face in Thailand is a negative attitude and wrong assumptions and stereotypes. If we look at policy and legislature – there is very little to be celebrated there. There is no law for transgender rights and freedom from discrimination just yet.

What are some of the stereotypes and issues that transgender people face in Thailand, despite being painted as ‘widely accepted’ abroad?

Trans people, as well as gays, are accepted in entertainment and in consumer culture… Thai people like to consume and “consumerize” LGBT people, making them into a product of entertainment, fashion, beauty, show business and even the sex industry – just look at how many transgender people work in Pattaya as sex workers. It’s like we are here only for the cameras and the show. My case is an example of how transgender people have a problem being employed in more “serious” professions, if you will. Let’s see if the university committee will allow the first transgender applicant to become a lecturer. I take it as a reflection and confirmation of Thai society’s attitude towards trans people. Often the answer to the question if trans person can be accepted, is their social status.

What about physical safety and the fact that transgender people are more prone to sexual abuse and violence?

In the case of rape, if a transgender person reports a rape, the police won’t even talk them. Because they are trans, they won’t want to register the assault as rape. They blame their identity, they blame the victim… We desperately need a law protecting transgender people from physical, sexual violence and other forms of discrimination.

Recently in January, a clause on gender discrimination was included in the draft of new Thai constitution. If this is passed, it would be a major success for the whole LGBT community. Would you consider it legitimate, even if the process was not entirely democratic?

I will have to accept it, because it will be a result of the efforts of the whole LGBT community and activist network. If I refuse to accept such a law, it won’t be fair to other LGBT activists and colleagues. There would be division and it would also impact developments of other issues. Just look at my case. I’ve been waiting for 10 months to even be heard and answered… The drafting of the new Thai constitution, it is an opportunity to push gender identity into the constitution. But that’s just the start, the government needs to focus on social development, human security, legal, educational and health issues.

You will hear the decision on your appeal by the university Board Committee soon. What if you get rejected again? What’s next for you?

Currently there is no law protecting transgender people from this kind of discrimination… What I can do, however, is claim the time they took to consider my case, which was extraordinarily long. I’ve been waiting for 10 months and they have violated my right to have my case considered in a just manner. Then, I can also refer to the criteria they applied to my case. I am confident I will win, I believe it. And that’s why Thammasat contacted me to be interviewed again.

They should think about my personality and work. I was a student activist at Thammasat. I entered the university because I believed in their values and I could see myself as their student and graduate. As a transgender I felt the university was free enough for me to feel safe and comfortable. And that’s why I continued to study Master’s degree there. I did my thesis on gender and transgender issues, I’ve always developed knowledge in this area. They have to think about this as an opportunity to open doors for transgender people, to help create knowledge at Thammasat, to freely talk about transgender identity. If I go to the courts, it will take more than six years, it’s a very long process. But I will try.

Do you still want to go back and teach at Thammasat, despite this struggle?

I am not okay with the way they are treating me, but I have to continue and use this case to declare the state of transgender rights in Thailand. It is not only a fight for my own position at TU, it’s a fight for all transgender people. That’s why I take time to talk about this and won’t let it go. I am just trying to protect their own values – freedom and justice.

UPDATE: Thammasat University’s decision on Kath’s appeal, which was due this week, has been postponed until June 22.

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