-Shobha Shukla, Bobby Ramakant
Although governments have committed to achieve gender equality by 2030, yet the progress is way off the mark. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres had recently said that it will take another 300 years to achieve full gender equality. More worrying is the fact that transgender and other gender diverse people, often slip on the blind spot when many governments refer to gender equality and see it with sex and gender binary lens (man and woman, or male and female).
“Though we see progress on transgender rights in many parts of the world but there has been alarming backlash and resistance too. For example, we have seen laws that criminalise LGBTQIAP+ communities, or target transgender people,” said Nachale Boonyapisomparn (also known as Hua) while speaking at the Gender Equality Talks #90for90 Global Voices series. Hua is a trans woman activist who was deeply involved with founding of both transgender-led registered organisations in Thailand – Sisters Foundation and Foundation of Transgender Alliance for Human Rights (often referred to as Thai TGA). She was also the first coordinator of the Asia Pacific Transgender Network (APTN).
Legal right to gender recognition
Thailand is known for being a relatively safe space for gender diverse peoples. Nachale explains that this is not the full story: “Thailand does not have laws to protect transgender rights at all. We do not have legal gender recognition in Thailand. We have been advocating for same-sex marriage for a long time but it has not been a success yet. However, I must say that Thailand has done very well in responding to HIV among transgender women.”
Nachale points out that although HIV programmes have prioritised key populations yet these are limited to transgender women. “Transgender men have remained excluded from HIV programming not only in Thailand but also in other nations,” she said.
“We have been working with a range of partners at Thai TGA to draft a civil society version of gender recognition law (or gender identity law), which is ready to be proposed to the parliamentarians,” shared Nachale.
Gender-affirming hormone therapy
“Gender identity and sex assigned at birth do not match with each other for transgender men and transgender women. Most of them also have a condition called gender dysphoria, where they do not want to be trapped in the sex assigned to them at birth, rather they want to transition from their sex assigned at birth, and fulfil their gender identity by becoming another gender. The process of gender-affirming hormone therapy is not just a medical intervention, rather it is a fulfilment of not just gender identity but of the whole identity of a person,” said Dr Jakkrapatara Boonruang (also known as Dr Fair), research physician at Institute of HIV Research and Innovation (IHRI).
“Gender-affirming hormone therapy should be available to those who want their gender identity to be fulfilled. It is important to include it in national health schemes globally so that those who need it can access it as well,” said Dr Jakkrapatara, who was awarded the prestigious Dr Mark Wainberg Fellowship at the 2023 International AIDS Society (IAS) HIV Science conference (IAS 2023). He was also speaking at the Gender Equality Talks.
Wellness and healing
Nachale and Thai TGA members recognize that it is important to not only integrate wellness and healing for the community but also their own team members. “As transgender rights activist we have been fighting not only for our community but also struggle in our daily lives. As transgender people we experience trauma, discrimination, and stigma, and are at the risk of being burnt out, feel unwell, or feel like sharing with someone. That is why as an organisation, Thai TGA has created this safe space so that people can do so,” said Nachale.
Thailand has a collectivist culture. “So, we at Thai TGA have a network of families who accept LGBTQIAP+ children. Family plays a very important part in shaping the concept of gender as well as in empowering LGBTQIAP+ children. If we have the family as allies, we believe that the child who will grow up among accepting parents, will be stronger, despite growing up in a very gender binary society,” said Nachale. Parents of LGBTQIAP+ children also do not have any safe space to share with each other. “Sometimes they blame themselves. That is why we have provided them a safe space too.”
Nachale has also worked in USA for over 10 years and moved back to Thailand in 2020 to be with her family and community during the pandemic times. She worked as the Transgender and Gender Non-binary Health Advisor at Apicha Community Health Centre in New York City. Currently, she works as a Partnerships Manager at Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice.
“Serve people what they need” principle
“We have to serve what people need. ‘Serve people what they need’ is an important principle for donors. Instead, we have lot of donors who have their agenda and indicators,” said Nachale.
Most social stereotypes, norms, attitudes and practices, reinforce sex and gender binary. Nachale asserted that intersectional approach is necessary to address diverse needs of transgender communities- for example, persons with disabilities, young transgender people, or those among ethnic minorities. “If we truly want to leave no one behind, we have to understand the intersectionality when it comes to advancing rights of transgender communities,” said Nachale.
“We have to shake the social institution to think about gender equality and social inclusion of LGBTQIAP+ people,” said Nachale while sharing her experience of reaching out to Buddhist religious leaders. Her journey to engage religious leaders on transgender rights and inclusion was not smooth but eventually she made some headway. “We need to create space and entry points for people (such as religious leader) to come and talk with us. Even if we do not agree we have to be compassionate towards each other. We have to show compassion to those who are different, but more importantly we have to show compassion towards our own selves,” rightly said Nachale.
She concluded: “We, as activists, are in this struggle to advance gender equality and human rights for a long haul. We need to recognize that countless people have dedicated their lives in this struggle long before us. Many have passed away without seeing how the seeds are which they had so painstakingly planted. We honour them, but at the same time we also need to give ourselves a break when we need it. We have to take care of our own wellness and healing – of our own selves – without feeling guilty.”
Shobha Shukla, Bobby Ramakant – CNS (Citizen News Service)
(Shobha Shukla and Bobby Ramakant are part of the editorial team of CNS (Citizen News Service). Both of them are on the governing board of Asia Pacific Media Alliance for Health and Development (APCAT Media) and PRB Public Health Reporting Corps. Follow them on Twitter: @Shobha1Shukla, @BobbyRamakant).