Thailand’s Transgender Trailblazer: Fighting for Trans Rights in ‘Paradise’

Jetsada “Note” Taesombat celebrates with thousands of LGBTQI people and allies at the first Pride parade in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in a decade. February 2019. Photo by Allison Joyce.

“You may have heard that Thailand is a paradise for transgender people. We have the beauty queens. The cabaret shows. But you don’t see the negative side of how we’re treated. And I want to make sure my sisters don’t experience what I went through.”

It’s a Saturday in central Bangkok, and Jetsada Taesombat, better known as Note, is working in the office of the Foundation of Transgender Alliance for Human Rights (or Thai TGA)—the organization she co-founded to deliver on that promise. Her goal, with support from AJWS, is to transform the way Thai society views and treats trans people.

The office is filled with color and light, stacked with pamphlets, books, posters and brochures, all published to help trans people understand their rights, and to help their families become supportive allies. The mission couldn’t be more personal for Note. Today, she is at the absolute forefront of Thailand’s trans-rights movement. Politicians know her name. The public is starting to know her face. But the sting of the past lingers.

Becoming a ‘10’

Note was 16, growing up in conservative central Thailand with loving but traditional parents, when her mother found feminizing hormones in her bag: Note’s first steps towards transitioning. Without question, her parents whisked her off to a psychiatric hospital.

The first question from the staff? If Note planned to enter a beauty pageant.

“I told them, ‘No! I just need my family to accept me,’” remembers Note. “The doctor drew me a gender scale: 0 was male and 10 was female. I told him I was an 8, but I wanted to transition to a 10. And he asked: Can you become a 5? Because a five can get a good job, a good wife, and a good future. But a 10 will never be successful.”

When she returned home, Note was banned from seeing her trans friends, pressured to cut her hair short and told “how to walk, how to sit, how to be more male,” she says. “I felt like becoming myself was all a mistake.”

“I look back and I know it all came from love. But love without understanding is dangerous.”

She knew she had to leave.

Note in her Bangkok apartment, preparing for another day at the forefront of Thailand’s transgender rights movement. Photo by Allison Joyce.

Into the Spotlight

Note enrolled in university in Bangkok and began volunteering and then working with LGBTQI organizations—including AJWS-supported Rainbow Sky Association—long before she created her own.

When she launched Thai TGA in 2010, Note’s first project wasa guide for families on how to accept and support their transgender children. Almost a decade later, Note and her team form a warm and understanding second family for young trans people across Thailand.

They’re also an experienced group of activists and educators who refuse to stop pushing for equality.

This work caught the national spotlight when, in 2015, Thailand passed the Gender Equality Act, banning any “unfair gender discrimination.” The act established a committee where women and LGBTQI people can file complaints if they are harassed, attacked or barred from equal participation in society. But the social stigma and violence Note’s community faces remains so severe, even filing such a complaint could traumatically disrupt a trans person’s life.

Enter Thai TGA, which has received “countless” phone calls, says Note, from transgender people across Thailand desperately seeking support and guidance.

Note in the Thai TGA office in central Bangkok, proudly waving the transgender flag. Photo by Allison Joyce.

Not Quite Paradise

Gender discrimination for transgender people in Thailand takes many forms—but the most well-known occurs each and every April, when a national lottery recruits young men for military service. Men must report to a local draft station, where they’re subjected to medical examinations and questioning.

To receive an exemption, trans women are required to bring a medical certificate stating their gender does not match the sex assigned to them at birth. For those without a certificate, harassment, humiliation and ridicule are cruelly common—and even if they’re able to defer recruitment, they’ll need to return and relive this nightmare the following April to file again. Until 2006, trans women granted such exemptions were labeled on official documents as having a “permanent mental disorder.”

“We’re helping people fight for their lives, for equality,” says Note. “We don’t talk about winning or losing. We talk about changing society.”

Thai TGA works tirelessly to educate trans women about what to expect, how to prepare and what to do if, indeed, they are recruited for army service. TGA staff are on hand to monitor the largest draft stations to send a dual message: “We see you, officers. And we’re here for you, women.”

“We’re helping people fight for their lives, for equality,” says Note. “We don’t talk about winning or losing. We talk about changing society.”

As Note and her team break for lunch, she smiles and mentions that the day may come when Thailand simply won’t need TGA anymore. Times are changing, and she’s already got plans.

“When Thai society changes its mindset and accepts us fully, and we have the legal mechanism to support our movement,” she says, “Then I’ll go run a papaya salad shop.”