Trans woman MP designate advocates for a more gender-inclusive Thailand

Paramee “Juang” Waichongcharoen

Paramee “Juang” Waichongcharoen. Photo from Prachatai

This edited article by Patpon Sabpaitoon was originally published by Prachatai, an independent news site in Thailand, and an edited version is republished by Global Voices under a content-sharing agreement.

While women have long been considered “ornamental” in Thailand, with the media and public often obsessively focusing on their looks or how they dress and act, LGBTQ+ representation is nearly non-existent. Many in the LGBTQ+ community are subject to the same fate or even worse. A watershed moment for the community came in the last election when three self-identified LGBTQ+ people won MP seats.

In male-dominated Thai politics, women MPs amount to only 15.4 percent of representatives, with 73 women among 474 total members in 2022, according to iLaw. Of that number, the three self-identified LGBTQ+ MPs made up only 0.63 percent of the total.

Last month, however, another win for the Thai LGBTQ+ community was tallied when Move Forward’s Paramee “Juang” Waichongcharoen, a trans woman and party list MP candidate, was elected. The opposition party clinched the most number of seats in the parliamentary election, which saw the defeat of military-backed candidates.

Having spent most of her life working in education, the MP designate is tasked with steering the party’s education policy. She will also work with other LGBTQ+ MP designates to advocate for gender-inclusive policies.

Growing up in a run-down neighborhood near Wat Soi Thong in Bang Sue, Paramee realized from a young age the importance of education as a tool for betterment in life. She enrolled in Chulalongkorn University to follow her dream of becoming a teacher.

She later learned that in a university that prided itself in traditionalism with its deep connections with royalty and elitism, its students were expected to dress in uniforms and conform to certain norms and values. Transgender students had to dress and act according to their biological sex. That experience has haunted her to this day.

Although the university has relaxed many of its strict rules in recent years, a conservative agenda prevails, especially in some faculties that attach themselves to institutionalism. These include the Faculty of Education, where Paramee studied.

Although the Faculty is known by insiders to have hosted countless LGBTQ+ students throughout its existence, some faculty members still insist that students dress according to their biological sex and “behave accordingly.” The tradition was prevalent in Paramee’s day when she had to wear a short hair wig. The rule was recently repealed in 2020 after a transgender student filed an appeal to the Faculty's governing body.

That sums up the fate of transgender students who wish to pursue a typical career trajectory in education. If you want to be a teacher in the Thai system, you either conform to gender stereotypes, or you are shown the door.

As much as she wanted to be a teacher, she also wanted to live true to who she was. She couldn’t bear wearing short hair and men’s clothes.

Therefore, in 1993 when she graduated with a Bachelor of Education degree, and most of her peers went on to become career teachers, she chose to reject the traditional route and instead became a tutor and private teacher. For 27 years now, she has made a living teaching social science to high school students around Thailand.

Having lived through the painful experience of hiding who she was, she hopes she can advocate for a more tolerant education system in which people of all genders can live according to their chosen lifestyle without being discriminated against.

Thai society may seem open to LGBTQ+ people, but discrimination still permeates certain realms of life, especially in the professional sphere. Living truthfully about who you are might mean being closed off from some opportunities. There are choices one must sacrifice to live as oneself. She pointed out that:

A trans woman who becomes a civil servant cannot dress as a woman. It is still like this in a number of ministries, not just in the Ministry of Education. You cannot dress as a woman right away. You must interview in men's clothes and hair. Dress as a man. With a wig. … You must look for room to manoeuvre, how open-minded your supervisor is.

“Your life is like buying a lottery ticket,” she added.

However, she knows in order to make big changes, small steps are needed. At the minimum, people should be able to dress as they please without facing resistance, she said. To make this a reality, she will start with the law, studying rules and regulations for opportunities for adjustment and gradually effect changes. She shared her plan:

I will push with other MPs for equality. Not just in the state sector, the private sector sometimes does not dare give LGBT in big conservative organizations the ability to display the gender they choose.

The Move Forward Party tasked Paramee, along with two other MPs, with overseeing education policies. She stated that she is adamant about advocating for a more equal education where people can receive quality education no matter where they are. In her role as an MP, she will also help steer gender-inclusive policies with other MPs from the LGBTQ+ community. Besides the same-sex marriage bill, she aims to advocate for trans people to be able to use titles according to their gender.

Although it is an uphill battle to reach a fully inclusive society, she believes it will gradually change through dialogue and open discussion. Paramee wishes to see a more inclusive society where people are more understanding of gender differences. She expressed her optimism:

I want to create understanding. Don’t stereotype. I want to come out and speak up to create an understanding of gender diversity.

Paramee believes LGBTQ+ participation in politics is key to making society more inclusive. She encourages LGBTQ+ people who wish to participate in politics to do so.

Though considered a veteran in Thai education, Paramee is relatively new to politics. She’s learning to navigate this challenging environment. But she has braced herself for impact, knowing that there will be people who don’t accept her differences. The MP designate said:

I believe in principle. If what I do is right in principle, I don’t care what anyone says. You can criticise me if I do something wrong, but you cannot censure my life choices, because that is my right.

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