In the United States, a person's 21st birthday is often a cause for celebration. In Thailand, however, it's a cause for concern for males because of the country's requirement for men to enter a lottery system for military service. Upon turning 21, anyone born male must either volunteer to serve or enter a lottery, where he has an equal chance of either being released from service or conscripted for two years.
If you noticed the phrase "born male," there's a reason for it: The law also applies to transgender people, unless they can prove they are transitioning to becoming female.
Unfortunately for these transitioning women, that often means doing so in person because Thai law forbids them from changing the sex on their identification. This requires several young Thais who are female in every way but their birth gender to have to stand in line with men for the conscription lottery upon turning 21.
Thai law does allow for a few exemptions from military service, including physical and mental incapabilities to serve. The good news for transgendered Thais is that being transgendered and transitioning to female is recognized as an exemption, and those who prove they are becoming female are to be released from service.
The bad news is that up until recent years, being transgendered was classified as a permanent mental disorder, which made it very difficult for these women to find a job when they returned to their lives. In recent years, Thai authorities have been told to treat transgendered women as women, but that doesn't mean they're necessarily treated well.
One such example is how they get an exemption. Because of the law's requirements, young Thai transgenders must carry documentation that states they are transitioning to becoming female. Without that documentation, it's likely that the female will have to face the lottery and put her future to chance.
Even when the documentation is accepted, and the person is unquestionably female, things almost always get worse for the young transgender after her documentation is confirmed. A doctor takes her to a private room and subjects her to a gender test by checking to see if she has breasts or has undergone gender reassignment. If she has, she's released from her service. Amazingly, that's a best-case outcome.
If she hasn't, that's when things can take a turn for the worse. The transgendered female can be forced to return to the lottery for up to two years to monitor her progress at transitioning into a woman. That can be devastating for women who haven't completed their transition yet because of job or family reasons.
The one option a transgendered female has is little better than the gender testing, as she must have an army hospital certification that she has "gender identity disorder." Although the label is not harmful to job prospects like the permanent mental disorder was, it is no less humiliating for these women to have to have someone else write that they have a disorder rather than they simply wish to be who they are on the inside.
Because of the current law and the process, transgendered Thai females find themselves terrified at the thought of facing the conscription lottery and having to prove that they are the gender they have always been inside. Whether they face a humiliating judgment of their bodies, concerns of being in line with men, a demeaning label as having a disorder or the terror of being denied and conscripted, turning 21 is no reason to celebrate for a transgendered Thai female.