Sporting a new look

leading the field: Pinit Ngarmpring, now called Pauline, founded Cheerthai Power. PHOTO: BANGKOK POST ARCHIVE

On the projection screen before the audience read the words “Miracle of Change” next to a photo of a lady softly smiling. The woman we see before us was once known as a man named Pinit Ngrampring, the founder of Cheerthai Power, a group of football fans responsible for pushing the popularity of the sport in Thailand.

She introduces herself as Pauline Ngarmpring to the room. She’s about to tell the story of “Becoming Pauline”, the title of her talk about her transformation from man to woman.

Pictures of Pauline, the woman, flash across the screen next to her — photos taken over recent years.

“Since around a year ago, I started taking a lot of pictures of myself — well, a lot more than I’ve ever taken in my whole life,” she tells the audience. “I think it’s because I’m happy with myself.”

The Pauline the crowd sees now is a fun and easy-going woman, confident and content. The woman speaking today first entered the public eye online in July.

Pinit was a legend in Thai football circles. One of his most memorable achievements was leading the Cheerthai Power group to pressure Vijit Ketkaew, former president of the Football Association of Thailand, to resign in 2007 on accusations of failing to improve public engagement with Thai football.

It was the first instance of football fans affecting real change in the professional football world.

Pinit disappeared from the football association over the last four years. Then Pauline surfaced online, clearing up any ambiguity about why the once public figure had been gone.

Facing the audience today, she shows a video on YouTube titled “See where the Earth is in the universe”. The video starts with the camera panning out from Earth into the vast space of the universe.

“I’m very tiny here,” she said, pointing to the screen.

“Perhaps God is too mighty to recognise my small existence,” she elaborates as the image zooms out of Earth. “Changing my gender resists the path that God decided for me. I thought that would make me a sinner. Was I betraying God?”

Pauline felt sure about her decision to transition to a woman, but taking the first step still wasn’t easy. Before she could “become her true self”, she had to grapple with fear, guilt and depression.

RISING IN THE RANKS

Pinit was born in 1967 in Bangkok and raised as a courteous and well-mannered boy.

When his mother saw Pinit holding a spoon with a thumb and forefinger, leaving the other fingers perkily sticking up in the air — a gesture associated with women — his mother hit him on the hand.

Noticing his effeminate habits and gestures, the family started to wonder if the boy dreamed of becoming a woman.

Wanting his son to avoid becoming a social outcast, his father led Pinit to do masculine activities, buying him a pair of boxing gloves and signing him up for training.

By age 11, Pinit dreamed of becoming a professional boxer. But his father, who had experience fighting in the ring himself, objected to Pinit’s goal. He was concerned about his safety. So he encouraged him to try football instead.

“I was proud to be a strong person doing boyish activities,” Pauline recalled of the time.

“The amazing thing is, I was still undergoing a process of transformation from a girl to a boy. But nobody around me was aware of that.”

Once Pinit reached adulthood, he joined the Bangkok Post as a business reporter. The job helped build up his confidence by interviewing major CEOs and leaders in the business community. He did the job for seven years.

Amid Thailand’s economic boom and rapid urbanisation in the ’90s, Pinit, at age 26, got work as a marketing manager for a major Thai real estate company in Bangkok.

Pinit had everything a young white-collar worker could dream of — a big salary, personal office unit, office car, subordinates and the responsibility of managing a 300-million-baht marketing budget.

Then, in 1997, Thailand experienced a massive financial crash when the baht was slammed by a speculative attack. The government was forced to devalue the baht, bringing the country’s economic momentum to a grinding halt.

The company where Pinit worked felt the change. He resigned from his job. Not long after, however, he found work in other organisations.

Amid his professional success, Pinit nearly forgot about his original dream — to become Pauline. However, she hadn’t disappeared completely. Sometimes, she would visit him before Pinit fell asleep. One day at the beach among friends, he thought about what it would be like to wear a bikini.

He still thought about Pauline and the place she’d occupied in his childhood dreams.

When Pinit was 30, he decided to turn his focus to football again. He wanted to see football become bigger in Thailand, something he believed began with the fans.

So he founded Cheerthai Power group in 2001, proceeding to invest 30,000 baht of his own savings to purchase cheering equipment. He then recruited some volunteers to cheer at different football matches.

Football fans across the country would resoundingly agree that Pinit played a pivotal role in making the profession of football player more respected and better paid.

Pinit was recognised by many when he walked into a stadium.

His star power got an extra boost when he led Cheerthai Power group to pressure the Thailand Football Association’s president to resign.

Still, despite his professional gains, his childhood dream persisted in her mind.

