11 July 2024

“I don’t really want people to focus on who’s a man or a woman [when it comes to career opportunities]. We’re just human beings and we are capable of pursuing any career. I want people to focus on competence more than gender.”

Meet Dr. Nonney Sireerattawong, who made headlines over 10 years ago for being a transgender doctor competing in Miss Tiffany Universe 2011, breaking outdated stereotypes that transgender women could only be entertainers or models.

Currently, she owns a beauty clinic in Bangkok’s Asoke area. As we stepped inside, newspaper clippings of herself were clearly displayed on the wall, implying that she is proud of her journey, which has inspired people and raised awareness about transgender women’s capabilities beyond their gender.

-Dealing with expectations-

Born and raised in Phetchabun, Nonney’s reason for becoming a doctor was simple; to prove to her family that she is capable of pursuing a respectful career, regardless of her chosen gender.

“Back then, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I loved helping people,” she says, adding that she only started to think about her career aspirations after realising that she had done really well at school.

“People would often say that those who got good grades would become doctors, so I became determined to be a doctor. That was how my family started to accept me a lot more, because, in the old days, people would be proud if their son became a doctor. So, I studied really hard and passed the exams,” Nonney explains.

Her strong determination got her enrolled at a prestigious university, and she eventually became a doctor at Khao Kho Hospital.

Like many others, Dr. Nonney has dealt with pressure from within her family. She explains that her father owns a car repair business. Therefore, he expected her, as the eldest son, to take over the business when she graduated. Because of this, Dr. Nonney admits that her participation in Miss Tiffany shocked her father.

“I knew that my dad would be disappointed, because there would be no one in the family taking over his business but, to be honest, car repair wasn’t my thing,” she explains, adding that it took her father quite some time to accept her for who she is.

“Back when I participated in the Miss Tiffany competition and became a big news story, my dad said ‘don’t wear a skirt if you come back home’.” In fact, he didn’t say this to Dr. Nonney directly, but asked his wife to pass on the message.

Thais living up-country know the people in their neighbourhoods very well, and it is normal for them to engage in conversations about other families, as well as to brag about the successes of their own sons and daughters. Dr. Nonney admits that this social attitude adds to the pressure, especially as people, in those days, were not open-minded about gender fluidity.

“Those who have LGBTQ children would not be accepted and might be teased,” she explains, adding “I don’t know if my parents have dealt with people or neighbours gossiping about me before.”

The pressure pushed her to move away from her hometown, which allowed her more freedom. Despite that, Dr. Nonney felt that she needed to accomplish something in life, to prove to others that she can be successful, despite not fitting social norms.

“If I went back home without succeeding in anything, things would have got worse. That became my motivation to study really hard and pursue a career that would make my parents proud of me, including myself,” Nonney explains.

“Expressway” to success

Although the acceptance and treatment of LGBTQ people has improved, prejudice persists, especially when it comes to career opportunities. For this reason, some people still believe that it is impossible for transgender people to become doctors. Dr. Nonney feels that such bias exists, as there are not many examples of transgender people in respectful careers for people to look up to.

“If we have to analyse why people in those days believed that transgender people could not pursue certain careers, it was because we had never seen them before. So, that was why people thought that it was impossible for transgender people to pursue respectful careers. Nonetheless, I believe that there’s always the first step to everything, because everyone is competent,” Dr. Nonney explains.

Nevertheless, she feels that people are placing less emphasis on gender identities when it comes to pursuing their dream jobs. Dr. Nonney recalls a moment, way before she got a sex change, when she decided to dress as a woman when she went to the hospital. She says the feedback from her patients was very positive, and that surprised her.

“At first, I was quite scared, because there weren’t many doctors who came out as effeminate back then,” she says. “There was one day, during the weekend, when I dressed up as a woman because I was about to meet up with my friends after work. It turned out that many of the patients were quite happy to see me that way, even though they were used to seeing me dressing like a man. It maybe because I’m a friendly person and people were happy to be around me. So, I felt that no one had issues with my gender.”

In a way, she describes her occupation as an “expressway” for transgender women, like herself, to be respected in Thai society. At the same time, she also notices that there are many more Thai doctors who are coming out as LGBTQ.

“I personally believe that if we do well, people will respect us, and I don’t want people to think negatively, that you can’t do it, because it will prevent you from achieving your dreams. It all depends on us and how we push ourselves to succeed… As long as we have the determination, people will give us the opportunity,” says Dr. Nonney.

Throughout the conversation, we noticed that Dr. Nonney remained positive, even when she had to reflect on her journey full of ups and downs. While knowing that many Thai LGBTQ people still have to battle against stereotype and prejudice, the transgender doctor chooses to focus only on the bright side.

“If we focused on the negative energy, we would feel emotionally drained or stressed out. I would rather focus on people who are supportive, so that I have the motivation to do better,” Dr. Nonney explains.

Everyone is competent

As to whether she has found success as a transgender doctor, Dr. Nonney admits that there are still many other things that she wants to achieve. One of her bigger dreams is to expand her business. Although Dr. Nonney has her own beauty clinic in the Asoke area, and another in her hometown, she plans to open a new branch in Bangkok’s Ari area. Regardless, she says she is proud of her achievements along the way.

“I would say that I am proud that I have reached this point in my life. I can make a living, I can support my family and contribute to society,” she said.

As to what she would like to say to other LGBTQ individuals, the transgender doctor says that she truly believes in everyone’s potential and that they should continue to believe in themselves in order to achieve their dreams.

“Everyone is competent and everyone is capable in their own way. Before reaching this point in my life, I have been through encouraging and discouraging times. We cannot stop people discouraging us, but we can focus on who has been supporting us along the way. Work towards your dream and do your best.”

By Nad Bunnag, Thai PBS World