TRANSGENDERASIA: Research and Discussion Paper


Transpeople (Khon Kham Phet) in Thailand:  Acceptance or Oppression. 


Sam Winter PhD.,

Associate Professor,

Division of Learning, Development and Diversity,

Faculty of Education,

University of Hong Kong


(paper presented at 10th International Conference of Thai Studies, Bangkok, Jan 2008)

(uploaded Feb 2008)


Gender identity variance, a person’s identification as belonging to a gender other than that into which he or she was allocated at birth, is a universal and timeless aspect of  human diversity. At all times and apparently in all cultures, there have been, and are, gender identity variant people. In the West we often call them transsexual, sometimes transgendered, often more informally as transpeople (khon kham phet; literally ‘people who cross gender’). There are transmen (phuchai kham phet; those labelled female at birth but growing up to identify as male), and transwomen (phuying kham phet; labelled male at birth but growing up to identify as female). In many societies today, transpeople are the  victims of prejudice, discrimination and systematic oppression. Unfortunately, governments and government agencies often fail to protect transpeople against discrimination and oppression. Indeed, they are often among the offenders, sometimes perpetrating some of the worst discrimination and oppression. 


Thailand is home to a large and vibrant community of transpeople, and has a reputation for being tolerant, indeed accepting, towards them. In this paper I want to draw on eight years of research into transpeople in Thailand, and examine their position in contemporary Thai society. I will argue that, though transpeople find tolerance in some respects (very few appear to get murdered), some of their most fundamental rights are denied on a daily basis.


Before I begin I need to make an apology, explanation and confession. First the apology, that all my work in Thailand is in regard to transwomen. The transman population is far less visible and less accessible (at least for me), and consequently harder to research. Second an explanation, that while there are various Thai names for those we in the West might call transwomen, I will use the term phuying praphet song (‘women of a second kind’); as far as I can see it is the most precise and most respectful common Thai language term for those we would in the West call transgendered women / transwomen (i.e. phuying kham phet).


Now the confession. I will be talking a lot about legal matters. I have read legal articles on matters of discrimination and human rights, but have no training in law. I am aware that in talking about these matters, almost certainly in front of some lawyers, I will be putting my neck in a noose. So be it; I may learn never to do it again.


So let’s begin. Thailand has acceded to two important treaties guaranteeing fundamental rights of the individual. They are the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which together seek to guarantee a very wide range of rights, including for the less privileged and those in minority groups. Article 2 in each treaty makes all of this explicit, claiming that the rights listed should extend to all in a society ‘without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or any other status’ The ‘any other status’ provision is key here. In the view of many working in the field of human rights, ‘any other status’ clearly includes sexuality and gender identity.


Please note that, in acceding to these two treaties (as opposed to simply signing them)  Thailand has undertaken to be legally bound by their terms. In doing so it has gone further than have most other Asian states.  That is to Thailand’s credit, but presumably places on Thailand a particular responsibility to promote and protect the rights specified in these treaties.


So what are these rights? I suggest that the most relevant for Thai phuying praphet song may be ( a ) the right to work (ICESCR Article 6), ( b ) the right to marry and to found a family (ICCPR Art.23, para.2); ( c ) the right to privacy (Art.17, para.1); and ( d ) the right to freedom of expression (ICCPR Art.19, para.3. For it is these rights that I believe are violated on a daily basis, even in ‘tolerant’ Thailand.


Elements of prejudice in society.


There is evidently a degree of prejudice against phuying praphet song in Thai society. In 2002 and 2003, I researched, together with Arejarn Nongnuch Rojanalert at Silpakorn University and Arejarn Kulthida Maneerat at Chulalongkorn University, the attitudes and beliefs of 216 university undergraduates regarding phuying praphet song. We found evidence of prejudice (Table 1).


Table 1 here


and of discriminatory beliefs (Table 2)


Table 2 here


It is worth noting that these percentages come from a young, highly educated, urbanised, sample. We can only speculate on what the figures would be if we had researched older, less educated people, perhaps in the provinces.


Not surprising then that, in a quite separate 2002 study we found that 17% of phuying praphet song believed that Thai society rejected (was actively negative towards) people like them.


