Tun, Aod and Bank* have their sights set on careers as a fashion designer, model and marketing professional, respectively. The 13-year-olds are best friends who share a bond that goes beyond their complementary career goals – all three have faced the challenges of going through their early teen years with gender identities and expressions that differ from what is expected of them by society.
Given this and their work ambitions, they were all grins when they had the chance to have a sit-down chat with transgender activist and international model Sarina Thai after she spoke to their seventh grade class.
Now was their opportunity to ask the burning questions:
“How’d you get to be so tall?”
“Do you have Facebook?”
“How can I get to be a success in modelling?”
There were smiles and laughs all around; there was also gratitude from the three of them for Sarina’s visit and the efforts of Path2Health, the Thai NGO that had arranged both the model’s appearance and conducted a training session on bullying that targets those that identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or intersex (LGBTI) at Bangkok’s Pibool Uppathum School.
"It makes me feel good that [Sarina] is here,” Tun said. “My classmates know who I am but they don’t call me names any more. It’s good to have activities like this – they work.”
Sarina’s visit and the training were part of a larger school anti-bullying and violence reduction project being implemented by Path2Health Foundation and Mplus and supported by Plan International (Thailand) and UNESCO. Within this three-year project, Path2Health has been working with six schools in Bangkok, including Pibool Uppathum, to conduct teacher training and establish working groups to adopt and apply bullying and violence reduction curriculum and activities in the schools.
The phase underway on the day of Sarina’s recent visit involved teaching youth about the impact of bullying and how to respond when they see it occurring.
Path2Health’s passionate trainers upturned the often criticized rote style of instruction and instead engaged in dynamic discussions with the students to get their opinions on, and reactions to, issues of gender identity and bullying.
Role playing was used to draw students into scenarios that some LGBTI students face every day. Tun, Aod and Bank, for example, all said that in the past teasing would often take the form of unwelcome physical contact – grabbing, hugging, and kissing in apparent attempts to embarrass them. This scenario was played out in the classroom by two of their peers. The discomfort of the student being grabbed from behind into a hug that was not reciprocated was clear to all.
Sarina stressed to both the students in the classes she spoke to as well as the three youngsters who stayed for a chat afterward that studying should be their primary focus now and that at their age what they need is support while they figure things out.
“You're so young and you're still finding yourselves,” she told the three. “Take your time, focus on your studies now and don't rush to make up your mind about who you want to be.”
Sarina also introduced the #PurpleMySchool Campaign, which is supported by UNDP and UNESCO through the Being LGBTI in Asia initiative and is aimed at making schools safer for LGBTI youth. While the campaign originated online, its aims extend far beyond the digital world – ultimately, it’s about creating safe spaces within schools and nurturing more accepting mindsets among students and educators alike.
The welcome that Sarina and Path received by students, teachers and school administrators alike gave Purple My School organizers cause for optimism, said Hunter Gray, with UNESCO Bangkok’s HIV Prevention and Health Promotion (HP2) Unit.
“This campaign is about changing the cultures of schools from ones where LGBTI students face exclusion and bullying to more inclusive and supportive environments. That is no small task and requires everyone’s investment –students, teachers, school leadership, and parents,” Mr Gray said. “Today, we’ve been very encouraged to hear stories from teachers who have intervened on behalf of bullied LGBTI students, school leaders who acknowledge the need for and benefits of programs such as this and, most importantly, the students themselves who see the impact in their everyday lives.”
Voice TV and Prism Magazine joined the school visit to interview Sarina, UNESCO, Plan and Path2Health representatives, teachers, school leadership as well as students to get their reflections on the issue of bullying on the basis of SOGIE and to learn more about the #PurpleMySchool Campaign.
Sarina’s high profile helped raise awareness around the campaign and also offered Tun, Aod and Bank proof of what can be accomplished even when one does not fall within typical constructions of gender identity.
“I think [Purple My School] is a very good idea,” Sarina said. “I'm so lucky I have the opportunity to be myself and do what I want to do, but I realize that many other people still lack the support.”
*All names have been changed to respect the privacy of these individuals.
Respect for All: Promoting Safe and Gender-responsive Schools in Thailand is a three-year anti-bullying and violence reduction project funded by the Swedish National Office of Plan International and the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science through UNESCO.
Watch Voice TV’s report, “Making Safe Spaces for LGBTI Students”: http://news.voicetv.co.th/lgbt/257790.html