Brynn Craffey

Pink Lotus Bathrooms

Filed By Brynn Craffey | June 20, 2008 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: pink lotus, Sisaket province, Thailand, trangender, transexual

Here's a novel idea: a high school in rural Thailand has provided gender-neutral toilets to protect and support the school's transgender students, not out of a desire to offer solace to the non-trans students.


"I'm so happy about this," Vichai Sangsakul, a teenager with a pixie hairdo pulled back with a pink barrette, told Thailand's PBS new channel on Tuesday. "It looks bad going to female restrooms. What would other people think?"

Most rural Thais are conservative in many ways, but the trailblazing toilet initiative at the school in northeastern Sisaket province reflects another aspect of Thai society: its tolerance of the country's very visible transsexual and transvestite community.

"These students want to be able to go to the restroom in peace without fear of being watched, laughed at or groped," said school director Sitisak Sumontha. Using female restrooms made some of the other students uncomfortable and using the men's room often resulted in harassment, he said. [emphasis mine]

Apparently, Kampang is not Thailand's first educational institution to set up trans toilets, although it is likely the first secondary school. The article also cites a 1,500-student technical college in the northern province of Chiang Mai that set up a "Pink Lotus Bathroom" for trans students in 2003.

I know, I know! One could argue against this idea on a "Separate cannot help but be unequal," basis. But personally, I'll reserve judgment, considering it's not my culture and the trans students mentioned in the article all seemed pleased. Also, I'm all in favor of measures that promote trans safety and make it easier for us to answer the call of nature in public spaces.

One of my good friends in Dublin transitioned in Thailand after having resided there as a British ex-pat for many years. She's stands many inches over 6-foot and was also partial to wearing high-heeled boots. Yet she told me that it wasn't until she moved to Dublin that she experienced transphobia firsthand. Never in Thailand.

(And H/T to Leslie, in Dublin!)

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I'm glad they're happy, probably because of safety considerations. But they are literally calling it a "Transvestite Toilet", not a gender neutral or unisex bathroom. If someone doesn't identify as a transvestite, or prefers to use the restroom of their true gender, it seems to me you're SOL.

A gender neutral bathroom isn't "separate but equal" because anyone can use it. It's simply another choice. But a "Transvestite Toilet" indicates that transvestites *must* use that bathroom, and that non-transvestites must *not* use it. That smacks of separation of the unequal kind.

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding the whole thing, and they're just referring to toilets who dress up as non-toilets. Sinks maybe?

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | June 20, 2008 11:14 AM

Rory, you're right. "Gender neutral" is my Western projection onto what they're doing. It would be more accurate to say the bathrooms are designated for trans people.

I chose not to say "transvestite toilets," because in my experience many people who do not understand transsexualism or the trans community: 1) often are unaware of the vast diversity covered by the trans label; and 2) do not distinguish between transsexuals and transvestites.

In America, bathrooms are frequently the sites of the most vehemently fought battles for trans rights. What struck me about this Thai initiative wasn't that it was the end-all-and-be-all solution, but rather that it suggested a real willingness on the part of authorities to recognize more than two genders, seek a solution that emphasized respect for and the safety of trans students, and finally, that the students in question were--by Western legal definition, anyway--minors.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | June 20, 2008 11:27 AM


Living here is like a miracle of discovery. I was sent this article at the time it appeared a couple of days ago. I am glad you posted on it as it is not my experience. Firstly, as a 98% Buddhist country the rules are different. Thais are much more modest people than Westerners. Even in extreme heat men wear long pants and frequently long sleeved shirts as well (unless you are at the beach)

The lotus signifies progress in Buddhism. It is a plant with it's roots in the mud, it's stem in the water and it's fragrant flower floating on the water. It signifies progress of the soul and the trans persons here are considered to be progressing toward their own personal best place.

I am surprised by the thought of anyone groping anyone in a toilet in Thailand. As Buddhism confers no guilt on homosexuality people can be open and civil about their feelings here.

Trans persons here are called "Katoey" and are mainstreamed into many occupations in full dress. I see katoey every day working as waitresses, in grocery stores, general stores, gift shoppes and florists. They are not subjected to violence as this is not a country where violence is a first consideration. Violent things happen in gangs over drugs, but even that is quite rare, and even more so outside of Bangkok and in northern Thailand where Chaing Mai is located.

The most important thing that I have learned is that you cannot draw parallels (or criticisms) between Thailand and the West. It is their country and they have a 700 year tradition, underpinned by the longest serving monarch in the world, who is a beloved source of stability. Even during the "coup" of 2006 no one was harmed or brutalized. It is simply not the Thai way. After nine months of living here I am still learning "the way" but everything I learn I respect as a completely more civilized outlook.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | June 20, 2008 12:06 PM

Thanks for your perspective, Robert! You said what I was trying to say much more eloquently.

Brynn, I understand that many, many, people use the terms interchangably. But since there is a cultural difference, I thought that it's important to use their own words. I was careful to check that it wasn't a press characterization, but their actual term. And words do have an impact on those hearing them.

Second, since most of the press reports are using "Transvestite Toilet", I thought that it was important for us to be aware this is what's being seen by the general public. To a non-Thai audience, this probably projects a different connotation that we might need to deal with.

Perhaps its my American ears, er - eyes - that finds that using the word "toilet" is jarring, compared to "bathroom" or "restroom". But I don't think I'm an atypical American; so I can just imagine the reaction to "Transvestite toilet" by the majority of readers.

I'm still happy for the trans folk in Thailand though. :)

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | June 21, 2008 1:25 PM

Rory, toilet is best for international usage as you are unlikely to take a bath at a shopping mall or require rest there.

It's so interesting to hear about what non-Western cultures are doing regarding what we interpret as LGBT rights.

We could probably learn a lot from other cultures if we weren't so convinced that we're better.

I realize that "toilet" is used more widely outside of the US, but probably not "Tranvestite Toilet".

In any case, I don't think they get many international visitors at the rural high school where this took place.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | June 22, 2008 2:13 AM

I would chalk that phrase up to translation Rory. It could be called a Katoey toilet, but here it just does not matter so much. If you are dressed as awoman you use the ladies. Now if you are in a small village somewhere with less literate Thais it could pose a problem, but there are always private stalls in either restroom or unisex single occupancy rest room and your choice of a Western toilet or the Larry Craig squat variety. *grin* Last night I dined in a high end restaurant that has a singe door to the toilet and to the left is a second door for men and to the right is a door for women with a washbasin in the center room. You choose.

Katoeys are famously called "The third Sex" until they fully transition if they choose to. Many do, and many do not, and are also known as "Ladyboys." One small difference is that ones birth gender is not changeable in Thailand, but that is being worked on by a Thai domestic group called "Swinging Sisters."