Male and trans* sex workers self-organise against stigma, discrimination and HIV in Thailand

Male and trans* sex workers self-organise against stigma, discrimination and HIV in Thailand

HIV Australia | Vol. 11 No. 4 | November 2013

By Khun Surang Janyam and Nicolette Burrows

Within the Asia-Pacific region, male and trans* sex workers face a disproportionately high level of stigma, violence, discrimination, homophobia and sex work-phobia from the broader society.

Male and trans* sex workers in many countries are actively excluded from their communities and are confronted with great difficulties when they attempt to access basic health care services, testing and treatment for HIV and sexually transmitted infections, educational and employment opportunities, and basic protections from a myriad of human rights violations.

Trans* and male sex workers in many Asia-Pacific nations also face heightened HIV risks due to the criminalisation of sex work, a lack of peer-driven services, police harassment (including the use of condoms as evidence in the identification and/or prosecution of sex workers) and, in some nations, the criminalisation and active persecution of gender and sexually diverse populations.


According to Global Action for Trans* Equality (GATE), trans* people includes those people who have a gender identity which is different to the gender assigned at birth and/or those people who feel they have to, prefer to or choose to – whether by clothing, accessories, cosmetics or body modification – present themselves differently to the expectations of the gender role assigned to them at birth.

This includes, among many others, transsexual and trans* people, transvestites, travesti, cross dressers, no gender and genderqueer people.

The term trans* should be seen as a placeholder for many identities, most of which are specific to local cultures and times in history, describing people who broaden and expand a binary understanding of gender.

Although Thailand is perceived to be a comparatively liberal nation within the Asia-Pacific for sex workers and gender and sexually diverse populations, male and trans* sex workers face high levels of stigma and discrimination for choosing to work in an industry that remains criminalised under Thai legislation, despite the highly visible sex industry services and venues that make a significant contribution to Thailand’s gross national product.

The funding of peer-led, community responses to HIV prevention, care and support – a strategy that has made a tangible impact on HIV transmission rates in evidenced-based research – must be a priority for male and trans* sex worker communities; however, many Thai community organisations are chronically underfunded and rely on international donor organisations to support their HIV programs.

Although Thailand has several community-based organisations that are specifically funded to provide HIV-prevention activities for men who have sex with men and the trans* community, SWING is the only peer-based organisation that is funded to work exclusively with male and trans* sex workers.

SWING uses a human rights framework to undertake health-focused advocacy and applies ‘best practice’ principles of community leadership in health promotion activities such as peer outreach and the hosting of two in-house voluntary counselling and testing clinics in Bangkok and Pattaya, which provide rapid testing and are run exclusively by peer staff trained in pre- and post-test counselling principles.

SWING World AIDS Day March

Through addressing the wide-ranging stigma and discrimination that affect sex workers in Thailand, SWING has developed a variety of innovative and creative strategies that specifically focus on building relationships with unlikely allies.

For example, SWING’s Police Cadet Training Program offers nine police cadets a three-week internship program designed to raise awareness of the issues affecting sex workers, including the impact of policing strategies on the sex industry, and the Pattaya Rights Protection Volunteers Project aims to foster a meaningful two-way working relationship, guided by human rights principles, between sex workers and the Pattaya Tourist Police.

Both projects aim to foster attitudinal change within individual police officers, with an expectation that these individuals will implement cultural change within their institutions.

Despite SWING and its allies continuing to advocate for the health, human and work rights of male and trans* sex workers, a number of cultural values and social phenomena persistently hinder the successful implementation of HIV prevention programs and the improvement of the social circumstances of male and trans* sex workers.

It is therefore necessary to change societal attitudes regarding sex work so that the sex work industry is recognised as a legitimate profession and sex workers are protected by occupational health and safety policies within their work places.

Furthermore, anti-discrimination policies must be introduced to protect the rights of sex workers, legislative reform must be implemented to ensure that sex workers can work in safe, noncriminalised environments, and, as sex workers, we need to be formally recognised as uniquely qualified, professional safer sex educators and as multifarious contributors to society.

SWING peer leaders conducting outreach to male sex workers using tablets.

Male and trans* sex workers in Thailand have been advocating over the past decade to gain access to the same range of health, human, educational and work rights that are accorded to other members of Thai society.

However, to achieve this goal, sex workers need the support of a wide range of actors, including local, national and international policymakers, health care providers, law enforcement officials, funding bodies, civil society and allies from other marginalised communities, and genuine will from our political leaders.

Evidence-based research informs us that many changes can occur if political will is present and that such changes can significantly improve the lives of male and trans* sex workers.

As sex workers, we are the experts in what affects our community at the grassroots level and we recognise that male and trans* sex workers should be leading the policy and legislative discussions that impact upon their lives.

We also recognise that donor funding for our projects must be sustained and that projects involving our community must be driven by the identified needs of our community.

Male and trans* sex workers are willing to collaborate with a wide range of social stakeholders to overcome the challenges of social inequality and to ensure that all communities within our society have access to health-based rights.

However, our societies need to overcome prejudices about our occupation and lifestyle choices, our experiences and expertise must be respected, and we need to participate in meaningful partnerships.

Khun Surang Janyam holds a master’s degree in education and is the co-founder and current director of SWING. She has been working as an advocate for sex worker rights since 1990 and in 2009 was awarded the National Thai Human Rights Defenders Award in recognition of her work with sex worker communities.

Nicolette Burrows has worked as a peer advocate within sex worker and harm reduction organisations for over twelve years. Nicolette’s vocational experience within community-based organisations includes frontline service provision, consumer advocacy, community development, and policy development and advocacy. Nicolette has worked with highly marginalised communities within the Asia-Pacific region since 2008.

Service Workers IN Group (SWING) Foundation is the leading peer-based sex worker organisation for male and trans* sex workers in Thailand. With a wide range of programs that are run across its three centres in Bangkok, Pattaya and Koh Samui, SWING has been internationally lauded for its innovative and creative approach to promoting and protecting sex workers’ health and human rights.