Most people will tell you that flying into a country shortly after there's been a military coup is not the best idea. In fact, my company had done just that, in no uncertain terms, as had the US State department. I even agreed with them. Yet, here I was, about to touch down in Bangkok just 10 days after the military had seized power. I'm normally a fairly sensible person, so my being on that plane was not what anyone would have expected. But it did have a certain logic behind it. Or, as we used to say, "it seemed like a good idea at the time.
As a transgender woman I had spent the first 55 years of my life in a vigorous, but ultimately failed, struggle to be "one of the guys.". After I finally gave in to the truth, my sense of who I was developed slowly at first, but with increasing speed and confidence. Soon after my transition I realized that an important part of my journey would be making my body align better with who I was.
The preliminary process
Such surgery (which used to be called SRS, "Sex Reassignment Surgery", but now is more commonly referred to as GCS, "Gender Confirmation Surgery") is not always an easy decision for trans people. You need to have the resources to pay for it (sometimes it's covered by insurance these days), and you need to be willing to undergo a significant operation that reconfigures your plumbing down there, as it were (it's not just a case of "cutting it off", as some seem to think). No surgery is without risk of complications, and depending on your circumstances, that risk might not be worth it.
In my case, I had the resources, thanks to some good bonuses at work, and after copious research and talking it through with my therapist, I was willing to take the risk. It seemed to me that as I got older surgery would only get riskier, and I was beyond tired of having a body that didn't match my gender, that seemed to me to always be telling a lie about who I was.
Arranging GCS was not simple. First, I had to select a surgeon, with only a few choices in the US, or go abroad. I ended up choosing Dr. Suporn in Thailand, who routinely came up on people's lists of the top 5 GCS surgeons in the world. His technique got high reviews for both the appearance of the result, as well as its functionality and sensation. And as a bonus, the cost, even including flying to Thailand and staying for a month, was well under that of US based surgeons. After that I still had to get a doctor's letter, a therapist's letter, and wire a deposit (in Thai baht) to the right bank account. I started the process in late summer 2013 and ended up booked for surgery on June 4, 2014.
After the date was set life went on, as it does, and a few complications came along to make things interesting. A former boss was putting together a new subsidiary that would be located in London. I had always said I wouldn't be interested in living in the UK, but that was before I had the possibility of living in London. Even as I nodded sagely while coworkers shook their heads at this crazy new scheme, I was quietly negotiating for a spot in the new company. My only condition was that my surgery date of June 4 was sacred. After 10 days in Osaka in early December (two of the principals, including my old boss, were Japanese) I was in, and set to join the team in January.
The following few months were a series of transatlantic flights, meetings, and living out of hotels as I waited to finally get a visa so I could move full time to London. By mid-April I was pretty frustrated, wondering how I'd keep my surgery date when I still didn't know where I'd be. I really wanted to be settled in London before I went to Thailand, because I knew that I wouldn't be in much shape to make that move after surgery.
So when my visa was approved in early May I packed as fast as I could and took off for London the day after FedEx delivered my passport with its shiny new visa inside.
I arrived in London only 2 weeks before my flight to Bangkok and settled in as best as I could in a little flat in east London, with a view into what I later realized was Alexander McQueen's studio. Work also geared up as we were putting in long hours getting a new online company based in Düsseldorf ready for launch. The main wrinkle there was breaking the news to our German colleagues that, on the eve of their company's debut, their lead tech expert was going to spend a month in Thailand for GCS. While on several levels this was a surprise, in the end they were supportive. It looked like everything was going according to plan.
It looked that way, that is, until May 22. It was my turn to be taken by surprise when the news broke that there had been a coup in Thailand and the military had seized control. I'd planned for the heat, I'd planned the logistics of a return trip while recovering from major surgery, I'd even figured out how to keep in touch with people on different continents as I went through the process. But somehow I'd left "dealing with a coup in Thailand" completely off my planning list.
I think it's fair to say I freaked out a little bit. It felt like this key part of my transition, something that had been half a lifetime in the making, was being taken away. I'd never had any direct experience with a coup, after all, and everybody seemed to be taking it pretty seriously. Our parent company was pretty clear that they didn't want employees going to Thailand whether it was on company business or not, the US State Department was recommending avoiding travel, and the news outlets in the UK and US were doing their best to play up the possibilities for armed conflict.
What could I do? Well, obviously I could just not go to Thailand. It would mean losing a fair amount of my deposit, of course, but most people would say that one's personal safety is probably worth a few thousand bucks.
