BUENOS AIRES - The July winter vacation was coming to a close and José’s decision was maturing: he would simply tear down what remained of the “closet” he'd slowly been coming out of. So on July 30, José arrived at the elementary school that he works at in Buenos Aires as "Melisa," and became the city's first ever transgender teacher.
Weeks earlier he had met with school administrators to inform them of his decision: “I have an obligation to be coherent with my deepest sentiments that are leading me to take this step in my life, a life that will never be lived to the fullest if I don’t show the essence of my own being. And my being is profoundly feminine.”
Why now? Melisa feels that it is time to be herself in the workplace. Also, on May 9, the Senate passed a law on gender identity that allows individuals to adapt their national ID documents and birth certificates based on a gender choice.
Melisa has been a teacher for the past 22 years, specializing in optional chess workshops. Watch footage and interview of Melisa here She teaches 12 different classes in different public schools around the city, with students from second to fifth grade.
Her students have always known her as José; now she is Melisa. Thin, very tall and with dazzling finger nails, she is proud of the acceptance she got from her daughters (aged 21 and 16) and the rest of her family, who confirmed their own suspicions after seeing Melisa dressed as a woman in photos that Melisa had decided to show them.
But that was only the beginning of the process. What would the parents of her students say?
Enrique Samar, principle at one of the schools Melisa teaches at, said that the majority have accepted the decision. Only one mother decided to pull her son from the chess workshop.
Haydeé Torinchik, a family psychologist, says that the school erred by leaving communication with the children essentially up to the parents. “You have to work from their heads, find out what they know and what they imagine, and answer questions in an adult way based on that," Torinchik said. "Melisa is not hurting anyone, she is saying the truth, and the truth is respect.”
Laying groundwork with long nails
According to Melisa, the change was not a radical departure, because she was already preparing the terrain: she started to wear her nails long and wear jewelry, plucked her eyebrows and started training her voice.
“Teacher, men don’t wear their nails long,” students told her during the transition. Some of the changes appear to have been completely accepted, but seeing her in heels and a skirt still provokes surprise. “You’re pretty, teacher!” and “Why did you change now and not earlier?” were some of the comments.
Sergio Provenzano, director of studies in Sex Education and Gender Studies of the University of Buenos Aires, said that children understand better than adults, because they are able to look at the changes without prejudices.
Melisa openly said that she has more than 200 skirts at home, and that you just don’t see transsexuals of her age walking around the city. In what seems to have been an intimate conversation, Soledad Acuña, the under-secretary of diversity in school told her: “You are the first out of 50,000 teachers. Somebody had to open this door, and it was up to you.”
Melisa grew up in a a very repressed environment, and never felt totally happy. “Eight years ago I accepted myself for what I am: a person with masculine genitals who feels like a woman. And at last I could sleep peacefully,” she said.
In the next couple of days she will arrange to get a new national ID card. For some people she is still José, for others she is Melisa -- ending up with an androgynous image that she doesn’t really connect with.
“She should be respected," says Provenzano, the Gender Studies department director. "According to the current law, a person has the right to choose his or her own sexuality and gender. And to the extent that something is legitimate, it is incontrovertible.”
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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