The Lives of Transgender People in Thai Prisons

May 16, 2019

Photo: Ye Jinghan via Unsplash

Despite contributing to society in all aspects of their lives, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people in Thailand continue to experience stigma, discrimination, social exclusion, and stereotyping. For transgender people, they face such challenges mainly because their gender identity and/or expression does not coincide with their sex assigned at birth. In prison, transgender people can face even more difficult circumstances.  

To better understand the challenges faced by the approximately 4,000[1] transgender people in Thai prisons, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) through the Being LGBTI in Asia and the Pacific programme, together with the Department of Rights and Liberties Protection of the Ministry of Justice, conducted an internal review of the management of transgender inmates in selected prisons. Key findings from the review shows that transgender inmates experience challenges in accessing basic services, as well as sexual harassment by other inmates. In addition, the report found that correctional officers often lack knowledge of transgender issues, resulting in increased stigma and stereotyping of transgender inmates.

[1] Statistics as of 20 August 2018, Department of Corrections (DOC), Ministry of Justice

The outcomes of the internal review led to UNDP joining hands with the Department of Corrections of the Ministry of Justice and the Inspire Project of Her Royal Highness Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol of Thailand to co-organize a national workshop on 10 September 2018 to raise awareness of Department of Correction officials on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression in prisons and the challenges faced by transgender inmates.

Following the workshop, UNDP is supporting the Department of Corrections to develop a set of guidelines to improve the management of transgender inmates in Thailand. Thailand will also take advantage of its role as the chair of ASEAN in 2019 to propose this issue for discussion with other ASEAN countries. 

Two former transgender inmates attended the national workshop and shared their experiences with Department of Corrections officials. The testimonies they shared reflected the challenges their peers face while incarcerated and validated the key findings of the internal review. After the workshop, they gave an interview to UNDP – here are their stories. 

Mean, a former transman inmate

Mean spent 3 years in prison. He was one of about 40 transmen in the prison at the time.

 “I had to take all my clothes off. This part I understood. But I had to take my chest binder off too. It was something I wore every day, it's uncomfortable for me not having it.”

Photo: Kawisara Limaksorn

“They only allowed us to wear one hair style like school girls, a short style that shows part of our earlobes. Some of the Toms didn’t like this hairstyle. They prefer to have short hair. I remember telling myself – why can’t I have short hair?”

“There was this one transman who was on testosterone before he was incarcerated, but the officer didn’t allow hormones used in there and confiscated the pills from him at the court. He had already had top surgery. At first there was no side effect but the longer he was in there without testosterone, the more furious and irritable he became. He had a fight with everyone. He once told me, ‘P’ Meen, I am not like this but without testosterone, my mood changes.’ When he first arrived, he was more muscular, but after not exercising, not taking hormones, his muscles were gone, and the chest area was sunken as if someone cut his breasts off. This made him so depressed and the officers didn’t care about this. They only cared whether he followed the rules. That’s why I think, if it was impossible to allow testosterone, they should at least give us exercise machines.”

“In the first six months, there was a lung x-ray. Six months later, there was a blood test, but it was not mandatory. We could choose if we wanted to have our blood tested or not. Back in the past, the blood test was mandatory and some people tested positive for HIV. Some inmates struggled with the result of the test and wanted to commit suicide.”

Photo: rawpixel via Unsplash

 “I wish there was exercise equipment. This is not just for us transmen, but for everyone. Especially for older inmates so they can exercise to prevent muscular weakness. And I wish there would be chest binders. I once wrote into the comments box that I wish chest binders would be provided to Toms. But this request was denied due to their fear of breast cancer among inmates.”

Photo: chuttersnap via Unsplash

“I wish they would teach us other things. Electronics would be fine, or preferably graphic design or other computer stuffs. Nowadays, anyone knowing about computers has more advantage. In the facility, there was no such training though, so by the time we got out, we were like dinosaurs who couldn’t keep up with the rest of the world. I was sewing and there was no job for me outside prison.”

 “People would think ‘You were in prison before. Will you be able to work? How will you perform? We cannot trust you because you were in jail before.’ They did not trust us and thought we were going to steal something. I wish they had taught us how to live life outside of prison, so that we won’t make the same mistake and end up in prison again.”

Zeed, former transwoman inmate.

Zeed was one of about 30 transwomen among 5,000 inmates.  She spent 4 years in prison.

 “The first day I had to strip naked for the officer to check my anal cavity to make sure that I didn’t hide any drugs in there. I was very embarrassed—there were so many cis men around.”

 “When we showered, we had to be in the same room with other men, no partitions at all, just an open space. I felt really uncomfortable… Only transwomen who had both bottom and top surgery were allowed to use private bathrooms.”

“I couldn’t order bras. Even inmates who had top surgery were not allowed to order them. Only transwomen who have both top and bottom surgeries were allowed to do so. Another worry was random drug searches and urine tests. They asked us transwomen to be naked in front of the male officers and then we had to bend over. Even transwomen with top surgery still had to do it. But those who already had both surgeries didn’t need to. I was very embarrassed.”

Ju, former transwoman inmate.

Ju, Zeed’s sister, was the only transwoman inmate in the prison who had gone through both top and bottom surgery. She spent more than 4 years in prison.

 “I could order hormones from outside because I already had bottom and top surgeries. A doctor came to do health check-ups for us. Others didn't get their medicine. Some of them had taken hormones for a long period of time, but they weren’t allowed to take hormones while inside the prison.”

Photo: Kawisara Limaksorn

“We could ask for condoms and lubricants. There was a clinic with a doctor. If anyone needed to see the doctor, they could but they needed to get permission from the control office (of each zone). We could choose to have a lung x-ray and blood test every six months.”

Photos: by Brodie Mcculloch via Flickr

 “I wish they had a separate shower room for transwomen. I wish they had bras for those who already had top surgery. Some also needed hormone therapy, so I wish they had that.”

 “I wish they had vocational training for hairdressing, making Thai desserts, or painting nails. Most of the trainings there involved making detergent or steel welding. But we, transwomen, were not into that. I didn’t like it.”

Being LGBTI in Asia and the Pacific is a regional programme aimed at addressing inequality, violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, and promotes universal access to health and social services. It is a collaboration between governments, civil society, regional institutions and other stakeholders to advance the social inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. The programme recognizes that LGBTI people are highly marginalized and face varied forms of stigma and discrimination based on their distinct sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions. The programme is supported by UNDP, the Embassy of Sweden in Bangkok, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Ministry for European Affairs and Equality (Malta) and Faith in Love Foundation (Hong Kong).

Tom - refers either to a female-to-male transgender (or known as transman) or a butch lesbian

Story by: Tanyalak Thongyoojaroen, Suparnee Pongruengphant, Ian Mungall