The money I could part with, but the surgery was a different matter. Having gotten this far the thought of chucking a nearly complete process and starting over again was heartbreaking. Put it off? Then who would do it? When? How long would it take to get the money pulled together and complete the whole process again?
As I looked for other answers I found just one alternative readily available - a "zero depth" operation done by a London surgeon. As the name suggests such an operation doesn't result in a functioning vagina, but from the outside the finished product looks convincing. Since it's not as invasive, it's cheaper, recovery is faster and easier, and above all, it was available. Unlike with a conventional full vaginoplasty there would be no need to dilate for the rest of my life. Of course penetrative sex would not be possible, but I honestly didn't think that would be an issue.
Staying in London and going with the zero depth option was clearly the safe and reasonable alternative. But... But it still would mean giving up thousands in deposit money already sent to Thailand, it still would mean starting the (somewhat simpler) approval processes from the beginning… and it would not be a "complete" GCS. Choosing that option would mean that there would be no going back and a full vaginoplasty later would be practically impossible.
I kept asking myself, would it be enough? Would the quick recovery and no dilation outweigh that lack of completeness? Or would I always feel that I'd "settled" for second best, that I'd passed on the chance to be as fully female as I could. If I took the safe way out, would I always regret it?
“You should do it”
What to do? I didn't get much sleep those few days as I went back and forth over the options. In the end, I got help from an unexpected quarter. My boss, the head of our little group in London, would not have been the person I would have picked to help out a trans woman in such a dilemma. Straight, cisgender, a successful business executive and entrepreneur in both his native Japan and the US, he had little experience to prepare him for a case like mine. On the other hand, what he did have was imagination and empathy, as well as experience travelling in Asia, and when we sat down less than a week before my planned departure date, he shared both his experience and his humanity. "While you can never be sure," he said, "it looks like the situation in Thailand is stable and not dangerous." That was probably the first positive assessment I'd heard, but what came next was as helpful as it was surprising. "As your boss I'm compelled by company policy to tell you not to go. But as your friend, I think you should do it."
As I was taking this in, he went on, "And if you do, I'll alert the head of corporate global security. If things get bad, try to get to Singapore, and we'll work with you from there."
Having that advice from someone who knew the region and knew me, along with a contingency plan, was a turning point. Sure, the contingency plan was a little James Bond for a mid-50's trans woman, and I wasn't quite sure how grabbing a go bag and hustling to the airport for a fight to Singapore in the middle of the night would go with recovering from major surgery, but if at least one person thought I could do it, maybe it was worth considering.
The next day I got an email from the surgeon's clinic with more reassurance. Things were fine in Bangkok, they said, and the last thing the new government wanted to do was scare away tourists. In fact, they added, the coup had actually made things safer for visitors, since the new regime and its military presence had pretty much ended demonstrations and protests.
That was the final factor and, as I had several times before in my transition, I decided the reward was worth the risk.
No turning back now
So there I was, comfortably seated in business class on an Austrian airlines flight from Vienna, on final approach for landing at Suvarnabhumi Airport. I couldn't help but have cinematic visions of international intrigue. Go bag - check; head for Singapore - got it; no turning back now.
And then we landed. By the time I'd picked up my luggage I knew there wouldn't be much to worry about - yes, there were guys with machine guns, but they were chatting and joking or bored and playing with their phones, just likse the rest of staff in the terminal. It was pretty clear that, for foreigners at least, Thailand was open for business as usual.
Past customs, two smiling young women from the clinic were waving a sign with my name. After a short walk through the heat and overwhelming humidity, we jumped into a waiting van and headed to the suburb of Chonburi. On the way I saw more soldiers: a couple here sharing a tiny moped, guns pointed at awkward angles, some more outside a convenience store having coffee and talking, another using an ATM, but nothing in the least threatening.
Over the next 28 days I never had occasion to think about grabbing the go bag and heading to Singapore - my biggest excitement was a day trip with a group of fellow patients to a temple and the surgeon's luxe beach house (we even saw monkeys!), and my biggest worry was maintaining communications with friends, family, and work while dealing with massive time zone differences.
After four weeks spent recovering from surgery and learning how to care for my new plumbing, I was ready to return to my life. The flights back through Vienna to London were far less suspenseful than before, but thanks to the surgery much more tiring. I have never been so happy and grateful as when I finally curled up in an exhausted ball in my bed back in London.
The experience taught me an important lesson that guides me still. To attain our goals we sometimes need to face sudden fears and obstacles and take a calculated risk. To this day I'm grateful that I chose to embrace that risk in 2014 and gain more comfort in my own body than I had ever had before.