Made in Bangkok: Is sex surgery everything to transgenders?

A new documentary film on the life of a Mexican transgender and her journey to have sex reassignment surgery in Thailand is undoubtedly heart-warming to many; some, however, wonder if it is more of a PR piece to promote Thailand’s thriving plastic surgery industry.

Morgana, the protagonist of Made in Bangkok, marveled the audiences with her beautiful voice before the documentary film was shown at its unofficial premier at Bangkok’s Art and Culture Center (BACC) on 4 June 2015 (courtesy of Made in Bangkok Facebook Page).      

 

On Thursday evening at Bangkok’s Art and Culture Centre (BACC), the Mexican Embassy of Thailand held a screening of ‘Made in Bangkok’, a documentary on the life of Morgana Love, a transgender soprano from Mexico City, Mexico, who came to Thailand to follow her dream of having sex reassignment surgery.

Without sufficient financial resources to get an operation, but with musical talent and beauty, Morgana chose to try her luck in an international transgender beauty pageant, Miss Queen International, an event held every year by a famous cabaret show, Tiffany’s Show, in Pattaya City, Thailand. In the end, although Morgana did not win the contest, miraculously, a fancy plastic surgery institute in Bangkok offered her their best sex reassignment operation without charge.

Morgana has since become an international celebrity after the publicity surrounding her Cinderella-like story, which portrays Thailand as a paradise for LGBT people. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), Tiffany’s Show, the Mexican Embassy of Thailand, and especially the plastic surgery clinic that offered her the operation, portray Morgana’s happily-ever-after story as inspirational. Yet, many have raised questions whether the documentary does too little to break the stereotypes of transgenders or touch upon the reality of what they have to face in Thailand and Mexico.

According to Luis Palomino, a Mexican filmmaker living in Bangkok who attending the screening, the movie indeed gives a realistic portrayal of Morgana’s life. When asked whether the film reflected the reality of how LGBT are treated in Thailand, however, Palomino said “the movie is more like a fairy tale. It’s like a dream-come-true story. So, in a way, as a documentary, it does not reflect the reality of the LGBT communities in Thailand.”

For Kath Khangpiboon, a well-known LGBT activist who is working for the Thai Transgender Alliance (Thai-TGA), the documentary seems to be heavily influenced by the lucrative plastic surgery business in Thailand, which attracts billions of baht’s worth of foreign currency each year.

“I think the story in the documentary gives too much weight to the plastic surgery industry. The story portrays the life of the main protagonist [Morgana] as if she was reborn by the physicians and plastic surgery institute that gave her the operation,” said Kath. “To me, that’s the biggest setback of the documentary.”

The LGBT activist pointed out that the documentary in fact reinforces stereotypes of how transgenders must fulfil their chosen identities under the social norms of straight males or females.

“Transgenders in modern times who look at things from a critical point of view tend to give priority to the freedom to have a diversity of physical appearance and self-identification, meaning that it might not be necessary for them to have sex reassignment surgery,” said the LGBT activist. “Having a sex reassignment operation might not be the ultimate goal of transgenders, but what’s more important is the freedom to identify themselves.”

She added that unlike straight men and women, LGBT have to try harder to prove their ability and even a country which the film portrays as a SOGIE utopia, Thailand, is no exception to this reality.

For His Excellency Jorge Chen, the Mexican ambassador to Thailand, who helped organize the screening, the main message of the film is that people should have tolerance and acceptance towards LGBT and all sorts of differences.

He mentioned that Thailand is much more advanced and tolerant than Mexico when it comes to acceptance of LGBT.

Through the eyes of Morgana, the protagonist of the documentary, Thailand is a paradise for LGBT people. Coming from a country with one of the highest rates of murder of transgenders, she said “after the [beauty] contest I participated in, I fell in love with this wonderful country [Thailand]”.

Although Thailand does not have a law allowing individuals to change their titles of Mr. and Ms., like that recently enacted by the Mexico City government, Morgana said that Thailand does not need such a law because people’s attitudes towards LGBT are way ahead of Mexico.

On the contrary, at a public discussion entitled ‘Breaking the Continuum of Discrimination and Violence in Education and Employment’ held in Bangkok last month, Busakorn Suriyasarn, a researcher and ILO consultant on discrimination against LGBT in employment, stated that in Thailand, LGBT persons still face many forms of discrimination in schools and workplaces, ranging from verbal abuse to sexual harassment and physical abuse.

She pointed out that LGBT persons with strong or noticeable SOGIE tend to face the worst discrimination in schools and workplaces, especially in big corporations, government agencies, and single-sex schools.

“LGBT persons continue to face discrimination in education and jobs in many parts of their life, which restricts their career choices,” said Busakorn.

In the documentary, after fulfilling her dream to look physically like a woman, Morgana returned to Mexico. When she visited her parents in their small hometown, however, Morgana still had to put on a cap and a loose male jumper to try to look as masculine as possible to prevent her father’s discomfort.