Their love knows no gender

BANGKOK - Boy meets girl. They fall in love and get married.

The next step? Kids, naturally. It's just a matter of time, most would agree. But for this Thai couple, life is not so straightforward.

They are transgenders.

One is a man bent on becoming a woman, and the other is a woman who wants to become a man. And their dream is to have a child while it is still physically possible.

"Love can happen to anyone," Mr Sittichai "Pond" Suafug tells The New Paper on Sunday from Bangkok, through an interpreter, "even though we may not be regarded as 'normal'.

"Every gender can love and be loved as well as live together in (Bangkok).

"Who in the world would believe that a tomboy would fall in love with a ladyboy?"

Their unusual love story, reported in The Bangkok Post on Nov 2, has captured the attention of the Thai public. A short video clip on the newspaper's website has garnered 11,500 views as of yesterday.

What makes their situation more intriguing - and controversial - is their determination to have a child.

Says Mr Suafug, 23, who intends to get a full-time job after completing university: "We want to start a family soon via artificial insemination. But we would have to seek medical consultation as well as counselling."

He would not elaborate why the couple would require medical help to conceive.

Only with the "child issue" resolved would Mr Suafug and his lover Benhamaporn "Ben" Rotjutakul, consider going for their sex change operations.

Mr Suafug, who refers to himself as "phuying praphet song" (a woman of the second kind) rather than the more degrading "khatoey" (ladyboy or transgender male), first met his lover five years ago while playing online games.

Neither of them knew of the other's sexual orientation, says Mr Suafug, who has long silky curls.

For three months, they chatted as friends without exchanging photographs or making a phone call.

They learnt of each others' sexuality only on their first meeting. And it seemed a "perfect match".

Says Ms Rotjutakul, 25, in Thai: "When we first met, we couldn't look each other in the eye. I could accept Pond but I was worried that she would feel bad (about being in a relationship with me).

"But I felt better after I met (Mr Suafug)."

They soon became a couple. The following year, they enrolled in an accountancy course at Dhurakij Pundit University in the Thai capital.

They're still classmates, now in their fourth year. During school holidays, they support themselves by working part-time. They've been living together in a rented house in Bangkok.

Their world is a tiny room, smaller than an average HDB room, decorated with all things pink and their favourite cuddly Doraemon dolls.

It doesn't matter that the plywood ceiling is coming apart. They've decorated the faded wooden door outside their room with their palm prints.

No matter, too, that at least two dogs and two cats share their cramped space.

For Mr Suafug and Ms Rotjutakul, love is eternal, immortalised by the many sepia-toned photos of the couple posing cheek-to-cheek.

Says Ms Rotjutakul, whose spiky hair makes her seem slightly taller than her lover: "It's hard for a transgender like Pond to find someone who is sincere because they don't think about getting married.

"I wanted her to know that I truly love her."

So she made the ultimate gesture of love by asking for Mr Suafug's hand in marriage.

They registered the marriage on Valentine's Day this year at a local district office.

Their parents were kept in the dark.

Says Mr Suafug with a laugh: "Of course the officials were shocked. It's the first time they've encountered such a union."

In the eyes of Thai law, the couple's marriage is legal and binding - a union between man, Mr Suafug, and woman, Ms Rotjutakul.

In the couple's eyes though, Ms Rotjutakul is the husband and Mr Suafug, the wife.

Ms Rotjutakul has opted not to change her status to "Mrs" in the marriage certificate which the couple proudly showed The Bangkok Post.

Yet it seems that Mr Suafug still wears the pants at home.

During the interview, he barks endearingly at Ms Rotjutakul, asking her the proper spelling of their university's name in English. She shouts back, asking for pen and paper.

'Others like us'

'Others like us'

Their parents, who got to know about the marriage only from Thai media reports, have accepted their relationship.

A customary wedding is next on the agenda.

And after that, children.

But would the children be confused about their parents' sexual identities?

Says Ms Rotjutakul: "We will tell them the truth even if it hurts.

"Our children will address me as 'Pa' (father) and Pond as 'Mae' (mother)."

Adds Ms Rotjutakul, who says she has Chinese blood in her heritage: "We will educate them about our situation and how our relationship came about."

After their marriage became public knowledge, others in a similar situation contacted the couple.

Mr Suafug says: "It shows that there are others just like us, but they don't dare to come out just yet.

"We want to let them know that if you love one another and not hurt others, society will accept you."

Still ostracised by Thai society

Still ostracised by Thai society

They want to be accepted.

To Thai married couple Sittichai "Pond" Suafug and Benhamaporn "Ben" Rotjutakul, love is blind. But that doesn't mean others see them the same way.

The jeering and scornful stares that greet the couple whenever they are spotted holding hands or hugging in public, suggests that some are less tolerant of transgenders, even in a generally tolerant city like Bangkok.

It's hard to hide their sexuality, even when MsRotjutakul walks with a forced swagger.

Says Mr Suafug: "Initially, we faced difficulty as people had never seen a tomboy and ladyboy together. They would shout, 'Hey, that's the transgender couple'.

"It's hard but we have to ignore them. We don't think we are strange."

After being together for five years, people who know the couple have slowly come to terms with their relationship.

Still, there's a long way to go.

Same-sex marriage not recognised

Same-sex marriage not recognised

Both Mr Suafug and Ms Rotjutakul do not lead the popularly perceived lifestyles of sexually permissive Thai transgenders.

They're private people, their lives illuminated only by a twist of fate.

Says Ms Rotjutakul: "Love is beautiful. Our sexuality is just different, that's all.

"Even though Thai society still isn't open to this issue (of transgenders), we will try to move on with our lives as best as we can."

While their marriage is rare, there have been a number of cases where transgender couples (of the same sex) go through the customary marriage ceremony but not the registration at the district office, says Thai lawyer Kert Stavorn.

He explains that Thai law does not recognise same-sex marriages.

It also has no concept of "civil union" or "de facto relationship" as is known in other parts of the world where partners can have their relationship recognised.

Says Mr Stavorn, a partner at Siam Legal: "But in the case of Pond and Ben, they are unique in the sense that they are both transgenders.

"I don't really see any legal implications when the couple decide to have children or have gender reassignment.

"But should the couple decide to call it a day and apply for divorce, a gender reassignment would certainly fall into the category whereby divorce would be granted."

My son a ladyboy? No way

My son a ladyboy? No way

Young, educated Thais seem to still have conservative views towards transgenders.

A study, which was carried out in Thailand, showed about half (51 per cent) of the 216 university students polled believed that transgenders are "men with something wrong with their minds" or are "unnatural" (50 per cent) said Associate Professor Sam Winter of the University of Hong Kong.

It also showed 49 per cent of them would not accept their sons becoming "ladyboys".

Prof Winter had presented his findings at the 10th International Conference of Thai Studies in Bangkok in 2008.

His research showed transgenders are disadvantaged at work, in freedom of expression, marriage and family.

Prof Winter had said in his presentation: "Gays and lesbians in Thailand often choose, and are able, to keeping their sexuality a relatively private affair. And Thai society respects that sort of discretion.

zaihan@sph.com.sg


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