On the surface, Thailand seems like a wonderful place for the LGBTQ community. There are loads of gay men-focused events, clubs and bars. But LGBTQ doesn’t just stand for gay men, which many of us Thais tend to automatically think of when they hear the term LGBTQ.
Shane Bhatla, 25, an LGBTQ activist, is a transgender man (someone who’s born a female, but chooses the male gender as his identity). Shane co-founded SEEN (Student Empowerment and Equality Network). SEEN is a network of schools that create safe spaces for LGBTQ children.
What is it like being a trans-man in Bangkok?
It’s not easy, honestly. The difference between being a trans-woman [born male, but chooses female identity] and trans-man in Bangkok is that trans-women are more tolerated in this society. The word “acceptance” is far from what we’ve experienced in this country. There’s still a notion that trans-men are “toms” [lesbians who dress and behave as males]. A lot of times, when I tell someone that I’m a guy, they would be like, “But you’re not a real guy”.
Do you have a place in Thailand?
People often forget other spectrums in LGBTQ. There are bars and clubs that would welcome gay men, but where do I go? I also don’t feel safe in a “straight” club. Our country is so behind on this. There’s a campaign called Go Thai. Be Free by the Tourism Authority of Thailand that encourages LGBTQ tourists to travel to Thailand, but we are not even supporting our own LGBTQ community here.
What kind of difficulties do you experience?
There are a lot of things. I will start with not having enough certified pride therapists in Thailand. And if there are, they are really expensive. I see a therapist online, but with my condition, I also need a psychiatrist, which I’ve got one in Bangkok.
Gender identity is definitely another issue. I grew up a little girl and I never felt like that was me. I only just realized this very recently, like five to six years ago. Now I’m a guy, I am finally me. I spent my nights googling things like, “I want a penis, what does that mean?” There’s not enough resources on trans-men, while for trans-women, there are so many resources in Thailand.
Another thing is, using the toilets. I’ve been using men’s toilets for the past four to five years and it’s still terrifying. This one time when I was at a “straight” club, I went to the toilet and this guy just turned around and kept staring at me. And it was a gay party that night, too! I want to be able to go to the toilets without having to feel like I’m going to get beaten up.
And forget about trying to find a job. I’ve had companies that force me to use my “dead name” [“dead name” refers to the name given at birth, as opposed to the name chosen later in life]. I’ve had companies that would force me to use my birth gender identity. Some companies would ask a lot of questions about my gender identity. “Our customers wouldn’t be comfortable having you around,” is what I usually hear.
How important is “preferred name”?
“Dead name” is basically a name that a trans-person no longer uses, because it’s no longer a part of their identity and it’s something they don’t feel comfortable with anymore. “Preferred name” is the name that they want to use. The importance of this is that, if you keep bringing up someone’s “dead name,” it could cause a lot of dysphoria. It means, you can’t even accept me for who I am. I’ve been “out” for five years now, and I still have friends who mis-gender me, calling me “she” instead of “he”. It’s like me calling you [a woman] a he. It’s just respectful to not mis-gender someone.