BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Natt Kraipet grew up knowing she was a woman in a man’s body. She didn’t like wearing the compulsory school uniform for boys in Thailand and spent her school days being bullied by her peers.
“When students are put into groups according to gender, the boys would yell at me to join the girls. I was sexually harassed - they touched my legs, bottom or face or hit me on my back or head,” she said.
“I couldn’t really tell my teachers or my parents because I was afraid of being judged and punished. Sometimes I felt bullied by the teachers themselves because they would say it was just teasing among the children. It wasn’t teasing,” recalled Natt, now a coordinator with the Asia Pacific Transgender Network (APTN).
Such bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students is widespread in the Thailand’s secondary schools, according to a study released last week by children’s charity Plan International and Thailand’s Mahidol University. Half of LBGT students interviewed said they had been bullied in the past month, and a third said they were physically abused.
Even among students who did not identify themselves as LGBT, one in four said they were bullied because they were perceived to be transgender.
Even though Thailand is perceived as very accepting of gender diversity, transgender people are only tolerated, rather than accepted, and very often ridiculed.
Activists say this stigma, hostility and violence, which begins at school and continues throughout the lives of transgender people in Asia, prevents them from accessing education and healthcare, and even from being gainfully employed.
Transgender activists in the Asia Pacific are now looking to fight back, with their first regional meeting two weeks ago.
While there is little data on the size of the transgender population in Asia and the Pacific, a 2012 report from the U.N. and APTN estimated there are around 9 to 9.5 million, made up predominantly of people like Natt, born men who transitioned into women.
Joe Wong, a Singaporean member of APTN who has been living as a man for a decade, believes the number could be two to three times higher.
“The research collected was mostly transgender women who are on the high-risk side (for HIV) - so those who are in the sex work. We don’t know how many there are of people we can’t see and can’t reach out to,” he said.
LACK OF SUPPORT
Now be a tall, willowy woman exuding confidence, Natt still faces persistent cultural, social and religious prejudice, prevalent in many societies in Asia that see transgender people as lesser human beings, unnatural, sexually deviant or immoral.
For a long time, she had trouble finding a job despite her political science degree and fluent English. She recalled the time she applied for health insurance with a female friend.
“Hers was done on the same day, but I got a call from the company the next day asking me to go and have an HIV test at the hospital. I asked them why I had to do it when my friend didn’t have to. They didn’t have an answer,” she said.
Society at large is unfamiliar with and usually hostile towards those who don’t fit into the prevailing gender norms. Activists and researchers say the denial, ignorance and ridicule of transgender people have long-term repercussions.
According to the Mahidol-Plan report, those who have been bullied for their perceived transgenderism or same-sex attraction were more likely to be depressed and to have attempted suicide in the past year, compared to those who have not been bullied or who have been bullied for other reasons.
“When society rejects you, where do you go?” asked Wong. Community support was barely existent in socially-conservative Singapore and whatever comfort he found from being with peers was short-lived because it was safer and easier to blend in alone.
“What I learnt from other (people like me) was that if don’t want to face discrimination, you need to stay away from other trans. So once they completely look like a man, they just cut you off their lives,” he said.
Things are starting to change, however.
Two weeks ago, the transgender community in Asia celebrated two milestones. For the first time in 35 years, some 20 transgender activists were present at the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s biennial symposium, held in Bangkok this year, to share their concerns to physicians, researchers and scientists.
This was followed by the first regional meeting between the activists where they planned how to achieve rights for transgender people, a diverse community with different needs. First on their list was to tackle the difficulty of seeking healthcare, ranging from service providers’ lack of training on dealing with transgender patients to systematic discrimination.
For the past few years, transgender issues have been associated with the fight against HIV/AIDS following reports that transgender women (men who became women) are 50 times more likely to acquire HIV than adult males and females of reproductive age. This statistic, activists say, may be inaccurate because it is based on research focusing on transwomen sex workers who are at higher risk. This may have raised their profile, but many fear being stereotyped.
“When it comes to funding we need the HIV issue to be the door to other issues such as human rights and gender recognition. But transgender people are already stigmatised. We don’t want people to think of HIV when they think of transgender,” Natt said.
Critics also say most healthcare and HIV prevention programmes conflate the issue of sexual orientation with gender identity, putting transgender under the umbrella of men who have sex with men (MSM) instead of recognising them as a distinct population.
“The issue is not whom they wish to be with, but whom they wish to be,” said Andrew Solomon about transgender people in the bestselling book “Far From the Tree”.
Wong, who is estranged from his family, said, “Living as a trans person, you will definitely upset some people at some point in your life.”
“Your family members and friends will walk away because they can’t accept the fact you’re different. You lose job opportunities. You lose simple rights like going to the bathroom without being judged,” he added.
Did he ever regret his decision to become a man?
“No,” he answered, immediately and emphatically.