BANGKOK, Thailand — It was conscription day in the outskirts of Bangkok. One by one, a young man’s name would crackle over the loudspeaker and he would rise from the throng seated on the grass and strip for inspection.
Hiding amidst the 1,000-person crowd was Prempreeda Pramoj Na Ayutthaya, auburn locks hanging at her shoulders, face obscured by an umbrella held by her mother. When her name was called, she squeezed her mom’s hand and stood, legs quivering, to step through the sea of stunned boys.
“I felt panic. Maybe at first they thought I was some guy’s sister who’d come for support,” Prempreeda said. “But when I walked to the front, everyone realized, ‘Oh, that’s not a girl!’ and made a huge noise.”
“I think of that day like a bad dream,” Prempreeda said.
Of the half million young Thai men facing military conscription lottery each year, most fear being drafted into grunthood. Best case scenario: Two years in a dull outpost. Worst case: Patrolling the southern Thai-Malay borderlands, where Islamic insurgents are notorious for beheading troops.
But few fear the draft more than Thailand’s transgender “kathoeys.” Genetically male, mentally female, they regard conscription as a threat to their very being. Buzzing off a kathoey’s long locks and forcing her to go soldiering in the sun, Prempreeda said, is the cruelest of punishments.
“No transgender would ever want to be in the army,” Prempreeda said. “They’ll cut your hair off. They’ll destroy your femininity. You will do everything you can to avoid it.”
No one knows exactly how many male-born Thais live as women, though academics acknowledge the obvious: the phenomenon is unusually widespread in Thailand.
In the United States, studies suggest that only about 1 in 2,500 men live their lives as women. But in Thailand, according to a University of Hong Kong researcher, as many as 1 in 165 Thai males become kathoeys.
Thailand’s outsized transgender population presents a dilemma for the military, which considers kathoeys eligible for conscription at 21 like every other male citizen.
In practice, long-haired, perfumed draftees with hormone-induced breasts are very rarely drafted. Instead, they are dismissed as unfit for service, often for having “malformed chests.”
The most common reason for dismissal, however, is also the more damning: “mental disorder.” Worse yet is “permanent insanity,” a ruling written into the permanent record of kathoey Samart Meecharoen in 2006.
The 26-year-old Bangkok receptionist, who goes by the Thai nickname “Sweetwater,” is an accidental activist. After the “insane” label wrecked a promising job interview, she sued the Ministry of Defense with the help of a gay rights organization. Most employers force male prospects to submit a document proving they’ve stood for the national draft.
“Don’t they understand this ruins our lives?” said Samart, who is still awaiting her lawsuit’s outcome. “It’s stuck to our record. Even if we’re opening a bank account, or trying to get a visa to some foreign country, people see that I’m supposedly insane.”
Though Thailand’s Defense Ministry can still legally dismiss kathoey conscripts as mentally ill, Samart’s case has pressured the military into refraining from the most career-damaging classifications, at least in recent years.
A September memorandum obtained by GlobalPost reveals that senior military officials are now recommending a new all-purpose phrase to reject transgender draftees. Translated, it reads, “This person’s body is not consistent with their birth sex.”
The decision is not final. But many kathoeys are rooting for this phrasing. Those already judged “insane” or “deformed” are also hoping to scrub unflattering rulings from their permanent records.
These days, teenage kathoeys fearing conscription will likely turn to ThaiLadyBoyz.net, the largest Thai-language message board on transgender life. More than a place to swap make-up tips and emoticon-laced heartbreak rants, the site offers an online strategy session for prospective draftees.
Among the message board’s topics: “Went for draft already? Please tell our girls there’s nothing to fear!” and, among the most popular, “Will I have to take my shirt off?” Tales abound of officers asking kathoeys to strip down in front of giggling crowds during public inspections.
“Dress very beautifully, but politely,” wrote ThaiLadyBoyz.net user DonutSheHot, a self-proclaimed kathoey who has already withstood the draft. “Nothing too slutty, though. That’s risky.”
Prempreeda followed the script, dressing professionally but feminine enough to assure officers she’s a genuine kathoey. Then 20, she had grown breasts after taking imported German hormones since the age of 17.
“The army doctor, this young guy, brought me into a small curtained room,” she said. “There were people climbing up to the second floor to look inside, hoping to see some sexy scene. A lot of people attend these events just for fun. Of course, transgenders are the highlight.”
Prempreeda was prepared for the worst. The doctor asked that she slip out of her top, only to find she was wearing a sports bra underneath.
“He laughed at me,” she said. “It was obvious he was using his authority to see my breasts.” The next potential draftee in line was kathoey too, she said, and the doctor clucked, “‘You’re not being sexy like this girl.’”
Prempreeda’s medical diagnosis: deformed chest.
“I could live with that,” she said. “I don’t have to use my breasts at my job.”
Now 31, she works as a researcher and private consultant. “I’m lucky, actually. The chairman of the draft board was very kind when I asked him not to ruin my career.”
Despite the tension between kathoeys and officials, both generally agree that transgendered men have no place in the military. Unlike in the United States, where homosexuals eager to serve are dismissed when discovered, the Thai army has never been confronted with kathoeys campaigning for the right to enlist.
“That would be weird,” said Anucha Simplacert, a 23-year-old designer living in Chonburi province. Like many kathoeys, she avoided conscription by signing up for relatively non-strenuous army reserve courses in high school. “Everyone knows that if you have big boobs and long hair, you don’t get to be a soldier.”
Even Samart, the modern face of kathoeys’ anti-discrimination movement, is unable to imagine a kathoey serving the army in any regard. “It will never happen,” she said. “We’re not interested.”
A fellow kathoey activist, Nada Chaiyajit, suggests that they could possibly work as military nurses, clerks or accountants. “But we all know they’ll never give us guns to go fight,” she said.
Beyond reforming the military draft, kathoeys have also pressed the government to change the title “mister” before their names to “miss” on official documents. This proposal, once considered by the legislature, remains stalled. Repeated attempts to single out homosexuals in constitutional anti-discrimination laws have failed. Gay marriage remains unlawful and politicians have shown little interest in taking up the cause. The occasional nightclub will even post signs declaring “No bar girls (prostitutes) or kathoeys.”
The military’s branding of kathoeys as “insane” or “deformed” cracks the myth that Thailand is a paradise of gay acceptance, Prempreeda said.
“Paradise how? We don’t have many hate crimes or violence against us,” she said. “But in terms of law and policy, we’re still fighting and it’s taking a long time.”