BANGKOK — Despite being a member of one of the most “socially acceptable” LGBT communities, Athitaya Yewthichai said she still gets demeaning looks from people around her.
It was while learning how to drive that the Thammasat University grad student, a tomboy, said the attitudes and misperceptions regarding her sexual identity came into sharp focus for her.
“When I had long hair, the driving instructor treated me like a lady, but the next day I cut my hair short, and his whole behavior toward me changed,” she said in a recent interview. Surprised by her masculine transformation, the instructor told her she would need to start acting like a man by doing such things as carrying heavy things around for herself. “[The situation] made me realize that everyone needs to be treated equally regardless of what their sexuality is.”
While experts say education on gender and sexual identity issues is behind the times in Asia, Athitaya credits a Thammasat University postgraduate program for a better understanding of the spectrum of identities that capture the true range of human expression.
Her thesis in the university’s Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies program examines people who want to forcibly change a tomboy into a heteronormative girl. She said many Thais continue to think it’s bad karma or a sign of filial disloyalty for a daughter to embrace a different gender identity. She describes a phenomenon called pliaan tom hai pen ter (change tomboy to girl) in which people use sexual means, from attempted seduction to forced coercion, to “turn” tomboys into hetero girls.
“There was a case where a dad raped his daughter,” she said.
Though under the guise of gender studies, Athitaya said the program, which the university began over a decade ago and believes the first of its kind in Southeast Asia, opened discussion about the LGBT community in a region where textbooks often still represent LGBT people as mentally ill.
Thammasat also offers a Queer Studies elective about the LGBT community’s history and the Western rights movement. Lecturer Pawin Malaiwong said that while Western activists fight more aggressively for their rights, Thais are much more passive.
“The Thai LGBT community wants acceptance, but in wanting that acceptance, they’ve compromised on fighting for their rights because they don’t want to stir up people and cause trouble for society,” he said, adding that he tries not to take a side or advocate in the classroom.
He believes there are some domestic groups who feel they don’t need marriage rights, but by not fighting for it, they’ve surrendered other rights, such as health security, because partners are not legally recognized in the medical system.
By being passive, Pawin believes the LGBT community has caused them to lose their rights. So in exploring Western LGBT communities in course, they get to see the history of how these communities have fought for their rights in the past.
Not to say such programs are limited to the communities they address. Wuthichai Chaiyaket, 28, is a heterosexual student in the sexual studies program. He admits to being more interested in understanding sexual orientation and identity than learning about the LGBT community. One thing he’s come to understand is that people are not restricted to one identity in a lifetime.
“Identities are fluid and can change,” he said.