Is Thailand Ready to Say ‘I Do’ to Gay Equality?
Thailand is known as a haven for gay holiday makers, and with a new same-sex marriage law in the works, it seems the country is ready to take another step in recognizing its same-sex couples, but what chance does this bill have of passing and is this effort really as positive as it first seems?
Lawmakers in Thailand are reportedly about to consider a draft law that, in terms of partnership rights, would give same-sex couples the same benefits and responsibilities as married heterosexuals.
Same-sex marriage is currently de facto banned in Thailand under the gender specific Section 1448 of Thailand’s Civil and Commercial Code which stipulates that a lawful marriage can only take place “when the man and woman have completed their seventeenth year of age.” There are several other references to “man and woman” marriage throughout the code, but it is 1448 that was specifically targeted by a recent court appeal brought by Nathee Theeraronjanapong, 55, and his partner Atthapon Janthawee, 38, who wanted to force recognition of their 20 year relationship.
They attempted to apply for a marriage license but were denied. The couple then filed challenges with the Parliamentary Human Rights Commission, the Administrative Court and the National Human Rights Commission, all arguing that Section 1448 and other such codes violate their civil rights.
As a result of this and the political debate that ensued, a committee of lawmakers, scholars and LGBT activists were called and the process of drafting the country’s first marriage rights bill for same-sex couples was started.
So does the bill stand any chance of passing?
Thailand is famous, and some might even say infamous, for its perceived liberal atmosphere and certainly it is more accepting than many other countries in the region, such as Malaysia, where same-sex relationships are banned and the government is actively trying to stop so-called gay recruitment in schools. Indeed, Thailand has become a go-to for many same-sex and trans holiday makers, though usually for quite different reasons.
Yet Thailand, beyond the narrow lens of tourism, remains a socially conservative place and so while there is hope for the bill, it is balanced against a realistic notion of current conservative opinion. There is evidence to say that activist outreach may be making a difference though.
Wiratana Kalayasiri, Democrat parliamentarian from the southern Thai city of Songkhla, who is also the chairman of the Legal Justice Human Rights committee [...] says most legislators in Thailand are aged over 47, which partially explains the staunch opposition to the law in its early stages.
“At first, there was a negative impression, and people were wondering why I was doing this, but as this process went on people started to understand that this is a human right of the Thai people, guaranteed under the constitution. Since then minds have changed,” Kalayasiri told IPS.
“We have held five hearings on the bill at several universities throughout Thailand and in parliament as well. A survey of 200-300 people showed that 78% are in favor of allowing same-sex marriage and 10.3% are against it. I was particularly surprised when we went to Songkhla [a city of roughly 75,000 people] for a public meeting and 87% of Muslims in attendance were in favor [of gay marriage].”
However, the report goes on to highlight that a recent government survey found that nearly 60% of respondents did not favor allowing same-sex couples to marry. The job, then, appears to be one of continuing outreach and education.
However, there are issues with the bill that may even give same-sex couples and LGBT rights activists in the country reasons to protest.
While the bill’s language would allow for same-sex marriage rights, it would in fact install an elevated age of consent by which same-sex couples can marry, saying 20 is the threshold for same-sex couples as opposed to 17 for heterosexuals.
The bill has another, arguably more serious flaw, and one that directly affects the trans community. The legislation would require that those who have undergone or are in the process of gender transition register their birth assigned sex on their marriage certificates rather than their preferred gender marker and would therein continue to make it impossible for trans citizens to change their gender markers on official documents, creating a whole host of barriers to living gender aligned and prompting wider issues like difficulties in gaining employment and proper health care.
The bill also faces opposition from, perhaps surprisingly, certain Buddhist quarters.
This opposition relates to the fact that leaders within what is informally labeled Thai Buddhism have traditionally taught that, in the simplest terms, homosexuality is a result of poor karma, though restrictions in this regard largely center on monastic practices.
Indeed, Buddhist scholars in the country, while noting that practitioners may be conservative and will need time to adjust, have pointed out that Buddhism does not regulate sexuality in the same way Christianity or Islam does and therefore that opposition to same-sex marriage will likely not be as steadfast.
There is also the concern, as is raised in nearly every region, that opening the marriage fight could exacerbate hate crimes against the LGBT community by stoking ultra conservative fervor. With that in mind, and the unique nature of Thailand’s position as a more liberal country among conservative nations, activists from places like Malaysia have expressed fears that while Thailand and Vietnam may in fact be on the cusp of equality for same-sex couples, it would be the LGBT communities within other nations who feel the backlash — and possibly with deadly consequences.
It is undeniable that the Thailand bill likely faces an uphill climb, but that the conversation has now begun is in itself something worth celebrating for many activists in the country who hope that progress — while never perfect and with many additional steps needed — is now, perhaps, inevitable.
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