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© 2021 John Holmes for Human Rights Watch

(Bangkok) – Transgender people in Thailand have no route to legal recognition of 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 Can’t Be Fit Into Boxes’: Thailand’s Need for Legal Gender Recognition,” found that the absence of legal gender recognition, coupled with insufficient legal protections and pervasive social stigma, limits transgender people’s access to vital services, and exposes them to daily indignities. 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 to protect transgender people at home.

“Transgender people in Thailand constantly face harassment and discrimination, and are often excluded from education and employment,” said Kyle Knight, senior LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. “The Thai government needs to step in and make legal gender recognition a reality in Thailand.”

Human Rights Watch conducted the research for this report between January and May 2020 with individuals in four locations in Thailand: Bangkok, Trang, Chiang Mai, and Ubon. Researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 62 transgender people, as well as interviews with social workers, scholars, and employees at advocacy and service provision organizations.

Thailand has limited legal provisions that offer some security to transgender people, but they fall far short of comprehensive protections, Human Rights Watch found. In 2007, Thailand’s legislature passed the Persons’ Name Act, which allows transgender people to apply to change their name. The act, however, did not give people the option to apply to change their legal gender. Name change requests are approved at the discretion of individual administrators.

Under the 2015 Gender Equality Act, which prohibits discrimination against people on the basis of gender expression, the legislature attempted to address some forms of discrimination experienced by transgender people. Yet the government has failed to adequately implement the law. The Committee on Determination of Unfair Gender Discrimination, which has the authority to enforce the law, heard 27 cases of alleged discrimination against transgender people between 2016 and 2019. Many of these cases took more than three months to adjudicate, and none of the eight parties found responsible received punishment.

The absence of legal gender recognition in Thailand means that all transgender people carry documents with a gender different from their identity and expression. When transgender people are asked for this documentation, they can feel humiliated. In some instances, transgender people reported that government employees harassed them based on the mismatch.

A 27-year-old transgender man in Bangkok described his humiliation when he tried to replace a lost identification card: “The officials asked how did I get my penis … and whether it’s really possible to become a trans man.” The officials proceeded to compare him with his past photos. “I felt like a caricature for these government officials,” he said.

Many schools have gender-specific dress codes or facilities, and do not allow students to attend school if they dress in ways deemed inconsistent with their legal gender, violating their right to education. The rigid application of gender-specific regulations, including uniforms and sex-segregated facilities, exacerbate bullying of transgender students by classmates and teachers.

“When I started wearing makeup and lipstick to school, my teacher would scold me – call me ‘tud’ [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 they singled her out because she had started to grow her hair long as well. “I was also beaten at school by teachers, and teachers would instruct the boy classmates to tease me,” she said.

Transgender people also face obstacles in accessing appropriate health care. A 30-year-old transgender woman said that when she was 20, she was hospitalized for appendicitis and needed urgent surgery. “I was placed in the male ward,” she said. “All the bad things like this happen to me because of a single word on my document – my gender marker.”

Many transgender people interviewed said discrimination in medical settings deterred them from seeking care altogether, threatening their mental and physical well-being.

The lack of legal gender recognition also hampers transgender people’s ability to get jobs, often resulting in automatic rejections. Some employers said that transgender people would only be hired if they dressed according to their sex assigned at birth, not their gender identity. Other employers explicitly stated in job applications that transgender applicants would not be considered. Many people interviewed said they feel restricted to niche employment, such as the beauty industry or sex work.

In recent years, the Thai government has begun to engage with civil society organizations and United Nations agencies to develop a legal gender recognition procedure. The process has stalled and needs urgent attention, Human Rights Watch said.

The Thai government has an important opportunity to match its positive global reputation on LGBT issues with its obligations under international human rights law by developing a rights-based procedure for legal gender recognition. This law should enable transgender people to be recognized according to their gender identity and change their legal name and gender without any medical requirements.

“Ensuring transgender people’s rights to nondiscrimination, education, health care, and employment is paramount to any vision of equality,” Knight said. “While legal gender recognition will not ease all the hardships transgender people in Thailand face, it is a crucial step toward equality and nondiscrimination.”

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