BECOMING PAULINE

Four years ago, Pinit woke up from a dream nudging him to think about Pauline again.

Pinit pictured himself walking nude down the street. When he came across a passerby, he would hide behind an electric pole. After they passed, he would keep waking ahead. His destination was a department store. He was going to buy women’s clothes.

The dream came to Pinit many times.

Pinit would dress up as a woman in secret, sometimes when he drove around in his car undercover. He purchased then disposed of several feminine outfits to hide his secret from his family, his wife and son included.

He always felt guilty for wanting a closet full of women’s clothes.

He denied these thoughts repeatedly.

“I grew up in a generation in which a man must be macho,” said Pauline. “So I would feel guilty whenever I was thinking about being a woman.”

Pinit couldn’t resist the voice inside his head any more.

He made a plan to leave Pinit for Pauline.

But he had many issues to deal with first. How could he explain the change to his family? What would Pauline do for work? What would she do with Cheerthai Power?

Being a public figure, Pinit felt there was much at stake in telling the truth.

So Pinit figured the best thing to do was to vanish for a while.

He decided to apply to be the Thai Football Association’s president in 2013, letting him resign from his role at Cheerthai. He knew he would lose the election, offering him an easy getaway.

He later withdrew his candidacy application and supported another candidate, Virach Charnpanich. As Pinit expected, Virach lost the election.

Pinit left Bangkok to open a steak restaurant in Chumphon province with his family. He taught himself how to cook, a skill that was professionally useful for any gender.

In his free time, he researched how to become a woman.

On Dec 8, 2013, Pinit started taking hormone pills. He had purchased the pills some weeks earlier but had hesitated to consume them. They marked a start of “a journey with no return”.

Pinit finally told his family the truth. He was already leaving traces of his intentions everywhere, from remnants of make-up on his face to strands of wigs in the car.

His parents and wife were upset by his confession at first. But as they saw Pinit slip into depression, they saw there was no choice but to let him become Pauline.

Pinit had wanted this change, but he was still saddled with fears. Would Pauline look ugly after the change? What type of woman did he ultimately want to be?

Deciding on one’s personality post-change is among the largest challenges of becoming transgender.

Pauline found comfort in studying dressed down-looking role models like Cindy Crawford and Julia Roberts.

She later flew to the United States where no one would recognise her. She dressed up openly as a woman and felt happy to be herself at last.

Even so, Pauline had lingering concerns about how to return to Thailand and ultimately reintegrate there.

IN THE OPEN

The news about Pauline’s transition broke before she had the chance to speak up about it herself.

A Thai reporter curious about Pinit’s whereabouts asked a friend of the public figure. The friend told the truth — Pauline had said she could tell if anyone if they asked.

But she hadn’t mentioned anything about speaking to reporters.

Pauline was barraged with questions. But over time, as she fielded the questions one by one, she found some comfort in answering them. People could understand where she was coming from.

What she feared more than public reaction, however, was her father’s disappointment. He had repeatedly tried to instil masculinity in Pinit.

When Pauline told her father the truth, he responded: “My child is still my child. You don’t need to feel shame. You are you.”

Looking closely at Pauline, he added: “You haven’t changed that much.”

Pauline’s mother also came to accept her.

Pauline separated from her wife, but they maintain a good relationship and share parenting responsibilities for their son.

She reflected on the pressure of suppressing Pauline over the years.

“Society has these boundaries of how men and women must do or not do certain things,” she explained.

“Becoming transgender happens by necessity. It’s not by choice. To become Pauline is the only way she could survive, even though Pinit had to sacrifice himself in doing so.”

After transitioning, Pauline realised that Pinit’s character was still a part of her. What really changed was more how other people perceived her as well as her lifestyle.

She saw that men could do what women wanted to. If she wanted to play strong like a man, she could do that. If men wanted to dance to women’s songs, what was the problem with that?

“Man can do women’s things too,” she said.

From now on, Pauline is committed to being her true self. She is at ease picturing her future as an old woman. She never wanted to be an old sitting around with friends, drinking and talking about women.

She plans to open a restaurant on Ramkhamhaeng Road, and also plans to release her book, titled Too Tight Shoes, in the next few months.

The inspiration for the title came from her experience of finding that she had to wear women’s shoes smaller than the size of her feet, an allegory for the uneasy path she took to find herself.

She might have further surgery for beauty purposes, but sex change surgery is not her ultimate goal.

“I give value to memories, friendship and hope. As long as we live with these three things, it’s not important if we are a woman or a man.”

At the end of her talk, she gets a rousing round of applause. Her speech is inspiration for not only those who want to change gender but also those who want to make a change in life, no matter how small.

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