BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thai transgender activist Nada Chaiyajit completed her undergraduate studies in August, and two months later, school officials told her 12 classmates - all men - that their graduation certificates were ready.
But her college, the University of Phayao in northern Thailand, would not issue her documents because she submitted a photo in which she looks like a woman, even though her identity card says she is male.
“They asked me, ‘Can you take a new photo - can you tie up your hair and wear a tie to make yourself look like a man?’ I said no,” said the 37-year-old, wearing rimless spectacles and simple stretch cotton sweater and trousers.
“If I tie my hair back and wear a tie, then it doesn’t belong to me. This belongs to me,” she said, gesturing at her body and holding up the contentious portrait of herself in a black and lavender graduation gown.
Nada refused to dress as a man or to petition to dress as a woman on grounds of gender identity disorder, as many Thai transgender students have done.
Instead, in a landmark case, she petitioned her school to issue her documents according to the gender identity she has chosen, on the basis of her rights rather than mental illness.
In December, her university approved her request, laying the groundwork for Thai transgender students to get official documents according to the gender they have chosen.
“When you want to fight, you have to know what documents or evidence you need to put together. I used all the lessons my law school taught me,” she said.
Edmund Settle, who oversees the U.N. Development Program’s Being LGBT in Asia initiative, said most people take the easiest route and use gender identity disorder - or gender dysphoria - to change documents.
“From a rights perspective, this is the first time I’ve heard a case like this. It’s definitely precedent setting,” Settle said.
Thailand is widely seen as a paradise for gay and transgender people, with transgender women commonly seen on TV, in beauty pageants and cabarets, and at hair salons and cosmetics counters.
Yet the country’s rigid bureaucratic rules are still adjusting to include transgender rights.
This is the case across Asia, where getting documents such as ID cards changed is extremely difficult for trans people, said Cianan Russell of the Bangkok-based Asia Pacific Transgender Network.
“The vast majority of trans people in this region are unable to change their documents at all, and those who are able are held to pretty severe standards,” said Russell, a transgender man from the United States.
The requirements can include being sterilized, having familial consent, not being married or divorced, not having children, or even a mental health diagnosis, he said.
“When trans people are unable to change documents, they’re unable to access education, housing, employment, healthcare - anything people need to live their daily lives is impeded by these documents,” Russell said.
Since Nada’s case was approved last month, about 10 more transgender students at her university have come forward with their own petitions.
In 2015, Thailand’s Gender Equality Act came into effect, outlawing gender-based discrimination and inclusive of lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT). Yet the country has some way to go in recognizing transgender rights, activists say.
For example, transgender women had been exempted from the military draft with “permanent mental disorder” noted in their records until 2012, when the wording was softened to “gender identity disorder” - but still implying psychological abnormality.
Thai universities have allowed transgender students to dress as women for official documents and graduation ceremonies on grounds of having gender identity disorder.
Nada refused this route on principle but needed her papers because she had started applications for the prestigious Chevening scholarship in Britain. Deadlines passed.
She considered caving to the university rules. Then one of her mentors - a prominent Thai human rights lawyer - persuaded her to carry on to set a precedent.
“You help trans people access justice,” Nada recalled her mentor telling her. “You are the person who helps them write complaints for the committee that considers gender-based discrimination. Will you give up on your own case?”
Wuttichai Chairinkam, University of Phayao vice president for student affairs and chairman of the committee that considered Nada’s petition, said her case was not about discrimination, but merely updating bureaucratic procedures.
“We do not discriminate against these students, and in fact, we praise them, but it just takes time to adjust and solve these issues,” Wuttichai said.
Nada’s case goes beyond the university, he said, and it is an issue that needs to be addressed across Thai society - from elementary schools to professional associations.
Many transgender people say they know before kindergarten that they identify as another gender. Some start taking hormones at the first signs of puberty to suppress male or female traits.
“If we allow this in high school, university - what about at elementary level?” Wuttichai said. “We might have to prepare all of society to solve this problem ... so it’s an enduring solution.”
When Nada was three, she asked her mother if she could wear a tutu. She kept her hair cropped short and dressed as a boy most of her childhood, then grew her hair out and began dressing as a woman after high school. She underwent sex reassignment surgery in 2008, when she was 28.
Her transition was not without struggle. She described being abandoned by her family, attempting suicide four times, and dropping out of a university in Bangkok in 2003.
At each exam at that university, monitors grilled her - in a room full of hundreds of students - because she looked like a woman but dressed in trousers as required because her identity card says she is male. The humiliating scrutiny proved too much.
But in 2013, she enrolled in an undergraduate law course at University of Phayao and completed her studies in August.
When she told school officials about her sexual reassignment surgery, they said her case would be straightforward. But Nada said she didn’t want surgery to be a precondition for students to dress according to their chosen gender for university photos and graduation.
“I said no, you can’t say that. Gender expression isn’t about genitals. Gender expression is about self-determination,” she said, adding that some transgender students cannot afford expensive surgical procedures.
In late December, her petition was granted. She received her documents in person from school officials last Friday.
“The day I got the documents in my hands, my hands were shaking,” she said. “You finally feel like you have justice in your hands. The documents look simple, but for me... it’s a victory, a victory for my life.”
Reporting by Alisa Tang @alisatang, editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org