In recent days, Thailand’s transgender community has surfaced in media reports, covering topics ranging from an offensive IKEA advertisement to a political campaign aimed at the untapped “kathoey” (male-to-female) voting bloc.
Pongsapat Pongcharoen, a U.S.-educated police general from the Pheu Thai Party, launched this sleek, upbeat campaign video on YouTube to appeal to the capital’s ‘third sex’ in his campaign to become Bangkok’s next governor. The video features a cheery mosaic of Bangkok’s demographics, including a number of kathoeys. As the first political campaign video to openly court the transgender vote, it may be a prescient move by Pongcharoen who is ahead in the latest poll.
"Our modern world increasingly accepts varied genders,” the Global Post quotes Pongcharoen as saying in the video message. “Bangkok must be a city that understands sexual differences, not just accepting different lifestyles … it must be a friend to every difference."
While an exact number is hard to pin down, Thailand’s transgender community is estimated to range from 10,000 to 100,000. This represents a major untapped voting bloc and social force if it can be successfully engaged.
“Not every transgender person is concerned with political issues, simply because gender-identity politics remain separate from mainstream political issues,” Thai transgender activist Prempreeda Pramoj Na Ayutthaya told The Diplomat. “I would vote for candidates who set concrete policies that benefit the transgender community. … and support gender equality.”
She added that politicians who address the need to create social spaces with transgender people in mind, such as public rest rooms, would also be likely to attract the community’s vote. Legal recognition of transgender identity and the ability to change names on ID cards are other issues that concern transgender people.
“Some politicians attended meetings held by community-based organizations for LGBT,” Pramoj Na Ayutthaya added. “Many politicians go to the market and cook with sellers to present a good image before elections. But I have never seen one visit a cabaret to ask trans-women about their concerns.”
Not even Nok Yollada, Thailand's first transgender office holder, has gone out of her way to appeal to transgender voters. "I don’t even focus on gender in my campaign. I barely bring it up," she told the Global Post.
Frank political discourse related to transgender issues may still be in its infancy, but their treatment has long been a hot topic in Thailand. Thailand’s first sex change operation was performed in 1972. Today more of these procedures take place in Thailand than any other country in the world.
Transgendered singers, television personalities and movie stars have become a fixture of Thai pop culture. Pattaya even hosts an annual transgender beauty pageant, Miss Tiffany’s Universe, beamed out to television sets nationwide.
Indeed, the “Land of Smiles” is widely viewed as a bastion of Buddhist tolerance and social grace. To casual Western observers, an attitude of “mai pen rai” (“no worries”) seems to hold Thai society together.
At first glance, it seems that Thailand’s transgender people have it made. But the reality is more complex. Thai society and law are not as accommodating to its transgendered community as the popular image suggests.
Although Thai parents of transgender children are often very supportive, society can often be cruel. According to a poll by Ramkhamhaeng University Public Opinion Center, 70 percent of respondents disapprove of allowing gay marriage or granting transgender people to change their gender on their ID cards and passports.
Responding to IKEA’s apology, Pramoj Na Ayutthaya said, “This is only one action. … Together with the global trans community, Thai transgendered people still need to work hard for equality.”