A photo showing some of the crowds at Bangkok Pride Parade 2023 showing a snippet of Life in Thailand for queer people. Credit OraMAAG via Wikimedia Commons
A photo showing some of the crowds at Bangkok Pride Parade 2023 showing a snippet of Life in Thailand for queer people. Credit OraMAAG via Wikimedia Commons

The western world has a perception of our Southeast Asian country as very progressive and LGBTQIA+ friendly. I suppose there is some truth in that.  We even recently passed a marriage equality bill! But life in Thailand as a transgender lesbian woman doesn’t actually match up to that idealised view.

While it is true that most people here aren’t really homophobic or transphobic, at least explicitly. I think realistically, most people just don’t care enough to express hatred towards LGBTQIA+ people. For the most part, people here generally perceive LGBTQIA+ matters as discrete from the political spectrum. Some queer folks are even conservative themselves.

But that makes life in Thailand as a transgender person a bit of a double edged sword. As I said, most people don’t care enough to campaign against us, but that also means they don’t generally care enough to fight for us and our basic rights either. At least not until these past few years with the movement for marriage equality.

It’s this kind of attitude that makes life in Thailand a little fraught with complexity. For example in schools or workplaces a transgender person can be themselves and behave however they like without breaking any rules. Yet at the same time they are not allowed to wear the uniform or hairstyle of their gender. Many of the best schools are segregated by gender which can be difficult for transgender youth.

This apathy has led to a standstill on trans rights in Thailand. Our country doesn’t have legal recognition of gender identity currently, though trans people are somewhat recognised and exist in society; it’s just vastly easier to say you’re cisgender and gay, so many do. Life in Thailand says you can be different, but only in certain ways.

In my experience I’ve found a lot of people here have linked sexuality and gender identity as one concept in their minds. When I tell people I’m a transgender lesbian it’s not uncommon to hear people ask “why even transition if not to lure men?” Which is an obviously harmful idea.

These harmful ideas also negatively impact trans people experiencing life in Thailand. I’ve seen trans people spread the idea that gender transition is totally possible, but only with bottom surgery. Mostly in the context of vaginoplasty as phalloplasty and the trans masc side of things are significantly less known about. This further creates the effect where people who would likely have come out as transgender don’t, often preferring to identify as gender non-conforming cisgender people.

Of course, gender non-conforming people exist everywhere and they are valid and important. But after experiencing life in Thailand as a transgender lesbian woman its hard not to see how the outdated laws and attitudes towards trans people have helped sow confusion and led to people misunderstanding what they can be.

Westerners probably know Thailand’s relationship with transgender people via the doctors who specialise in bottom surgery here. It seems to be all that people talk about when westerners mention Thailand and trans people, so much so that even trans people ourselves start to think that there are other ways to be transgender. For example, I didn’t even know HRT existed until a few years ago and since our sources for it often aren’t particularly legitimate it can feel like we’re doing something very unsafe despite this medication being safely prescribed around the world for decades.

Then there’s the Thai media. The trans stereotype in Thai media is a trans woman who is funny, over-the-top, talented, obsessed with men and their own beauty. It’s a caricature of transgender women for the purposes of entertaining cisgender people. It reinforces all of the negative things above about how trans people are viewed in Thailand and impacts trans people by making us think that’s what we should also aspire to be in order to be accepted.

I don’t think Thailand has a problem with the lack of representing trans people in media but rather a lack of good and diverse representation. There’s a lot of different trans people with a lot of different perspectives, ideas and beliefs. I think if I had been exposed to some of those while growing up I might not have struggled to realise I was also one of them.

Growing up I’d always seen trans people, I knew they existed and I was never taught to hate, despise or avoid them by my family or by anyone else. I just didn’t really see myself in the shoes of the over-the-top obsessed with men trans woman on the TV. I wasn’t obsessed with beauty and I don’t think my only options should be sketchy pills and surgery. Ultimately the conclusion I came to was that I must be just a guy who is into women and crossdresses from time to time.

