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Move Forward MP on being a transgender politician and gender equality in Thailand 

Move Forward MP on being a transgender politician and gender equality in Thailand 
Written by World News

“The acceptance of gender diversity in Thailand has slightly improved. Well at least it is certainly better than 30 years ago. If we draw a comparison with developed and democratic countries though, it is clear that we still need to keep pushing.”

Move Forward party-list MP, Paramee Waichongcharoen, who identifies as transgender, discusses why Thai politics are still dominated by men and how parliamentarians from the LGBTQ community, including women, are being treated in a male-dominated parliament.

Currently, only 19% of Thai MPs are female, while there are only four MPs, including Paramee herself, who openly identify as LGBTQ. Due to the gender imbalance in parliament, many female and LGBTQ MPs still face prejudice, discrimination and even verbal harassment.

“The Thai parliament is highly male-dominated, because the patriarchy is so ingrained in Thai society,” she explains. “Most MPs are men. Many of them still hold on to conservative, traditional values, believing that men are superior to others. There are so many MPs with this mindset. Not only LGBTQ+ MPs are harassed or disrespected, even female MPs that I’ve talked to are also disrespected.”

Paramee recalled accounts from her fellow MPs, both LGBTQ and women, when they encountered discrimination and harassment from other (male) MPs, both verbally and through inappropriate glares. She has helped them with how to respond and how to “educate” other MPs as to why such behaviour is inappropriate, especially in parliament.

“Even if an LGBTQ+ individual looks like a straight woman, looks tall, or looks masculine or whatnot, no one has the right to harass them. I insist that you must never harass them, whether it’s verbal or through inappropriate looks,” she says.

Luckily, Paramee’s experience has not been as severe as others. For this, she says she is grateful to her “seniors”, namely former Future Forward party MP and filmmaker Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, and Move Forward party-list MP Tunyawaj Kamolwongwat, the first LGBTQ MPs in parliament, who paved the way for people like Paramee to take part in Thai politics.

Nevertheless, she still encounters occasional prejudice.

“If I don’t say anything, most people would not believe that I’m transgender,” she explains. “Whenever I start speaking, though, some people are shocked or change their facial expression, because I have a deep voice. These things are not, however, an issue for me, because I’ve been dealing with this my entire life. It’s also because people are much more aware of the LGBTQ+ and the transgender community.”

Image Courtesy: Paramee Waichongcharoen

Despite that, one issue that still bothers her is the use of honorifics, an issue many transgender people encounter. An event that she can remember was when she first joined meetings as an MP, where her name was written as “Mr. Paramee”.

“For transgender people like me, I think it’s painful,” she said. “Whenever I see “Mr.” in my name, I hate it. Even when I go to see a doctor, some hospitals still call me “Mr. Paramee”. Honestly, I don’t think transgender people like it when they hear that, but I do appreciate that many other hospitals have improved and try to avoid this by calling me ‘Khun Paramee’ instead.”

For this reason, the Move Forward party-list MP hopes that the law affirming gender identities, allowing LGBTQ individuals to choose their own honorifics, will be passed in Thailand. Although the draft bill was shot down by the Lower House earlier this year, the Move Forward party will re-propose the bill, according to Paramee, which she thinks is a glimmer of hope for the transgender community.

“Right now, we all agree that we will re-propose the bill this July, which is a good sign. The government also feels that we need to push for this bill to ease the pain of the transgender community,” she said.

As to whether a quota would fix the existing problems regarding gender equality, Paramee agrees that imposing a gender quota in parliament may solve some of the problems. What needs to be done alongside this, however, is shifting the mindset of (male) MPs as well as people in Thai society.

“Nowadays, there is plenty of updated information out there about gender diversity. I would love to address this to all conservative-male MPs. They cannot lock themselves into old-fashioned ways of thinking anymore, and they need to be aware that the world has changed so much already,” Paramee says.

Image Courtesy: Paramee Waichongcharoen

Is education always to blame?

As to why gender equality is yet to be fully achieved in Thailand, Paramee, who was a tutor prior to becoming a politician, agrees that the social structure and cultural norms still do not allow women or the LGBTQ community to take part in certain careers, which could be related to a belief that men perform better than other genders.

Another aspect that contributes to this mindset is unequal access to quality education.

Paramee explains that people in urban areas, such as Bangkok, who are mostly in the middle-income group, tend to receive a better quality education than those who are poor and living in rural areas. Hence, the mindset on social issues, such as gender, between the two groups is completely different.

The transgender MP also noticed that substandard schools tend to pass on conservative views about gender, which leads to many tangled issues, such as bullying, discrimination and gender-based harassment. On top of that, the underlying social inequality is an obstacle to victims speaking out against mistreatment. Therefore, improving the quality of education across the country, to be of a common standard, is what Paramee thinks is most important.

“Most teachers in less-developed areas do not have the right mindset, as they do not respect equality or gender diversity, and continue to uphold the patriarchy,” claims Paramee.

Image Courtesy: Paramee Waichongcharoen

This view is partly based in her own experience. Decades ago, when she applied to become a teacher at local schools after graduating, Paramee says that she encountered countless insults and prejudice from school officials, only because she’s a katoey, despite having a degree in education. Among the harsh statements she recalls were “How could you be a teacher when you’re a katoey?” and “You would be a bad example for our students” during job interviews. Even now, most local schools still do not allow teachers to wear clothing in accordance with their “chosen” gender identities.

In one respect, however, education is not always to blame. The Move Forward MP believes that families play a tremendously important role in teaching modern social values, including gender equality and diversity. Paramee notices the underlying barriers though, one of them being the age gap between family members, as people of the older generation often uphold traditional and conservative values, which makes it more difficult to communicate with youngsters.

“Parents play a huge role in raising their children to be modern citizens who place importance on equality. I feel that most Thai families are becoming dysfunctional. Many families go through divorce and children are left with their grandparents. There’s already a huge age-difference here, so it’s very difficult to teach that new mindset to young children,” she says, adding “As such, it is not fair to always blame the education system, because family upbringing is also important.”

Despite the existing challenges, the 52-year-old MP feels that gender diversity in Thailand has somewhat improved, and it is much better than it was over 30 years ago, but that it will still take a few decades for gender parity to be achieved. The main obstacle is mindset.

“We still hear stories of gender-based violence, whether it is the husband abusing the wife, or harassment against LGBTQ people. This simply shows that the patriarchal mindset persists in Thai society. So, I think this will take time [for this mindset to change],” she explains.

No one is allowed to belittle you or discriminate against you

As to whether she has succeeded as a transgender politician, Paramee thinks that they have succeeded at a certain level, in terms of pushing for LGBTQ rights. One of their biggest accomplishments is the marriage equality bill, which has passed the House of Representatives and is now being considered by the Senate.

Despite such accomplishments, there are still several other changes she wants to see, to improve the quality of lives of the LGBTQ community, namely the law on gender affirmation, a law related to LGBT families and the legalisation of sex work.

“For bills related to LGBTQ rights, I have to thank the Move Forward party, which has pushed for the marriage equality bill and I hope that the Senate will pass the bill into law soon, hopefully by Pride Month.”

As to what she would like to say to all LGBTQ people, the transgender MP said that everyone should believe in themselves, and always remind themselves of their fundamental rights. Everyone is equal, as human beings.

“You all have to believe in yourself as a human being,” she insists. “Once you believe in yourself, you don’t need to be afraid when someone harasses you or discriminates against you. If you do get harassed, stand up for yourself, stay confident and always remind yourself of your fundamental rights and that you are equal. No one is allowed to belittle you or discriminate against you.”

By Nad Bunnag, Thai PBS World


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