THE millions of Thai television viewers could not see the many scars beneath Miss Sahhara’s shimmering evening gown. ”I was very feminine when I was growing up and often got harassed and beaten up badly,” says Miss Sahhara, a self-identified woman representing Nigeria in the Miss International Queen pageant, the world’s largest and most watched transgender contest held each year in the Thai resort city of Pattaya.
”The terrible memories flood back when I look at the scars all over my body,” she says. Miss Sahhara says that in Nigeria, a strict Christian and Muslim country, there is little tolerance for people born male who like her want to live as a woman.
”We are called a crude name that translates loosely into faggot and are forced to live underground,” she says
Tall, slim and with large breasts, Miss Sahhara migrated seven years ago to London where she has completed two university degrees and works as a part-time entertainer. ”I am living my life openly as a woman. I am very happy … I decided to travel to Thailand to enter this competition not to win but to show suppressed transgender people in Nigeria that they too can make their dreams come true.”
Predominantly Buddhist Thailand displays a more tolerant attitude than many countries towards people who are born physically male but, as the Thai saying goes, ”have a female heart”. However, prejudice exists.
Trangendered people won a significant legal victory recently when a Thai court ordered the military to stop classifying transgender people known as kathoeys, or ”ladyboys”, as ”having a permanent mental disorder”.
A Defence spokesman, Thanatip Sawangsaeng, said the military will comply and has proposed the new phrasing: ”current sexual status does not match that of birth.”
Kathoeys, regarded as a male-to-female transgender person or an effeminate gay male, are a visible part of Thai society, working in many businesses and government offices or studying in schools and universities. They often take female hormones and have cosmetic surgery to achieve their ultra-feminine look.
Sirapassorn Attyhayakorn, the 21-year-old Miss Thailand entrant who beat 22 other contestants and was crowned Miss International Queen 2011 at the weekend, says she will spend the US$10,000 in prizemoney furthering her study in arts at Bangkok’s Ramkhamhaeng University.
Many other kathoeys work in Thailand’s sex industry.
Only a few kilometres from the pageant venue, dozens of kathoey prostitutes can be seen touting for business each night in Pattaya’s vast red-light district.
The pageant director, Alisa Phanthusak, from Tiffany’s, a company which puts on a transvestite show in Pattaya that attracts 2000 tourists daily, says the contest’s main objective is to promote equal rights for transgender people in countries where they are discriminated against.
The pageant this year also raised money for victims of Thailand’s devastating floods. ”We receive hundreds of applications from transgender people to enter the pageant,” Alisa says. ”They don’t have to be pretty … but they must be able to portray a good image and be a good representative of transgender people in their own country.”
Yuni Carey, 30, representing Cuba in the contest, says discrimination against transgender Cubans was lifted in 2009 after Fidel Castro left office.
Cuba is now one of the few countries where sex change operations are free under a national health scheme.
”I came all this way to show Cubans that transgender people have beauty, elegance and intelligence and … deserve their place in the human race like everyone else,” she says.
Miss Sahhara, which is Miss Nigeria’s stage name, says she is surprised how well transgender people are acknowledged and accepted as real people in Thai culture.
She says she personally dislikes labels such as transgender, transvestite or transsexual. ”I am a woman. That’s it,” she says.
Asked whether she has had a sex change operation, Miss Sahhara laughs and hides her face in her hands.
”Well, that’s a very personal question, isn’t it?,” she says.
Miss Sahhara was named Miss International Queen runner-up in front of a nationwide television audience and a theatre packed with kathoeys, winning $US2000 and a range of beauty products. ”Oh my goodness, my own dream really has come true,” she said on stage, fighting back tears.