A portrait photograph of a transexual Thai woman.

The reality for many Trans people in Asia is far from utopian, but there is little of the overt discrimination and violence prevalent in other parts of the world. Historically, there has always been space for a third gender in Eastern cultures. Credit: Author.

To see more photographs from Brian O’Callaghan’s “Transitions,” visit the Tikkun Daily Art Gallery.

When I began photographing and interviewing Trans women in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I had to acknowledge to myself that I knew very little about the myriad of gender identities that exist. I had never really encountered positive Trans visibility until I lived in Asia. I began to see that my hetero-normative worldview was reinforced through the media and society at large. Even though I identify as an openly gay man, my notions about gender possibilities were policed. An essential lesson I learned from this project is that, there is not just one Trans story or experience. The women I interviewed wanted to share their stories in the hope of changing perceptions of what it means to be Trans.

Historically, there has always been space for a third gender in Asia. The consideration toward Trans women in Thailand is perhaps in part owed to Buddhism, and in part to the non-colonization of Thailand by Western powers. In India, same-sex relations were accepted until British colonialism, although third gender and gender-variant people are still recognized today, and accepted throughout Indian cultures. The Bugis ethnic group, native to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, recognizes three sexes (female, male and hermaphrodite), four genders (women, men, transmen-calabai, and transwomen-calalai), and a fifth metagender group, the bissu. In Nepalese culture, the Buddhist term Mettā, meaning loving-kindness, is used to identify transgender people and same-sex couples. Although the reality for many Trans people in Asia is far from utopian, there is little of the overt discrimination or violence, which is so prevalent in other parts of the world like Brazil, where Transphobic violence is on the rise. And 2015 has already seen the murders of seven American Trans women, with the latest – twenty-two-year old Bri Golec of Ohio – being killed by her own father.

There is a glaring disconnect between the representations of Trans women in the media and the many Trans women I interviewed. Comparatively there is almost total invisibility of Trans men. Media often portrays a negative or defamatory view of Trans people. According to recent television research conducted over the past ten years by the Gay and Lesbians Alliance Against Defamation, ‘Anti-transgender slurs, language and dialogue was present in at least 61% of catalogued episodes and storylines.’ In reality this is a nuanced community that transcends labeling.

Minerva is a thirty-year-old Filipino woman living in Bangkok. She made a film in 2008 called “The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela,” which is about Raquela, a transsexual prostitute from the Philippines who dreams of escaping the streets of Cebu City for a fairy tale life in Paris. Minerva played Raquela in her film, which was partly autobiographical. ”I made one movie, it was quite successful, and I traveled to many festivals around the world to promote it. I don’t feel I was born in the wrong body. I’m perfectly happy, thank you society.” There is a misconception that these women are performing femininity; they are feminine in their minds and bodies. “There are big women, small women, tall women, short women and trans women; it’s just different,” says Minerva, who identified as a female from the beginning. “It just felt right, we have to respect each other’s feelings, no?” ”We are stuck in low paid jobs, we don’t get the same rights as other citizens, girls often lack confidence.” I ask her if anything happened after the film. ”Not really, Hollywood didn’t call yet,” she laughs.

A photograph of two transgender Asian males.

Trans people do not appear often enough in day-to-day roles where their being transgender is just incidental. But this is changing. Above, trans males prepare for a theatre show. Credit: Author.

Surely the media should strive to accurately reflect reality for everyone. How long did it take to see a well-rounded gay character in a mainstream movie? Women still continue to be objectified. There is a liberation that comes from bypassing the need to be accepted or visible in the media, but hopefully an increased visibility of Trans people in mainstream media could help to change social attitudes. Transgender people do not appear often enough in day-to-day roles where their being transgender is just incidental. They are stereotyped in the same way as minorities were in the 1950s. Journalists and scriptwriters must try and develop more realistic, holistic portrayals of transgender people. Trans people long to be seen in a more ordinarily human context. On film, transgender people have stereotypically always been the victims or villains. This bias is now shifting as we begin to see more diverse representations of the LGBTQ communities in media. The BBC has announced it will produce a new sitcom about a transgender woman. The lead character of ‘Boy Meets Girl’ played by Rebecca Root is thankfully, a Trans woman. Last year, Laverne Cox was nominated for an Emmy for her role as Sophia in Netflix’s comedy-drama Orange is the New Black. ‘Looking’ is a show that finally portrays gay men more accurately. Lee Daniels ‘Empire’ is highlighting homophobia in the African-American community. For confused teens with no access to role models who understand them, identification on screen can be a lifeline. When you see someone like you reflected back, you feel an increased sense of normalcy. It is encouraging to see more diversity on screen.

Transgender people often find the media abusive and humiliating. People routinely get their pronouns wrong, which makes them feel incredibly misrepresented. “The media sees us as drag queens or gay, and that is not true at all, most of us dress to blend in to society and are not gay!” says Aiyah, a housewife who has been in a committed relationship for eight years. ”He is a digital nomad, so we travel a lot and have our base in the UK. I never hid the fact that I am a Trans woman and why should I? This is me. I won’t say it has been an easy journey; my parents were less than impressed and [are] quite religious. I am just being true to my feelings, I’m not hurting anyone.”

The role of language shouldn’t be underestimated; our need to label and define categories often stunts diversity and fluidity. Flexible language allows for the concept of other genders, In Thai language there is no differentiation between sex, gender and sexuality. This may have something to do with why there is more openness in Thailand toward Transgendered people. But this openness, however encouraging, doesn’t always extend to areas of employment that serve the public (e.g., banking, education, housing, law enforcement).

Each woman’s story is unique. Many girls that I interview are employed in the entertainment sector, such as Nicoline, a 21-year-old Cabaret performer. ” I was a student but I dropped out. I love what I do. I love performing. I don’t have much of a relationship with my parents. It hurts. I’d love to open a bridal shop in the future.” Her friend Nickky, 26, is also a dancer. ”My parents disowned me; they wish I was just gay with a boyfriend. Sometimes I talk to my older brother online. My dad is conservative Chinese and my mum is Thai. My dream is to be a jewelry designer.” The challenges that Trans women face are not only emotional and physical, but also societal. While there are positive signs for the community, there is still a long way to go. ”I look at the gay community and I feel inspired. They never gave up, and now they have rights. I hope we can do the same,” says Nikky.

Atom is a 30-year-old Plastic surgery nurse. ”I work a lot in the clinic. We perform breast enhancements and nose jobs. Many people have surgery every week. It’s fast; they are in and out in a day. I’m happy. I take care of myself. I support myself. I don’t get help from anyone. I’m close to my parents and my family. They live in the provinces, a simple life. They love me. I haven’t had a negative experience.”

These inspirational women challenge the hierarchy that values so called ‘normal genders’. Regardless of the acceptance of society or their portrayal in the media, Trans people continue to follow their own paths. They should be commended for their bravery in the search for their authentic selves. Gender is relative. What it comes down to is fear, fear of difference and uncertainty. Hopefully we can move into a more integrated society where difference is celebrated. When you take the time to sit and talk to anyone you perceive as different to you, not just a Trans person, what you will usually find is a humanizing story and a shared experience that will not separate you, it will unite you.

To see more photographs from Brian O’Callaghan’s “Transitions,” visit the Tikkun Daily Art Gallery.

“Transitions” is an ongoing documentary photography project by Brian O’Callaghan that is part of Documentary Arts Asia’s, F/28 Chiang Mai Month of Photography 2015


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