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Thailand military: the lovely conscripts

Thailand’s military struggles with a flood of transgender draftees.

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.”