BANGKOK — For Sirawut Inpim, a transgender student at Thammasat University, her dream of wearing a woman graduation gown came almost too late for her commencement ceremony.
Graduation was one of the few occasions where the Sirawut was not allowed to express her identity freely in the university best known as a bastion of democracy and liberalism in Thailand. Although she usually wears anything she likes without attracting a death glare from her friends, the privileges were not an official policy.
It was not until June – recognized worldwide as the LGBT Pride Month – that the university issued a formal announcement allowing students to dress in accordance with the gender they identify with. Several other institutions also released new guidelines promoting gender equality this month – changes that identity activists said are long overdue in a country known for its reputation as a LGBT haven.
“I didn’t expect it to come in time for my graduation,” Sirawut said. “They didn’t allow me to use photos of myself wearing a woman uniform in official documents. I was also called by the title ‘Mr.’ on stage. I’m glad to see the change.”
The new rule, which went into effect on June 9, applies to students when in a classroom, taking an exam, making official contact, and attending official ceremonies. University personnel must also treat LGBT students with dignity. Violation could result in disciplinary action.
Prior to the announcement, transgender grads who wanted to dress as the opposite sex either had to obtain a health certificate saying that they have a “gender identity disorder,” or ditch the ceremony altogether.
Thammasat University is one of a handful of public institutions to seize on the symbolic Pride Month and advocate gender equality within the largely conservative bureaucratic culture.
On June 5, a few days before Thammasat issued its new dress code, Chanthaburi governor signed a similar regulation allowing provincial officials to don the uniform consistent with their gender identity.
The measure also came with additional clauses on fair employment practices, promotion of gender-neutral language, and prevention of workplace sexual harassment.
Bangkok’s neighbor, Pathum Thani, followed suit on June 12, becoming the second out of 77 provinces to lay out the rule. No other public offices have since come after so far.
Civil Servants Take Action
The opening move by Chanthaburi province took many by surprise, since it was a contrast to the customary passive nature of Thai bureaucracy.
“We have always practiced this,” chief of Chanthaburi’s social development office Pattanakon Pooprasert said. “The governor is also keen about the idea of gender equality. I submitted the draft on June 4 and he immediately signed it the day later.”
Pattanakon said the announcement followed a pledge taken by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security and 24 public and private organizations to implement practical changes in accordance with the 2015 law on gender equality.
Naiyana Supapung of the Foundation for SOGI Rights and Justice, a group advocating for gender equality, welcomed the gesture, even though she was well aware that it is not a binding rule.
“It’s a very inclusive announcement,” Naiyana said. “It doesn’t only concern LGBT people, but also everyone, as it features the creation of a safe workplace environment and elimination of gender discrimination.”
Move Forward MP Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, who identifies as a non-binary, called Chanthaburi’s announcement a watershed moment for the LGBT community in Thailand.
“The bureaucracy had never prioritized the rights of LGBT people before,” Tanwarin said. “The 2015 law on gender equality finally bore fruit four years later. It’s just the beginning and I hope that it will spread across all the 77 provinces.”
The lawmaker also wants to push the status quo even further. Earlier this month, her party submitted a bill proposing an amendment to the civil code to allow same sex marriage, citing the 2015 law, which bans gender discrimination.
Momentum for Changes?
However, doubts linger over whether the example made by Chathaburi and Pathum Thani will gain traction in other provinces.
As a longtime gender equality advocate and a former National Human Rights Commissioner who has attended countless meetings with government officials on the issues, Naiyana said the prospect of nationwide adoption is very unlikely.
“What I have seen from those meetings is that many officials still don’t understand what gender diversity is,” she said. “At the provincial level, I believe the governors may be occupied by something else that is more visible.”
The lack of clearly defined punishments led anthropology professor Cheera Thongkrajai to treat these new gains with caution.
Cheera, who teaches at Chiang Mai University, said the bureaucracy’s obsession with protocols and command hierarchies tend to depress any new initiatives on gender discrimination, even though many of them down the chain are willing to support those ideas.
“From my research on transgenders in government agencies, I found that many executives wanted to allow transgenders to dress according to their identity, but they were afraid of breaking the rule,” Cheera said. “Announcements like this would make them feel more comfortable, but other gender-binding rules must be addressed as well.”
As an example, transgender civil servants still have to stay in same hotel room with their colleagues who have the same biological sex when they go on work trips, she said.
Even at Thammasat, changes didn’t materialize out of thin air. It took two years of legal threats against their institution and a new rector for Sirawut to win the right to wear the clothes she wants on graduation day.
“It began from my experience of being oppressed and mistreated by university officials,” Sirawut said. “It shouldn’t happen in a university which claims itself to have freedom in every square inch.”