By Saya Oka
AS the academic school year gets into full swing in Thailand, Thammasat, one of the country’s most prestigious and progressive universities is making a Social Life Skills class mandatory for its incoming freshman. This new course aims to ensure students have the skills to lead a successful life and covers a wide range of subjects, including music, art, sports and a three hour session on sex, where part of the focus is on gender identity.
Kritipat Chotidhanitsakul (Jimmy) has been invited to sensitize students about transgender issues and by the end of the school year is expected to have lectured to 8,000 students. This is the first time Thammasat has made such a topic mandatory for new students.
Jimmy, a transgender man and the President of the Transmen Alliance of Thailand, is glad to be a guest lecturer: “I am very happy to be teaching so many students. I hope they will mature into adults who understand transgender issues and set a new trend for society.”
On the first day of the course in early September, Jimmy stood before nearly 300 students and was interviewed by Associate Professor Atiwut Kamudhama about what it was like to be a transgender person. He spoke about his struggle with his own gender identity and explained the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation.
Like many other transgender people, Jimmy remembers a painful childhood. He grew up in Bangkok, with parents who constantly tried to make him conform to the traditional ideal of a girl. His time in university was difficult, as he tried hard to become a perfect girl, wearing skirts and the uniform for female students.
“In a Thai family, there is a strong pressure to respect your parents and to pay back all that they have done for you,” he said. But then one day, when he was 20-years-old, Jimmy couldn’t take it anymore. “I woke up and said to myself, ‘enough’. I cut my hair, I threw out my dresses and I started going out with a girl.”
He left home and with no means of support initially dropped out of university. After a few years of doing odd jobs he entered Ramkhamshaeng, an open-admission university in Bangkok. While struggling with gender identity is difficult for young people in many countries, for Thai university students it is complicated, because they are usually required to wear an approved uniform, which is different depending on the student’s gender.
Jimmy was allowed to wear what he wanted when attending classes, but when it came to the final examination he was required to wear the uniform of a female student. He went to the National Human Rights Committee and with their support was able to obtain permission to take the exams wearing a male uniform. However, this did not extend to the graduation ceremony, where he was still required to wear a female uniform.
“I decided not to attend because graduation should be the best day of your life. I just couldn’t be happy when I didn’t feel I was myself,” said Jimmy. “To wear a female uniform would have been lying to myself and I didn’t want to do that.”
Some universities are moving towards easing the regulations around uniforms. This year Bangkok University announced that it was allowing transgender students to dress according to their chosen gender and still stay within the official dress code. At Thammasat, while each faculty has different rules, transgender students can generally wear the uniform they want.
Cartoon Benyapon is a transgender woman who just graduated from Thammasat. She said: “I didn’t feel any discrimination at school. I think it is a lot more liberal than the work place. My family also put pressure on me, so I pushed myself in school to show that I could excel in my classes and prove that a transgender person can succeed.”
There is little data on transgender people and it is hard to know how many live in Thailand. Transgender people often face discrimination, violence and lack of access to appropriate health care. All of these factors contribute to increasing the vulnerability of transgender people to HIV. According to Thailand’s Bureau of Epidemiology, epidemiological surveys of transgender women at five sites report high HIV prevalence ranging from around 9 percent to 17 percent in 2014.
Associate Professor Atiwut, who invited Jimmy to lecture at Thammasat, believes the new class will help address widespread misunderstanding and misconceptions and enable students to understand transgender people. “I hope it will create an environment that is more welcoming.”
The initial feedback is encouraging. Vichaya Chaovanasrimanont, a first year landscape architecture student who listened to Jimmy said, “I didn’t understand transgender people before. I thought they were weird. Now I understand they are not different. We are all the same.”
About the author:
Saya Oka is UNAIDS regional communications advisor for Asia and the Pacific.