Transnational Health Flows and Local Inequalities: Medical Tourism and Transgender Rights in Thailand

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 08:30
Oral Presentation
Rebecca FARBER, Boston University, USA
Thailand has become a global center for gender reassignment surgeries, with the state launching new strategies to advance medical tourism, or health-related travel. At the same time, Thai transgender women have taken on highly visible roles in cabarets and beauty pageants, often using various “technologies of embodiment” (Hoang 2015), such as hormones and surgeries, to qualify as beautiful and gain economic/social mobility. While medical tourism may "trickle down" to impact local industries, I argue it is co-constructed in Thailand by the transgender entertainment industry, in which Thai transgender women to circulate norms of sex, gender, and the technologically-enhanced body on a global stage. As medical tourism can drain doctors and resources from public to private healthcare sectors, it may also exacerbate existing inequalities for Thai transgender women, who often lack access to culturally- and clinically-competent healthcare. Based on one year of ethnographic fieldwork and over 50 in-depth interviews with transgender women, state officials, doctors, hospital directors, private business owners, and civil society members, this research analyzes the social elements of medical tourism in Thailand, illuminating its multiple connections to Thai transgender women. By understanding shifts in Thai transgender women's gendered labor roles, social status, and health inequalities within the context of medical tourism, the project elucidates the complex relationships between gender, bodies, labor and technologies in a global era. The research bridges transnational feminisms with medical sociology to propose the sociology of transnational health, an analytical model which addresses intersecting issues of transnational health and transgender health by looking beyond predefined borders of sex, gender, and nation.