2024 CAPI Student Fellowship recipient Chanathip (Esther) Suwannanon

Esther Suwannanon, INTD PhD Candidate, University of Victoria (2024)
Project title: 

Re-writing the History of Trans medicine in Thailand: Medical Archive Research (1951-1975)



This project will investigate the formation of trans medicine in Thailand from 1951 to 1975. This research derives from my PhD dissertation in which I work with older Thai kathoey1 to create oral histories. My thesis focuses on kathoey’s lived experiences in Thai society from 1957 to 1993, and it builds a theoretical and epistemological conversation with trans studies. In addition to the project’s contributions to social history and the collection of life stories of older kathoey, it will focus on how Western sexological and medico-technological discourses circulated in Thai society, and how these impacted kathoey people’s sense of self and their gender-embodiments.

Since the mid-1990s, Thailand became a capital of gender-reassignment surgery (GRS) in both global and Southeast Asian contexts. Scholars have traditionally marked 1975 as the start of Thai doctors performing MtF GRS in Thailand2, and they have periodized the overall decade as when Thai surgeons began to refine GRS techniques in the country3. But this obscures the prior decades in which Thai doctors medically studied kathoey people, and it further overlooks the impact of related surgical experimentation of related-intersex surgeries in Thailand. Therefore, this project re-writes the history of sex-change surgery in Thailand. Through exploration of Thai medical archival records from 1951-1975, I will re-historicize GRS in Thailand and provide three historiographic interventions: (1) replace the 1970s decade as a starting period for sex-change surgery in Thailand, (2) emphasize how Thai scientists studied kathoey from a Western medical perspective, and how these Thai medical scientists attempted to embed this paradigm in Thai society, (3) demonstrate how trans surgery in Thailand has evolved from the intersex-related surgical practices through post-World War Two American influence. By doing so, this research will enable scholars to better understand how Western sexological knowledge and transition-related surgeries circulate(d) within Thai society, and in turn how kathoey and wider Thai society negotiated these Western inventions.

1 Currently, Kathoey or กะเทยin Thai generally refers to Transgender/Transsexual women, or sometimes this term refers to an effeminate gay man.

2 Prayuth Chokrungvaranont, Gennaro Selvaggi, Sirachai Jindarak, Apichai Angspatt, Pornthep Pungrasmi, Poonpismai Suwajo, and Preecha Tiewtranon, “The Development of Sex Reassignment Surgery in Thailand: A Social Perspective,” The Scientific World 2014, (2014): 4; Burin Wangjiraniran, Gennaro Selvaggi, Prayuth Chokrungvaranont, Sirachai Jindarak, Sutin Khobunsongserm, and Preecha Tiewtranon. “Male-to-Female Vaginoplasty: Preecha’s Surgical Technique,” Journal of plastic surgery and hand surgery 49, no. 3 (2015): 159.

3 Aren Z. Aizura, “Feminine Transformations: Gender Reassignment Surgical Tourism in Thailand,” Medical Anthropology 29, no. 4 (2010): 429.

Proposed Activities

To develop this project, the CAPI fellowship will greatly contribute to my archival research trip in Thailand between June and August 2024. I will collect medical archives to use as my primary sources mainly from National Archives of Public Health and National Library in Bangkok. In addition to the archival research activities in Thailand, I plan to present this paper at the 2nd International Trans Studies Conference in Chicago in September 2024.