Despite Thailand’s reputation as a relatively tolerant nation for transgender people, the lack of any legal recognition of their gender identity exposes them to frequent discrimination and a raft of daily humiliations, Human Rights Watch said in a report released yesterday.
The U.S.-based rights group said that the absence of a procedure for transgender people to change their legal gender, along with insufficient legal protections and persistent social stigmas, limit transgender people’s access to vital services. “Transgender people in Thailand experience numerous barriers to their rights to health, education, work, freedom of movement, and non-discrimination,” states the report, which is based on in-depth interviews with 62 transgender Thais and was compiled in tandem with the Thai Transgender Alliance.
The lack of legal recognition is reinforced by the pervasive and harmful stereotypes that exist in many parts of Thai society. Despite the country’s reputation as an LGBT-friendly country, the report states that “social tolerance of queer and transgender people has significant limits.” Together, these factors have “limited their ability to access services and forced them to face daily indignities.”
Among these indignities is the need for transgender people to carry identification documents showing a different gender from their identity. The report quotes a 27-year-old transgender man from Bangkok as describing his humiliation when he tried to replace a lost identification card that listed him as a woman. “I felt like a caricature for these government officials,” he told HRW.
The lack of legal gender recognition also hampers transgender people’s ability to get jobs, often resulting in automatic rejections when employers realize that applicants’ gender presentations differ from their biological sex. At the same time, transgender people who seek health care may be subjected to privacy violations and humiliating, invasive questioning. They may even face “physical danger when they are placed in hospital units that do not match their gender identity.”
The report cited Irawadee C., a 30-year-old transgender woman from Bangkok, as saying she was placed in a male ward when she was hospitalized for appendicitis and needed surgery. “All the bad things like this happen to me because of a single word on my document – my gender marker,” she said.
Unlike its Southeast Asian neighbors, Thailand does have some legal provisions that offer a degree of protection to transgender people, but these ultimately fall short of sufficient legal safeguards. In 2007, Thailand’s legislature passed the Persons’ Name Act, which allows transgender people to apply to change their name – but not their legal gender.
The rights group also gives the Thai legislature credit for its passage of the 2015 Gender Equality Act, which prohibits any form of discrimination if someone is “of a different appearance from his/her own sex by birth.” But a lack of effective implementation, in addition to the absence of a legal pathway for transgender people to change their gender in official documents, continues to leave many people vulnerable.
In recent years, according to HRW, the Thai government has begun to engage with civil society organizations and United Nations agencies to develop a legal gender recognition procedure. This is a sign that unlike most other governments in Southeast Asia, Thailand is willing to consider progressive legislation to safeguard transgender rights. It offers some grounds for optimism that Thailand can align its legal frameworks, and eventually its social realities, with its reputation as one of the Asia’s most LGBT-friendly nations.