Nok Yollada in The Nation Newspaper
The parts of a woman
By Paisarn Likhitpreechakul
Special to The Nation
Published on March 5, 2010
Flawed strategies emerge on a TV debate about 'transgender woman'
Whether you agree with her or not, former Miss Alcazar "Nok" Yollada deserves thanks for raising important questions in a recent TV debate on "transgender women" that became the talk of the nation.
What makes a woman? "One is not born a woman, but becomes one," Simone de Beauvoir famously proclaimed, even if the Thai word phet makes no distinction between her anatomical or social origin.
Society defines womanhood and decides who fits the role, but the question is how.
Is being born with female genitalia requisite? Nature won't be so easily categorised, and people are born with the genitals of both sexes, or neither, more often than you might think.
In fact, any of the presumed "female" characteristics - vagina, ovaries, breasts, menstruation, XX chromosomes, oestrogen, the ability to get pregnant - can be absent in a woman, whether by birth, age, design, medical procedure or accident.
This contrariness makes a precise definition of a female elusive, as in last year's case of South African athlete Caster Semenya.
If physical categorisation is far from being clear-cut, a mental classification is nebulous. There have always been those who feel they're women trapped in men's bodies or vice versa, and it's not "all in their minds". A recent study suggests that transgenderism has at least some genetic components.
What is defined by society can thus be redefined by society, according to changing times and circumstances. It wasn't that long ago when women had little chance of financial or personal independence.
They broke free and, just like these born-female rebels, there are born-male converts - the so-called transgender women.
Nok Yollada knew she was meant to be a woman and, not content to merely cross the gender line, she fully became one with the help of sex-reassignment surgery. She is now, anatomically too, a female.
She's not just a transgender, but more specifically a transsexual, and she also has a lofty vision. She hopes that all post-operation transgenders will one day be accorded the rights of women, most importantly the right to legal recognition as such
For her clear sense for equality, she has my respect. I can't say the same for some transgenders in the TV debate whose beliefs are self-defeating. One even said the movement's political focus should remain on issues like HIV/Aids and "youth castration", rather than quality and legal recognition.
Unfortunately, Yollada had two serious flaws in her argument.
First, she spectacularly failed to explain why legal recognition is important. Not having legal documents to match your new gender (such as a national ID card for the bank or a passport while travelling) is a big problem.
Viewers might have been forgiven for assuming she was asking to be called "Miss" only to win social acceptance - or to stoke her ego.
Second, Yollada will get nowhere basing her argument on a World Health Organisation classification that lists transsexualism among psychological disorders. She'll be seen not as a woman but as mentally ill.
The WHO's diagnosis of these "gender identity disorders" has a price tag in term of stigma and discrimination that not all transgenders are willing to pay.
The WHO definition is trouble. It's partly designed to offer trans people in developed countries the hope or expectation of subsidised gender-based healthcare, especially sex-reassignment surgery.
But if transgenderism is really a psychiatric condition, it could be argued that it should be treated with psychiatric drugs. Sex-reassignment surgery, people could then say, would leave the root of the condition untreated and maybe even make it worse.
Basing her argument on conflicting medical opinions rather than solid principles of human rights, Yollada also opened herself to attack by the guest physician, a cytologist who wasn't necessarily an expert on sexuality. The doctor insisted that gender is determined only by sex chromosomes.
Again, remember Caster Semenya.
By then it was too late for Yollada to denounce the WHO classification, which is already losing ground. France last month became the first country to de-list transgenderism as a mental disorder.
Undoubtedly, many countries will follow suit, and then the WHO, as it did with homosexuality in 1992.
When that happens, what will the effect be on Thai transgenders? This is an interesting question, and we'll return to it next week.
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