After two train rides and an hour and a half of commuting, I finally arrived at Bangkok's outskirts. Tucked away in an alley, just a minute's walk from the main road, was an office door adorned with the pride flag and the organization's name, Thai Transgender Alliance (ThaiTGA), written on it.
My work in public health research and community outreach exposed me to the formidable challenges and pervasive discrimination confronted by transgender people in the U.S., particularly in the realm of health care. The narratives I've encountered detailing instances of trans people being disowned over their gender identity have been nothing short of staggering.
This revelation is especially poignant against my cultural upbringing, where familial bonds traditionally endure despite differences. My aunt's unwavering acceptance of her child, a transgender woman, within our Thai Muslim family has highlighted the divergent experiences of transgender individuals. This dichotomy, coupled with my passion for health equity, ignited a curiosity to dive deeper into the landscape of trans health in Thailand, a place I also call my home.
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I patiently awaited the arrival of Nachale Boonyapisomparn (Hua), co-founder of ThaiTGA. When Hua finally arrived, she greeted me with a warm hug and welcoming smile, and she generously distributed socks she had brought from her recent trip to South Korea to everyone in the office, including me, a stranger. I instantly felt embraced within the safe space they had created, and I was inspired to do the same during my time with them.
Our conversation was enlightening as she provided me with a background on the organization as well as transgender rights and policies (or the lack thereof) in Thailand. Although Thailand passed a Gender Equality Act in 2015 to protect people from gender-based discrimination, the enforcement of the law was limited.
Hua went on to explain the socioeconomic factors and the ripple effect of discrimination and stigma, affecting the perception, affordability, and accessibility of health care for transgender populations in Thailand. She contrasted this with her own experiences of easily accessible and affordable gender-affirming care in the U.S., which motivated her to advocate for health care coverage of gender-affirming care for transgender people in Thailand.
I also inquired about the ability to change pronouns on official government documents and identification cards, a topic that had surfaced in all of my interviews with transgender people. Hua expressed her disappointment, revealing that there was no law for gender recognition in Thailand. She emphasized the dire lack of human rights for queer people in Thailand due to the absence of gender recognition and the limited enforcement of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This conversation left a lasting impression on me, driving home the importance of addressing human rights issues to advance health care access.
Hua then shared her reflections of her time as an activist. Her eyes welled up with tears as she recounted the people she had encountered on her journey. She had embarked on her path as an activist for transgender rights in 2004. Almost 20 years later, she witnessed the growth of the movement she had helped lead and the emergence of passionate youth who would continue this mission.
"It is very emotional because when I first started my job, I can only see me," Hua said. "But now along the way of my activism, we make so many friends. This talk just gave me a flashback to all the good memories."
Her vulnerability in sharing her journey with me and her unwavering passion for her work were deeply moving. By the end of our conversation, the kind-hearted people at ThaiTGA had to provide us with tissues to wipe away our tears.
After a week had passed, I had the opportunity to meet with Hua and others from ThaiTGA again at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. They had invited me to attend a press conference for the "Three Miracle Laws," centered around three legal measures in Thailand: the Legal Gender Recognition Bill, the Marriage Equality Bill, and the Decriminalization of Sex Work Bill. Two youth activists kicked off the press conference with powerful speeches, expressing the urgent need for change and an end to oppression and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in a Thai society that, while claiming to be queer-friendly, lacked legal protection for queer people.
Plaifah Kyoka Shodladd, one of the queer youth activists, said, "We were born into a society where there is a strong gender binary, which meant that our identities were shoved into a small box that oppressed … We should be the ones choosing our own identity … Our future is in your hands."
Fellow youth activist Nitchakarn (Mimi) Rakwongrit expressed experiences shared by children bullied because of their gender identity. The two activists ended their speech by saying, "We cannot go back and fix wounds for those children, but we can choose to live in the present to prevent any wounds from happening again."
I was captivated by their delivery and deeply moved by the distress in their voices. When their speeches concluded, there was a brief moment of silence followed by a standing ovation. Through their words, it was evident that they would carry the torch of the queer rights movement, continuing to push for progress and change.