BANGKOK, Thailand – It has been a while since Ao recognized herself in the mirror. Her voice is still gentle and light, but her skin has become tougher; her muscles bigger and facial hair thicker.
“Everything is changing. I used to have a very feminine figure and long, flowing hair. It is all very scary,” said the 28-year-old, who is serving an eight-year prison sentence for smuggling 24 kilos of marijuana.
Like many transgender women, Ao had been taking hormones so that her physical appearance would better match her gender identity. In prison, however, such medications are not allowed.
“Changing takes a long time,” Ao said. “I started (taking) hormones when I was 13 years old. My family was always very supportive of me. But now I am being transformed back into someone I have not been for a very long time.”
Denial of access to medication is only one of the challenges transgender prisoners face, not just in Thailand but in prison systems worldwide. Transgender inmates, especially women, are more likely to be victimized by other inmates and by prison guards than other groups, global research suggests – including in the United States.
The heart of this issue is the basic problem of housing LGBT inmates within the strictly binary gender partition of prisons. Because there is no option in Thailand for people to legally change the gender assigned to them at birth, transgender women such as Ao are still men in the eyes of the corrections system and therefore incarcerated with men.
“You worry a lot about how to fit in with the other prisoners,” said Ao’s friend Thong, 34, also a transgender woman, who is serving time for car theft. (The family names of both are being withheld out of consideration for their relatives.) “But this is my second time in prison, so it is somewhat easier this time.”
Thirty trans women are here at Minburi prison just outside central Bangkok. Across the country, an estimated 1,200 transgender prisoners identify as women. In an attempt to better accommodate them and address some of the problems LGBT people face in prison, the Thai Department of Corrections is conducting a pilot project at Minburi prison. A special wing that will have the capacity to house 150 prisoners has been renovated and painted pink.
“Anyone, including people in other prisons, can apply to be relocated to this wing,” said Pongchai Chaiyapong, a corrections officer at Minburi. “They will then go through a physical and psychological evaluation where we can assess if that person is suited to live here.”
Pongchai struggled to explain the need for separate detention without acknowledging problems with abuse in the current system.
“This new wing is necessary to protect the rights of these prisoners,” he said, “although I have been working here for seven years and (have) never seen any problems between them and the rest of the prison population.”
Thai LGBT organizations have been in talks with the Department of Corrections since the conception of this project. Wannapong Yodmuang at the Rainbow Sky Association of Thailand said she is glad to see the government take an interest in trans issues.
“These problems have been going on for a long time. We have heard so many stories of violence and rape, especially from trans women who have undergone genital corrective surgery but are still incarcerated with male prisoners,” she said.
Jetsada “Note” Taesombat, the head of the Thai Transgender Alliance, hopes that the project at Minburi will lead to a broader debate about how transgender people are treated in Thailand.
“We, as transgender, cannot marry or enter into civil unions. We run into problems everywhere in society where there are binary gender divisions: at school, in hospitals and so on. This is about more than just prisons,” she said.
The Thai activists recognize there can be problems associated with separate detention, too. Turkey’s planned “pink prison” was widely criticized for being too remote, making it harder for inmates to stay in touch with their families or travel back and forth to court. Having LGBT prisons that are publicly known may also lead to involuntary outing, and stigma for families.
Ao and Thong, however, said they are eager to be relocated to the new LGBT wing at Minburi. They have asked the prison administration if they will have access to hormones in the new segregated unit, but corrections officer Pongchai said prison authorities are still “looking into it.”
Ao unfolded a creased photo of what she used to look like before prison. She lost her long hair on day one, forced to shave her head just like the other prisoners. Since then, her cheeks have gotten bonier and her breasts smaller.
“My appearance is deteriorating,” she said. “It feels horrible. You lose all your confidence. And it is frightening not to know what I will look like when I get out of here.”
Thong flexed her biceps, showing that her muscles are coming back. On her upper lip, a stubble of dark, coarse hair has returned.
“I feel embarrassed,” Thong said. “It is such a sad loss of time, of my life.”