A group of young transgender Thais sits together in women’s clothes behind rows of men, waiting for military officers to call their names and decide whether they must be drafted as soldiers.
“I was born male, so I must be here, as duty calls,” said Kanphitcha Sungsuk, 21, in a cream-colored dress, holding up a mirror to check her make-up and long black hair.
Thailand is widely seen as a paradise for gay and transgender people, but many complain of being treated as second-class citizens and the obligation to respond to the draft can be a nightmare when they turn 21.
“Most are stressed and worried that they will be undressed, stared at, or humiliated in public,” said Jetsada Taesombat, executive director of the Thai Transgender Alliance for Human Rights.
“Some are so stressed out they want to commit suicide to avoid conscription.”
Every April, Thai men who turn 21 must either volunteer to serve for six months or take their chances in a lottery, where a choice of black ticket lets them go home but a red ticket means they must serve for two years.
A conscript’s death following a beating by soldiers this week highlights the brutality of army life that many men want to avoid. Conscription can also mean serving in the south, where Muslim Malay separatists are fighting an insurgency.
Exemptions are made for those who are physically or mentally incapable. They are also made for trangender women, but only if they can prove that they are not faking it.
A doctor takes them to a private room, or behind a wall, to see whether they have breasts or have undergone a sex change.
Those with physical alterations, who show “gender identity disorder”, are exempt from the draft and need never return, but those who have not undergone such changes must return for up to two more years, unless an army hospital certifies they have the “disorder”.
Transgender women say the reference to a disorder stigmatizes them, although the army has softened its description from the previous “permanent mental disorder” and says it has improved the way they are treated.
“The army is instructed to treat and respect transgender women as women,” said Lieutenant Colonel Ongard Jamdee, who is in charge of a recruitment center in Pasi Charoen, Bangkok.
Transgender women figure on television, in beauty pageants and at hair salons and cosmetics counters in Thailand. But they cannot change the gender designation on their identity papers, despite a 2015 law against gender-based discrimination.
Some transgender women told Reuters they had been told to leave women’s toilets so as to not “frighten” women.
“Society looks on and thinks we are accepted, but it’s actually not so,” said Khwan Suphalak, 23, adding that hotels had barred her entry over her gender. “We’re always treated differently.”
(Additional reporting by Jutarat Skulpichetrat; Writing by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Matthew Tostevin; and Clarence Fernandez)
BANGKOK — “Boys who look like angels.” “Men excited over two beautiful ladyboys on draft day.” “Even prettier than ‘real women.’”
Those were some of the headlines one year ago from 72 stories in Thai-language media during the annual military conscription, 69 of which reflected the obsession with young trans women who, advocates say, are experiencing a stressful and potentially degrading experience.
With the annual conscription lottery soon to begin, members of the media, government and LGBT community gathered Wednesday in Bangkok to discuss new guidelines for better treatment of transgender recruits.
Ronnapoom Samakkeekarom of the Transgender Alliance for Human Rights said it’s time to stop treating people like a joke.
“Many in the Thai media still portray such news in a humorous way. Some of them even cause more stress to transgender recruits,” Ronnapoom said at the event held in the Sukosol Hotel.
Thailand may be known for its open sexual diversity, yet the widespread inequality and discrimination toward its LGBT population were largely ignored until recent years.
In past years, the draft has seen painful episodes with kathoeys verbally and sometimes physically abused by officers and other men. Some have been sexually propositioned or asked to bare their breasts publicly, while others were asked to give massages to or serve male officers.
Ronnapoom presented his survey of news from the past three years about the annual conscription, which begins April 1. Only three of the 72 stories mentioned the challenges LGBT candidates face, such as preparing for blood tests and their treatment by military officers.
A Voice TV commentator suggested that training should be offered, especially for Thai-language reporters, on the guidelines recommended by LGBT and cultural experts.
“Some reporters don’t really understand the issue,” Sirote Klampaiboon said. “They have to realize that they’re telling someone’s story and they don’t need to make a joke of someone.”
Col. Somphol said guidelines went out in recent weeks on proper treatment of transgender recruits, including the need to provide closed, private spaces for examination, not calling them out as “Mr.” or asking inappropriate – or irrelevant – questions about their gender identity.
In Thailand, teens are required to register for enlistment before they turn 18. They’re summoned to the conscription lottery when they’re turning 21. If they draw a black card, they go home. If they draw red, they enter the service for two years.
Things have improved. A decade ago, transgenderism was designated a mental illness by the military, which could create problems including future employment prospects. It took a six-year fight by a trans women’s community before the Administrative Court ordered the designation changed to someone whose gender doesn’t match with their sex, or gender dysphoria, so that trans draftees could be exempted.
Jetsada Taesombat of the Thai Transgender Alliance said the LGBT community wants to better coordinate with the Mental Health Department on standardizing the process for trans women to obtain the medical certificates they need to get exemptions. Many are still unable to do so because they have not undergone sexual reassignment surgery, or failed to complete the time-consuming process to secure the correct documents in time.