Before the pandemic, before the war in Ukraine, before new came to define normal, Netchanok “Love” Promkao and Dmytro Denysov met in a Bangkok restaurant when Netchanok’s friends asked the solo traveler to join them.
A gym-fit Ukrainian with dark blond hair, Denysov was “breaking bad, drinking and smoking” in September 2019, with Bangkok another stop on a monthslong Asia trek.
He had just broken up with his girlfriend in China. Netchanok had just broken up with her boyfriend in South Korea.
They bonded as rebound buddies. Each had been married and divorced. Denysov helped Netchanok build online engagement for the social media channels she developed for her online marketplace while managing a Bangkok restaurant.
By February 2020, they were a committed couple unaware that their future would manifest a snarl of bureaucracy, prejudice, online celebrity, money woes and mental illness, an ever-changing chaos made endurable by a love many failed to understand.
Then, before March arrived, Denysov departed on an unplanned two-month visit to Ukraine to care for his ailing father.
COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions kept the couple apart until May 2021, when they reunited in Hua Hin, a dreamy seaside resort town once favored by Thai nobility. As the couple adjusted from long-distance to up-close loving, Denysov told Netchanok, “I want to change. I want to take (female sex) hormones.”
Since the age of 12, Denysov, now 37, had wanted to live as Jane.
“When I started traveling, I started seeing like ‘Oh, it’s normal’ that people can be who they want to be … and I have enough power right now to do what I want,” he said. “Because we only have one life, I want to live my life, to be myself and not to fall.”
As Denysov recalled, Netchanok looked confused for a moment, then told him, “‘No problem.'”
“Then, we just went to a pharmacy together,” Jane told VOA Thai. “My only regret is why I didn’t start taking hormones earlier.”
Netchanok, 33, the mother of two, observed, “No one lives problem-free. No one is perfectly perfect. I would like to choose the most understanding one as my partner. I think Jane is the one.”
In the following months, the couple moved between Thailand and Europe, where they found Ukraine challenging. A survey by the sociological group “Rating” published last August indicated that 47% of respondents in Ukraine had a negative view of the LGBTQ+ community, Reuters reported.
“Ukraine came from the Soviet Union, so there’re restrictions about everything LGBTQ+,” Jane told VOA Thai via video interview in late June, wearing full makeup and a platinum wig.
Partly in response to encountering these restrictions, in June 2021 the couple launched their TikTok channel. They became social media personalities with more than 256,000 followers, most of them in Thailand. Jane tried speaking some Thai as well as English on their channel. At one point, she used “kathoey” which is Thai for a transgender woman or a gay man who presents as a woman.
“The automatic translation put it as ‘homosexual.’ My mother saw it and was like ‘What’s wrong with you? Are you homosexual?’ and I was like ‘No, no, no,'” Jane said.
In October 2021, Netchanok decided to travel with Jane to Kyiv to meet with her in-laws.
“When I went to meet my parents, I was wearing something oversized to hide my breasts,” Jane said. “They had thought I dressed up as a woman only for TikTok appearance. They didn’t expect it to be real.”
Netchanok said Jane’s parents were initially “shocked yet eventually accepting” and supported the couple’s marriage that December in Kyiv, a ceremony possible because Jane was a man before the law and the altar.
0.01-0.09: Here we are. I would like to say that I and Jane have been married. Thank you for supporting us.
0.10 – 0.14: Today is a good day. I’m very happy. Let me hug her first.
0.17 – 0.28: We’ve been through obstacles for… how many years have we dated each other? Around three years. We have been through a lot.
0.37 – 0.43: From the first day we met and that’s been three years, Jane’s Thai language level has been the same.
0.45- 0.51: You may’ve notice we’ve been inactive on TikTok for a couple of weeks.
0.52 – 0.58: We got temporarily banned by TikTok. We also had to prepare our visas among other things.
1.00-1.03: But now, we’re back to see you again!
Then Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
“We would hear siren sounds for 20 minutes and after they stopped for another 20 minutes, bombing would usually follow,” Netchanok said. “The siren sounds were so frequent that most people did not seem to escape when hearing them unless when they were in dangerous zones.”
The war meant the couple couldn’t use ATMs to access their Ukrainian accounts. Given Netchanok’s outlay on her Ukraine visa application and Jane’s recent apartment purchase in Ukraine, money became a problem.
Jane, who had struggled with diagnosed depression since childhood, fell into a dark place. Together, they began planning to leave Ukraine, an effort complicated by the government’s wartime ban on male citizens aged 18-60 leaving the country.
The couple went first to Lviv, where the Thai embassy in Warsaw, which also oversees Thai interests in Ukraine, had established a temporary post to assist and repatriate Thai nationals.
Netchanok wanted to move Jane to Thailand because she believed Jane would receive better care there.
When Thai officials told the couple Jane did not qualify for help despite being married to a Thai citizen, Netchanok declared, “If you’re not going, I’m not going. We have to be together no matter what.”
By March, Jane was cutting herself, and Netchanok was struggling to stay in touch with family in Thailand.
