For teen boys who prefer to dress as girls at one rural high school in Thailand, taking a bathroom break no longer means choosing between "male" and "female" rooms. There's now a "transvestite toilet."
The Kampang School in northeastern Thailand conducted a survey last term that showed more than 200 of the school's 2,600 students considered themselves transgender, said school director Sitisak Sumontha.
So, when classes resumed in May, the school unveiled a unisex restroom designated by a unique sign - a human figure split in half - part man in blue and part woman in red. Below it are the words "Transvestite Toilet."
Three transgender students praised the new restroom as they plucked their eyebrows and applied face powder in front of the mirror outside the stalls.
"I'm so happy about this," Vichai Sangsakul, a teenager with a pixie hairdo pulled back with a pink barrette, told Thailand's PBS new channel on Tuesday. "It looks bad going to female restrooms. What would other people think?"
Most rural Thais are conservative in many ways, but the trailblazing toilet initiative at the school in northeastern Sisaket province reflects another aspect of Thai society: its tolerance of the country's very visible transgender community. The term describes a wide range of identities including cross-dressers, transvestites, transsexuals and those born with the physical characteristics of both sexes.
"These students want to be able to go to the restroom in peace without fear of being watched, laughed at or groped," said school director Sitisak Sumontha. Transgenders who opted to use female restrooms made some of the other students uncomfortable, and those who chose the men's room often were harassed, he said.
"They don't have problems with transvestites but going to the same private area, like a toilet, makes them uneasy," he said. "The transvestite kids may behave even more effeminately than the girls do, but their anatomy is still like that of a boy."
He said the concept reflected a growing need at Thai schools and universities.
Kampang is not Thailand's first educational institution to set up unisex washrooms, though Sitisak said he believed it was a first for a secondary school. A 1,500-student technical college in the northern province of Chiang Mai set up a "Pink Lotus Bathroom" for its 15 transvestite students in 2003.
Deputy Education Minister Boonlue Prasertsopar recently said the ministry plans to count the number of transgender university students.
He said he was not promoting transgender interests, "but if there are a lot of them in a university and it's a problem, we may have to consider building toilets and dormitories for them."
Transgenders are regularly seen on TV soap operas and throughout Bangkok, working at department store cosmetics counters, popular restaurants, in office jobs and in the capital's red-light districts. Thailand also has transgender beauty pageants.