Phuying praphet song clearly have a problem here. Gays and lesbians in Thailand often choose, and areable, to keeping their sexuality a relatively private affair. And Thai society respects that sort of discretion. Transpeople, on the other hand, cannot be discrete. It is not about who you go to bed with, it is about who you are and how you present. Transgenderism is, by its very nature, indiscrete. True, there are some phuying praphet song who manage to get through many social situations without anybody guessing that they are phuying praphet song. They manage to ‘pass’ as natal females (I use the term ‘natal’ (=‘birth’) here, but others might use the term ‘biological’). They are perhaps the more attractive ones, and conform more closely to Thai standards of proper female demeanour (‘khwaam riaproy’ ). As others have noted (particularly Andrew Matzner in his 2001 article ‘The complexities of 'acceptance': Thai students' attitudes towards phuying praphet song. (Crossroads: An interdisciplinary journal of South East Asian studies, 15(2), 71-93), these phuying praphet song do find it life easier. But I suggest that Thai society holds the rest of them at arms length, at worst pushing them out towards the margins.  


Privacy issues


The problems arising out of prejudice are compounded by the ID card. Regardless of the how long she has identified as a female, lived in a female role, no matter how far she has gone to possess a female anatomy, how successful she is in ‘passing’ as a female in front of strangers, the Thai phuying praphet song carries a male ID card (and travels with a male passport). When she opens a bank account, goes for a job, or any of a number of other everyday activities,  she is asked to show her ID card, and her status as a transperson (khon kham phet) is communicated – she is ‘outed’ as ‘male’. In what way are the phuying praphet song’s rights to privacy observed here? In fact they would be much better observed is, in keeping with practice in an increasing number of countries (including in Asia), she was able to carry documents that reflect how she self-identifies and presents to others,  not what happened to be between her legs when she was born.



And then there is the issue of military service. If she has previously been called for military service, and has been discharged because of her gender identity status, and if she is called by her potential employer to show her military discharge papers, it is likely that she will also be outed as  ‘permanently psychologically damaged’.


Employment issues


With a male ID and military discharge papers that mark her as ‘psychologically damaged’, it is not surprising that phuying praphet song may find it difficult to get a good job, commensurate with her education and abilities. The constant refrain I have heard from hundreds of Thai phuying praphet song over the last eight years is: ‘we  just can’t get good jobs’. Some have told me that they did not bother going to University because they knew their education would be wasted. Those that do bother often find that they can only get a job in a back office, where they don’t come into contact with clients and customers. In research I did with Liselot Vink in 2005 we found that a significant minority of our sample of 225 phuying praphet song expressed a belief that their gender identity variance had damaged their employment opportunities (Table 3)


Table 3 here


Note that we had found most of our participants at their places of work or study, using their social networks to find others. We believe that there may be a large number of unemployed phuying praphet song out there whom we simply did not reach; they are not so well integrated into phuying praphet song social networks, and many from the provinces who cannot get jobs simply go back to live with their families and subsist without a regular income. We believe that for each of these reasons we were not able to reach them in our 2005 study. If we had then the percentages displayed in Table 3 might have been much higher.  


Note also that we found few professionals or office workers among our participants. This was despite there being many university graduates among them. Instead there was clear evidence of ‘ghetto’ employment. By ‘ghetto’ employment I mean employment in a narrow range of jobs in which phuying praphet song find opportunities to work: beauty salons, cabarets, and small one-woman businesses where job interviews are not involved. And of course we found some engaging in sex work. We believe that some were pushed into sex work as well as pulled. While many were attracted by the money (to support parents and siblings or to fund hormones and surgery), the camaraderie, the opportunity to meet potential life partners and/or  to reaffirm one’s gender identity, many also seemed to have been pushed into sex work by the absence of any viable employment elsewhere.


I believe that the difficulties phuying praphet song have in securing appropriate employment (whether those difficulties arise out of employer prejudice, or employer anxiety about prejudiced customers, clients or workmates) serve to undermine the rights to work guaranteed them in the ICESCR to which Thailand has acceded.


Marriage and family issues.


The Thai phuying praphet song does not only carry a male ID card. She is also legally male, and she remains legally male regardless of how long she has identified as female or has lived in a female role, how successful she is in ‘passing’ as a female in front of strangers, or what she has done to modify her anatomy. In many countries worldwide, including some in Asia, transpeople who have undergone genital surgery can change their legal status and live as members of their chosen sex, including in regard to marriage and parenting. In some countries, notably the United Kingdom, this right is available even to those who have not undergone surgery, nor even taken hormones. But in Thailand, the phuying praphet song remains legally male. Ironically enough, she is only legally able to marry a woman (a same-sex marriage in any practical sense of the term). She is not able to marry a man.  Any ceremonies she and her partner participate in which seek to reproduce the form of marriage have no legal force at all. Now our research indicates the vast majority of Thai phuying praphet song (above 90%) are exclusively attracted to men. So the absence of the right to change legal status has the practical effect of denying phuying praphet song the right to marriage and its emotional, financial and legal benefits, including reasonable opportunities for a family life perhaps involving adoption of a child. These are rights that the ICCPR, to which Thailand has acceded, appears to guarantee.