It’s only when I found the online international trans community that the illusion broke down for me. Society told me there was one specific way to be a transgender woman and it wasn’t what I was – but the online community showed me that there is no one way to be transgender. I found out that transgender lesbians exist, that HRT exists and is safe, I found out that identities don’t necessarily relate to what genitals you have or who you’re attracted to.

I couldn’t see who I was because there was a wall made of misconceptions and mistruths in front of it. Tearing that wall down brick by brick brought me closer and close to finally understanding myself after all this time. It reminds me of a quote by Sally Ride, the first US woman to go to space (whom also had a life-long partner that is a woman)

“You can’t be what you can’t see.” – Sally Ride

In context she was speaking about the importance of being the first US woman to go to space. Young girls who only see men fly into space aren’t as likely to think that could be them if they pursued it. But I really love this quote and apply it to my own experience and journey of realising who I am. I would never have realised that I am a woman if I wasn’t able to break out of the mold shaped for me by life in Thailand. Seeing other trans people living the life I thought I could never have made me realise I could pursue it too.

Things are generally starting to improve for transgender people in Thailand, mostly in society.

In the last few years more and more people have become more educated and there is generally less ignorance towards important issues. Including the royal family and it’s absurd defamation laws, the military’s excessive involvement in our democratic system and human rights for LGBTQIA+ people!

More people are becoming aware of LGBTQIA+ issues and learn more about who we really are in all of our diverse glory; rather than being stuck relying on a single version of us as potrayed by the media and old societal norms. I have personally seen more outlets talking about the existence of transgender lesbians and I see local sapphic and lesbian groups acknowledging our validity.

What I’m worried about is the legislation side of things. We may have won marriage equality, but I think the right to our identities is going to be a much harder fight.

There are a few things which could complicate the process. First “mandatory” military service; its “technically” not mandatory but you are legally obliged to report to the military at the age of 20 if you’re legally male. Then you draw from a box filled with red and black cards, black means you’re free to go red means you have to do 2 years of service.

Transgender women are often exempt due to being “medically disqualified” (for “missing” body parts, or having a doctor’s letter of recommendation.) But this obviously doesn’t apply to all trans women for various reasons meaning many are forced into service where reports have shown them being sexually harassed during physical exams by officers. It’s basically a living hell to go through for a trans woman.

You could also “skip” this process via high school. Though again, not a great option for transgender women. You can enter “defense school” starting at Grade 10, the classes are once a week for roughly 10 weeks for 3 years with a camp during year 3. It’s basically military training by military officers. I went for almost a year before quitting due to my dysphoria spiking up after an officer forcefully shaved off all my hair.

Employers prefer that legally male people in Thailand have graduated from a defense school rather than potentially being conscripted into military training. But these schools aren’t cheap and so the issue of mandatory training also becomes a major class issue where being from a family in poverty means you can’t afford the school and its associated expense and therefore are less desirable to employers. Problems of safeguarding and abuse tend to be higher in less prestigious schools.

Thailand is a country which has seen 13 military coups since we officially became a democratic country. It’s fair to say that the military have a lot of power here and that influence can be felt throughout Thai society. A lot of excessive controls on the body such as in schools where, as I mentioned previously, have uniform and haircut policies. Which can prevent transgender people from some aspects of transition and also be harmful towards cisgender students aswell.

I hope that by reading this article you have learned something new about a country westerners seem to view as an LGBTQIA+ paradise. By sharing my experience of life in Thailand I’m hoping that you can see we too still have a long way to go as a country but that the progress is being made, in part thanks to the visibility of trans people in all their diversity around the world. They helped change my life and hopefully I can be part of that positive change for other people too.

Speaking of helping be part of positive change; I would like to let you know about my other work!

I’m currently working on a comic called “Love Friends!”. It is a story about a group of friends who are all unique in their own ways but find connection through the power of love. I also aim to represent the struggle and experiences of LGBTQIA+ people with a focus on the more under-represented identities, especially in Thai media.

You can check it out by clicking here and help support me as an unemployed freelancer and transgender lesbian woman in Thailand. Thank you so much!

Read more of the pieces commissioned we’ve commissioned from the international transgender community by clicking here.