“It was a big mess,” Netchanok said. “It was about dealing with war, work, family and Jane’s emotions.
“I wasn’t worried about myself,” she said. “I was worried about my children and necessary spending. I had to quit a job shortly after the war broke out and most of our savings went to an apartment in Kyiv, from where we had to evacuate.”
Netchanok found a hospital to treat Jane in April after a friend in Lviv referred them to a military medical office in Dnipro where Jane eventually received consultations for depression.
The couple assembled proof of Jane’s unsuitability for the military, documentation that included a video clip of Jane, wearing women’s clothing and presenting as a woman, being publicly assaulted in Ukraine.
4.58-5.22: I can’t go out in high heels … with make-up, with hair. Because if I do, people will think there’s something wrong with me, that I’m an idiot. I can’t be myself.
5.23- 5.29: As far as I have observed, especially in Lviv, people tend to be more conservative.
From what I’ve seen, especially in Lviv, people tend to be conservative.
5.30-5.33: We wouldn’t know whether if Jane would be in trouble if when she dresses as a woman in public.
5.34-5.40: This is what we see in Ukrainians, not only Ukraine actually but also in Russia, because they seem to be very Soviet-like.
5.41- 5.46: However, there are around about 70% of the younger generations who seem to be more progressive …
5.47 – 5.50: … while the other 30% tend to be more conservative and pro-Russia.
Jane received a military service waiver. The couple spent three weeks in Dnipro sorting out their paperwork, then returned to Lviv for a 72-hour bus trip to Switzerland.
Netchanok and Jane decided to settle in Switzerland after the LGBTQ+ community there suggested it.
Medical treatments to support gender change are relatively accessible, they learned. Jane plans to receive facial surgery, vocal feminization surgery and breast augmentation. She doesn’t want complete gender-confirmation surgery.
“I don’t want to change this part of my body because I have a wife and I like her,” Jane said.
A Swiss law effective since Jan. 1 allows people in the country to legally change gender without hormone therapy, medical diagnosis or gender-confirmation surgery. However, the gender options under Swiss laws remain binary, and this means Jane is considered female under Swiss law, the couple says.
Jane and Netchanok, who settled in Geneva on May 27, are waiting to receive a one-year renewable “Permit S” that allows people in need of protection to stay and work in Switzerland provisionally. According to Swissinfo, Switzerland had handed out work permits to at least 1,500 of the 57,000 refugees from Ukraine as of June16. Switzerland’s Federal Council provides 21,000 francs for each Ukrainian refugee.
Jane said she enjoys Geneva, where she lives without fear. This is so new, so transformative for her that she told VOA Thai she “needs to study” to be herself again, adding, “It sounds weird but that’s really true because (normally) there would be some people laughing at me … In Kyiv, it was always like this.”
0.01-0.02: We’re going to review Swiss government’s assistance.
0.03-0.10: This is the check. Because we haven’t opened our account yet, the Swiss government would give us an actual check for us to cash.
0.11-0.16: However, in Switzerland, unlike in Thailand, we can cash this check at a post office instead of a bank.
0.17-0.23: We would like to say that the Swiss government takes a very good care of Ukrainian migrants.
The couple has started mapping out their future. They want to divide their time between Thailand and Ukraine so they are always with family.
Beyond their online celebrity in Thailand, Netchanok has maintained her business connections there.
Thailand draws Jane because of what she sees as an acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, even though the Thai government has yet to recognize the LGBTQ+ community in full. Gender is legally assigned at birth and cannot be changed under Thai law, which does not recognize same-sex marriage on par with heterosexual marriage. In June, the Thai Cabinet approved a civil partnership bill which, while partially recognizing same-sex partnership, still lacks benefits enjoyed by heterosexual couples such as tax benefits, government pensions and spousal medical decisions.
Swiss laws are more progressive than Ukraine’s on LGBTQ+ rights. Switzerland has a score of 42% on ILGA-Europe’s Rainbow Map and Index based on legal and policy practices for LGBT+ people in Europe, compared with Ukraine’s score of 19%. Same-sex marriage in Switzerland became legal on July 1.
Although Ukraine does not recognize same-sex marriages and civil partnerships, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked his government on Aug. 2 to look into whether they should be legalized, according to Reuters, adding there would be no change as the war with Russia continues.
But Jane said that in Switzerland, “there are not so many people like me, so I don’t have transsexual society here.” Although she acknowledges that this may be because she hasn’t been in Geneva long enough to find like-minded people, “I still want to go back to Thailand,” she said.
For their primary source of income, the couple wants to expand their online celebrity via TikTok, YouTube and Facebook. Netchanok plans to operate a Thai massage parlor in Switzerland, once she obtains a business permit. This would be the first step toward accumulating resources and experience in a European market before expanding in a post-war Ukraine, Netchanok said. The concept could also provide a future source of income for their Thai family.
It is a long shot to think that far ahead, they told VOA Thai.
“We barely have hope with (situations) in Ukraine,” Netchanok said. “With a lot of foreign soldiers and military hardware there right now, I certainly don’t think things will end by this year.”