Students denied right to dress according to gender identity; petition National Human Rights Commission

Two students from the Faculty of Pharmacy, Payap University, have filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC) after the Faculty denied them the right to dress according to their gender identity.

The two students were represented at the NHRC Office by LGBT activist Sirisak Chaited, and their petition was submitted on Monday (15 July), at the same meeting in which Sirisak submitted a petition on access to hormone therapy for transgender inmates. Commissioner Angkhana Neelapaijit accepted their petition.

The two students are Pattarawadee (last name withheld), a transman, Sitthichai (last name withheld), a transwoman, and are both in their first year at the Faculty of Pharmacy, Payap University. Sirisak, who has been assisting the two students with their case, said that both Pattarawadee and Sitthichai have been aware of their gender identity since a young age, and that their families, lecturers, and classmates are all aware that they are transgender and that Pattarawadee and Sitthichai always present themselves as a man and a woman, respectively. According to Sirisak, Pattarawadee took leave of absence in 2016 to start his transition, before coming back to the university earlier this year.

When Pattarawadee and Sitthichai started studying at the university, they both filed a request with the university to dress according to their gender identity, and were told by a lecturer to wear what they want while waiting for the formal permission. However, on 21 June 2019, the Faculty informed the two students after a deans’ meeting that they are not allowed to dress according to their identity and must dress according to the sex they were assigned at birth, claiming that presenting as transgender is not appropriate in their discipline.

According to Sirisak, the Faculty of Pharmacy is the only faculty at the Payap University to deny transgender students their right to dress according to their gender identity, often citing professional ethics as their reason for such prohibition.

Sirisak said that the two students have made another request to the university, but whenever they ask about the progress of the request, the university keeps saying that they are still considering it. Sirisak hopes that, by submitting a complaint with the NHRC, the university will be pressured into speeding up the process of considering the students’ request. The students followed the faculty’s orders, and they have stopped presenting according to their gender identity while at university, but Sirisak said that they are both unhappy.

The students will also be submitting a complaint with the Committee on Consideration of Unfair Gender Discrimination, but Sirisak said that since the Committee often takes a long time to process a case, they are hoping that representatives from the NHRC will visit the University and discuss the matter with the administration to convince them to grant the two students permission while they work on pushing for permanent changes to university policy. Sirisak said that several years ago, a student at Chiang Mai University petitioned the NHRC in a similar case. Representatives from the NHRC visited the University and discussed the case with the administration, who subsequently granted the student permission to dress according to their gender identity.

The representatives of LGBT activists and civil society organizations at the petition submission, with Commissioner Angkhana Neelapaijit
From left: Puncharat Taloet, Noppanai Rittiwong, Sirisak Chaited, Angkhana Neelapaijit, and Supaporn Ittiponsiri

At most universities across Thailand, transgender students often face obstacles presenting as the gender they identify as. In most cases, the university does not have a written rule on transgender students’ uniforms, often specifying only the requirements for “male” and “female” uniforms. In certain disciplines, such as education or medical sciences, transgender students are often completely barred from expressing their identity, while the authorities cite professional ethics as the reason for denying their rights. In January this year, a student from the Faculty of Education of Chulalongkorn University submitted a complaint with the Committee on Consideration of Unfair Gender Discrimination, after the Faculty Board of Administrators overturned her request to wear the university uniform for female students, ordering her to dress as a male or face extreme penalties. She also filed a complaint against a special instructor who is known among students for being openly transphobic, whose negative comments she has had to endure. Her case is now being considered by the Committee.

At other, more permissive, institutions, students may be allowed to dress according to their identity on a day-to-day basis, but must make a formal request to do so on their graduation day, a lengthy process requiring a large amount of paperwork. At the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, for example, the Faculty has no issue with what a transgender student wears on a day-to-day basis, but requires the submission of a formal request accompanied by a medical certificate which says that the student has a “gender identity disorder” if a he or she wishes to dress according to their identity on their graduation day. This is despite the fact that being transgender is no longer classified as a disorder in the World Health Organization’s 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD11).

Outside schools and universities, Thailand’s LGBT community still faces daily cases of discrimination. In April 2019, Worawalun Taweekarn, a graduate of the Faculty of Education, Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University, revealed that she had been denied teaching positions for two years because she is transgender. Last Thursday (11 July), a group of LGBT activists filed a petition with the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission over several media outlets’ use of the offensive term “sexually deviant” in news headlines, a term which they said reinforces stereotypes and increases hatred against the LGBT community.

While the country promotes itself as a gay paradise, it offers no protection for its LGBT population. Discussions of sex and sexuality are still taboo and there is limited sex education in school. LGBT people live under strong pressure not to bring shame on their family. And other than the Gender Equality Act of 2015, there is little legal support for the LGBT community. Thailand also has no gender recognition law, which would allow a transgender person to legally change their title on identity papers, and the proposed draft Civil Partnership Act has already fallen through. Nevertheless, the community hopes that the presence of newly-elected LGBT MPs, such as Nateepat Kulsetthasith, Kawinnath Takey, Tunyawaj Kamolwongwat, and Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, and the fact that they were allowed to dress according to their gender identity at the opening of parliament, could be a good sign for LGBT rights in Thailand.