For many of us, finding the ‘right’ summer internship was easily the most stressful part of our first year in the Master of Global Affairs program. Not because there aren’t a lot of diverse and unique options, or because there isn’t an incredible amount of support from a team of passionate and caring people – it’s just one of those things. Writing cover letters, doing interviews and worrying about finding the right organization definitely caused a lot of collective anxiety. But for me, it wasn’t the additional workload that made me anxious; it was being forced to acknowledge how my identity impacted my personal safety around the world.
As a white, queer person whose gender identity defies the traditional gender binary, I have faced my share of stigma and discrimination, but I also benefit from enormous privilege and access. Perhaps it is this privilege, or simply my ability to compartmentalize my emotions, that has allowed me to easily engage academically with the global fight for queer and trans rights without always translating its impact into my own life.
It was only when I was scanning the list of potential global internship opportunities when I could no longer ignore how my queerness and my gender identity limited my ability to travel and explore certain places. After giving up on positions based in countries where it is illegal to be queer or trans or where corrective sexual assault of queer and trans people is common, I found my second home in Bangkok, Thailand working at YouthLEAD, a regional organization focused on supporting and advocating for young key populations at high risk for HIV.
In Thailand, the perceptions and understandings of gender are incredibly complex and only something I am beginning to grasp, even after four months here. In many places, there is an adherence to the traditional gender binary, like in dress codes at fancy restaurants or military conscription, but in so many others there is a recognition and acceptance of those who defy it. Thailand was one of the first countries to offer specific protections on the grounds of gender identity, something Canada has only recently adopted after years of dedicated activism. Although Thailand still does not permit the changing of gender identity on government documents or offer alternative gender markers, the culture and practice here recognizes the fluidity of gender through more than 18 commonly accepted gender identities. Yet, stigma and discrimination are still common, especially in employment, sex work, and within the intersections of race and class. All this to say, Thailand is far from perfect, but the difference I’ve witnessed first-hand is unmistakable.
Imagine my surprise when my rough-around-the-edges, self-identified redneck uncle (who I barely knew at the time) asked me my preferred pronouns immediately upon my arrival at the airport in Thailand. Not in the way some people at home often inquire, with an undertone of “what exactly are you?” – but from a genuine place of care, and with an ease that is not often found in Canada. During our first couple hours of getting to know each other, we discussed how living in Thailand has re-shaped his understanding of gender fluidity compared to the ideas commonly found in the West. It was also during this conversation that he eased my concerns and explained that the only ‘trouble’ I would face in Thailand is my dramatic increase in popularity.
Quite surprisingly, it was my trips to the public washrooms in Thailand that served as a clear representation of the differences between Canada and Thailand. In Canada, for people like me, going into gendered public bathrooms can range from momentarily anxiety-inducing to incredibly unpleasant or downright frightening. Back home, I’ve had people stare, gasp, or tap me on the shoulder to tell me I’m in the wrong washroom and demand I leave. As someone who recognizes how unsafe these scenarios can become, I always seek to respond with patience. Sometimes I can even find an ounce of pleasure in the look of pure bewilderment that follows when my voice that is significantly more ‘feminine’ than my haircut, responds “no worries, I’m ok here”. You can almost see the synapses in their brain struggling to fire in enough directions to comprehend the person in front of them.
In Thailand, the bathrooms are much more fun, and significantly less anxiety-inducing. Instead of needing to rush in and out to avoid drawing attention to myself or eliciting unfriendly stares, I’m routinely met with big smiles and giggles and usually get stuck inside taking selfies like a D-list celebrity. On top of that, many spaces have shared, ungendered washrooms – with both stalls and urinals – where everyone can safely, and comfortably, share the space, something you are unlikely to find around Canada. Now, the only anxiety I feel about using public washrooms is the fear of the ever-present squat toilets and realizing too late that there is no toilet paper.
My summer in Thailand has been an experience I will treasure forever. Briefly experiencing what sometimes felt like an alternate reality has reinvigorated my belief in a world where change and true acceptance is possible and reignited my passion to fight for it. It has given me so much to think about, through my new friendships, and through unique experiences working at an incredibly active and influential Asia-Pacific regional network. I know I am going to miss this place, but I know I will soon be back.