(Bangkok) – Transgender people in Thailand have no way of legally recognizing their gender identity, making them vulnerable to various forms of discrimination, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today with the Thai Transgender Alliance.
The 60-page report, “‘People Cannot Fit In’: Thailand’s Need for Legal Gender Recognition” found that the lack of legal gender recognition coupled with inadequate legal protection and widespread social stigma restrict transgender people’s access to vital services and subject them to daily humiliation. Thai transgender people said they were routinely denied access to education, health care and employment. Thailand has a reputation as an international hub for gender-affirming surgery and transgender health care. But this global reputation obscures Thailand’s severely limited legal mechanisms for protecting transgender people at home.
“Transgender people in Thailand face constant harassment and discrimination and are often excluded from education and employment,” said Kyle Ritter, Senior LGBT Rights Researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. “The Thai government must intervene and make legal gender recognition a reality in Thailand.”
Human Rights Watch conducted the research for this report between January and May 2020 with people in four locations in Thailand: Bangkok, Trang, Chiang Mai, and Ubon. The researchers conducted extensive interviews with 62 transgender people, as well as interviews with social workers, academics, and staff from advocacy and service organizations.
Thailand has limited legislation that provides transgender people with some security, but it is far from offering comprehensive protection, Human Rights Watch noted. In 2007, Thai lawmakers passed the Personal Names Act, which allows transgender people to request a name change. However, the law did not give people the opportunity to request a change in their legal gender. Name change requests are approved at the discretion of each administrator.
With the 2015 Equal Opportunities Act, which bans discrimination against people based on gender expression, lawmakers sought to address some forms of discrimination against transgender people. But the government has failed to properly implement the law. The Unfair Gender Discrimination Committee, which is empowered to enforce the law, heard 27 cases of alleged discrimination against transgender people between 2016 and 2019. In many of these cases, the decision took more than three months, and none of the eight parties found responsible were penalized.
The lack of legal gender recognition in Thailand means that all transgender people carry documents with a different gender than their identity and language. When asked about this documentation, transgender people can feel humiliated. In some cases, transgender people have reported being harassed by government officials because of the discrepancy.
A 27-year-old transgender man in Bangkok described his humiliation while trying to replace a lost ID card: “The officers asked how I got my penis … and whether it is really possible to become a trans man.” The officers compared him to his previous photos. “I felt like a cartoon for these government officials,” he said.
Many schools have gender dress codes or facilities and will not allow students to attend school if they dress in a manner that is contrary to their legal gender and violates their right to education. Rigid application of gender-specific regulations, including uniforms and gendered facilities, exacerbates bullying of transgender students by classmates and teachers.
“When I started wearing makeup and lipstick in school, my teacher scolded me – give me a call.can‘ [a derogatory Thai term, roughly translated as ‘faggot’]”Said a 25-year-old transgender woman who grew up in Ang Thong province in central Thailand. She believed that they picked them out because she had also started growing her hair long. “I was beaten by teachers at school too, and the teachers told classmates to piss me off,” she said.
Transgender people also face barriers to accessing adequate health care. A 30-year-old transgender woman said she was hospitalized with appendicitis at the age of 20 and needed urgent surgery. “I was taken to the men’s section,” she said. “All of the bad things happen to me because of one word on my document – my gender tag.”
Many of the transgender people surveyed said that overall discrimination in medical facilities deterred them from seeking medical assistance and put their mental and physical wellbeing at risk.
The lack of legal gender recognition also hampers the ability of transgender people to find work, which often leads to automatic refusals. Some employers said that transgender people would only be hired if they dress according to their gender assigned at birth, not their gender identity. Other employers have expressly stated in their applications that transgender applicants will not be considered. Many of the respondents said they felt limited to niche jobs like the beauty industry or sex work.
In recent years, the Thai government has started working with civil society organizations and United Nations organizations to develop a legal process for gender recognition. The process has stalled and needs urgent attention, Human Rights Watch said.
The Thai government has an important opportunity to balance its positive global reputation on LGBT issues with its obligations under international human rights law by developing a rights-based process for legal gender recognition. This law aims to enable transgender people to be recognized according to their gender identity and to change their legal name and gender without medical requirements.
“Ensuring transgender people’s rights to non-discrimination, education, health care and employment is paramount to any vision of equality,” said Knight. “While legal gender recognition will not alleviate all the hardships of transgender people in Thailand, it is a crucial step towards equality and non-discrimination.”