On the global stage, Thailand is often perceived as a bastion of transgender progressivism.
There are many visible examples of transgender women in Thai pop culture, including Thai film and television as well as the Miss Tiffany’s Universe and Miss International Queen transgender beauty pageants. In 2019, Tanwarin Sukkhapisit became the first openly transgender member of Parliament. Thailand is also a leading destination for sex reassignment surgery due to a number of reasons, which include the relative openness, tolerance, and inclusiveness that characterizes Thai society.
To shine a light on the experience of LGBTQ+ individuals in other spheres of Thai society, we spoke with Siratan “Dew” Sititanyawat, a transgender diplomat in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).
In this interview, we follow her career to learn what it’s really like to be a transgender woman in perhaps the most conservative sphere of Thai society: its government.
Earlier career experiences
Dew mentioned that before joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she was a student intern at a government agency and dressed in her female student uniform. However, she was chided for violating regulations and asked to dress according to her assigned gender. This made her uncomfortable because such regulations were not clear on this matter.
However, the next day, the internship supervisor spoke with her and explained that she was free to dress according to her gender identity because there were no specific regulations stating otherwise. The supervisor further speculated that the staff who had rebuked her might have done so out of fear of her superiors. Nevertheless, this obstacle did not deter Dew from pursuing work in the government sector.
The hiring process
Dew revealed that before passing the entrance exam to become a diplomat, she considered cutting her hair short to appear more masculine. She mused that while she was stressing out, other applicants were preparing for the interview without worrying about the gender of their appearance. Dew decided that she shouldn’t have to pretend to be someone she’s not and chose to dress according to her gender identity for the interview.
In the interview room, she was asked, “Is Thailand ready for LGBTQ+ diplomats?”
“We’re ready,” she replied, asserting that Thailand is a diverse country with a significant LGBTQ+ community, and if a country’s diplomat represents its people, having a transgender diplomat would not be unusual.
“Moreover, Thailand having openly LGBTQ+ diplomats can lend greater weight to its efforts to advance matters related to diversity and gender equality,” she said. Dew believes that her answer was part of what helped her pass the selection process and secure a position as a practicing diplomat.
Expectations vs. reality
At first, the reality of working at the MFA was slightly different from her expectations. There was uncertainty on both sides about how best to proceed in the most appropriate way, and at the start of her tenure, she dressed according to her assigned gender to avoid any potential conflicts.
Later, however, the Ministry’s HR office informed her that she needn’t conform to her assigned gender but simply respect the context of the time and place, freeing her to dress according to her gender identity.
Dew said that for civil servants in the past (as well as certain places in the present), obstacles related to dress code and self-expression weren’t unique to transgender individuals and were experienced by both cisgender men and women. For example, some considered it inappropriate for women to wear trousers to work, for men to wear pink, or to dye one’s hair in certain colors.
Nevertheless, Dew feels that these restrictions are softening and sees continued progress as Thai society becomes more inclusive and respectful of diversity.
Working as a diplomat
Currently, Dew serves in the MFA’s Policy and Planning Bureau and is responsible for coordinating public relations and administrative work for the MFA’s human rights agenda, including delivering humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, Sudan, and Myanmar. She has also been involved in significant international conferences held in Thailand in the past year, including the 2022 APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting.
One crucial aspect of working as a diplomat is communication. When communicating with counterparts, it’s necessary to use certain pronouns. For Dew, she often recommends that her dialogue partners refer to her by her name or use female pronouns (she/her) when communicating with foreigners.
However, Dew also emphasized that she doesn’t feel uncomfortable when being referred to with male pronouns (he/him) because she is confident in her identity and is not concerned with how others define her.
When asked about her involvement with different projects at the ministry, Dew said she was most impressed by Cobra Gold, a joint military exercise involving more than 7,000 military personnel from 30 countries held annually in Thailand. As a transgender individual, she’d never expected to participate alongside the soldiers in a three-day training program for humanitarian affairs. She distinctly remembered that all the male soldiers showed her great respect throughout the training period.
Accepting her identity as “enough”
When asked if she’d like to say anything to her friends in the LGBTQ+ community, Dew recalls an oft-repeated saying whenever someone comes out: “You can be whatever you want to be; as long as you’re a good person, that’s enough.”
Dew hopes that everyone will reflect on this expression and ask themselves if LGBTQ+ individuals need to prove themselves by doing good deeds, getting high grades, or working harder than cisgender people. She believes that everyone, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation, should be accepted and respected for who they are.
She asserts that in fact, “It’s enough to be yourself” would be more appropriate because it emphasizes self-respect and mutual respect as the basis for one’s rights and responsibilities. This is what has allowed Dew to become a successful diplomat and follow her dreams.
Translated and adapted by Benjamin Rujopakarn from the original article, “นักการทูตกับความหลากหลาย: ดิว-ศิรธันย์ สิทธิธัญวัฒน์ นักการทูตข้ามเพศ” by Ekawit Sorhasun.