I will note two additional issues relevant to gender status. First that in affirming the right to marry, ICCPR (Art. 23, para.2) does NOT specify that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. The effect is that same-sex marriage, whether in Thailand or anywhere else,  would be entirely consistent with its provisions. Second, that elsewhere (Art. 24) ICCPR specifies that a child’s birth and name shall be registered immediately after birth. Nowhere is it specified that a child’s sex should be registered. The implication is that any government, Thailand included, would be acting in a way consistent with its ICCPR treaty obligations if it removed all gender markers from the documentation carried by its citizens. I find that an intriguing thought.


Issues of free expression


Arguably, the barriers facing Thai phuying praphet song - in their efforts to protect their own privacy, secure appropriate employment, enter into marriage and form a family - all constitute an interference in their right to express gender identity. Recall that the ICCPR guarantees the right to freedom of expression. Incidentally, ICCPR states that this right should be ‘limited only by laws that protect the rights and reputations of others, and for the protection of national security or public order, public health or morals’ (ICCPR Art.19, para.3).I find it hard to imagine that any of these things are jeopardized by the freedom to express one’s gender.


Why does this state of affairs persist?  


Why do these injustices persist? One reason may be that, in common with other countries in Asia, a culture of human rights is relatively poorly developed. It is worth recalling that Thailand only acceded to the two treaties discussed in this paper in the late 1990s;  a point that may be relevant not only for the case of phuying praphet song, but also other minority groups in Thailand.


Another is that, in Thailand as in other places in Asia, the fight for transpeoples’ rights is often subsumed under the fight for gay and lesbian rights.  Thai transpeople I have talked to suggest that this sometimes leads to their specific concerns being overlooked.


But of course protection against discrimination is only necessary where discrimination first is a problem. So a second reason lies in the prejudice of ordinary Thai people towards transpeople; prejudice that when expressed, often results in discriminatory behaviour.


I suggest that some of the prejudice may arise from a mental pathologisation of gender identity variance: the belief that transpeople are above all in some way psychologically damaged: some sort of mental defect or illness. At this point that I return to our 2002/03 study of undergraduate students’ attitudes and beliefs regarding phuying praphet song. We found that a large number of our participants appeared to subscribe to a pathologising model of gender identity variance (Table 4).


Table 4 here


Where they get this idea need not concern us here. What matters is that it was these people who tended, elsewhere in our questionnaire, to display the most prejudiced attitudes about phuying praphet song. They tended to reject any form of social contact with them, and reject any proposition that they should be regarded as women or treated as women. Incidentally, we found the same thing in all the other six countries, Asian and Western, that we looked at.


In the West the idea that transpeople are by their nature psychologically damaged is under sustained attack; just as was once the case with ideas about homosexuality. The relationship between pathologisation and prejudice provides more ammunition for that attack. Thai phuying praphet song appear to have an interest in the outcome of the struggle.




Table 1: Attitudes / beliefs of 216 undergraduates regarding phuying praphet song


(percentages displaying each attitude). (2002/03 research with Nongnuch Rojanalert and Kulthida Maneerat)


I could NOT accept my son becoming (a phuying praphet song): 49%

I could NOT accept my son having (a phuying praphet song) girlfriend: 31%

(Phuying praphet song) are unnatural: 50%




Table 2: Attitudes / beliefs of 216 undergraduates regarding phuying praphet song


(percentages displaying each attitude). (2002/03 research with Nongnuch Rojanalert and Kulthida Maneerat)


(Phuying praphet song) should NOT be allowed to marry men: 28%

I could NOT accept my teacher being (a phuying praphet song): 16%

(Phuying praphet song) should NOT be allowed to work with children: 13%




Table 3:  Views of 225 phuying praphet song regarding the impact of being gender identity variant upon employment opportunities.

(Percentages believing that it had damaged their opportunities) (2005 research with Liselot Vink)


My chance of getting a job:  22%

The amount of jobs I can choose from:  29%

My chance of keeping a job: 15%

My chance to get a promotion: 18%




Table 4. Undergraduate students’ mental pathologisation of gender identity variance.


(percentages agreeing with each statement)


(Phuying praphet song) are men with something wrong with their mind: 51%

(Phuying praphet song) are mentally disordered: 13%

(Phuying praphet song) need psychological help: 28%

(Phuying praphet song) have unstable personalities: 31%

(Phuying praphet song) have weak characters: 14%