Thailand takes lead in LGBT rights

LGBT life is omnipresent in Thailand. Gay and lesbian characters play various roles in TV shows. Prominent bloggers and YouTubers of the LGBT community have tens of thousands of viewers. Last year, Thailand also had its first transgender candidate for prime minister, Pauline Ngarmpring.

Despite the social recognition, only heterosexual couples are allowed to marry in Thailand. Until today, there is no legal partnership status to support LGBT couples. However, this might change soon. This summer, after year-long consultations and debates, the cabinet approved a bill that would enable same-sex couples to register as “partners.” 

The planned legislation could be a major breakthrough. Even though the so-called Civil Partnership Bill would not allow real marriages, it gives Thailand a pioneering role for LGBT-rights in Southeast Asia. If the bill passes the parliament, Thailand would be the first country allowing same-sex partnerships in Southeast Asia and the second one in Asia. Only Taiwan was faster. It recognized equal marriage in 2019.

Thailand’s Civil Partnership Bill does not fully end the legal discrimination of same-sex couples – but it would at least improve their status. If approved as expected, couples could co-manage assets, adopt children, and share most of the rights enjoyed by married heterosexual couples. They would be also able to sue a third party in the name of their legal partner.

Thailand as an LGBT-friendly place

Already now, Thailand is seen as a relatively LGBT-friendly place. "In Thailand, there is less gender discrimination against LGBT compared to Taiwan... In my opinion, though Taiwan organizes Pride Parade and has a legal mechanism to support LGBT, the society does not recognize LGBT as Thailand does,” says Jer Jer, a Taiwanese YouTuber, in one of his videos.

In fact, the Thai government is even promoting LGBT life and culture. With dedicated campaigns targeting homosexuals, it tries to lure them as tourists into the country. “LGBTQ are seen as a high-potential market with an above-average level of disposable income,” said Srisuda Wanapinyosak, Deputy Governor of Thailand’s Tourism Authority to the local press. She wants Thailand “to welcome LGBT people genuinely and not be superficially ‘LGBT-friendly’.”

However, even Thailand will not fully end discrimination against LGBT people: The Civil Partnership Bill would restrict homosexual couples from adopting children by surrogacy. Furthermore, they cannot approve each other’s emergency medical treatment or receive welfare benefits of a partner, such as retirement pensions.

Because of such restrictions, some members of the LGBT community reject the bill. After the Thai Cabinet passed the Civil Partnership Bill on 8 July 2020, a heated discussion with hashtags such as #NoCivilPartnership (#ไม่เอาคู่ชีวิต) and #EqualMarriage (#สมรสเท่าเทียม) took place on Twitter. Users debated whether the bill promotes gender equality or it highlights gender alienation.

Instead of the Civil Partnership Bill, many in the LGBT community push for an amendment of Section 1448 of the Civil and Commercial Code. Currently, section 1448 recognizes the marriage between a man and a woman. The proposed amendment would made no difference between same-sex or heterosexual marriages. In that way, homosexual couples would exactly enjoy the same rights as heterosexual couples.

Legal mechanism as an important instrument towards equality

However, after years of waiting and struggling, many in the LGBT community appreciate the currently proposed legislation. The first draft of the Civil Partnership Bill had been proposed already in 2013 by the Rights and Liberties Protection Department of the Ministry of Justice. "It is a good start… at least the Civil Partnership Bill provides some legal status to LGBT couples. It is better that we have a legal mechanism that recognizes and supports us,” said Pauline Ngarmpring.

However, Pauline Ngarmpring also would have preferred a Section 1448 amendment, as the Civic Partnership Bill still reflects the perception that LGBT and straight people are not equal. According to her, LGBT people still face many issues, not just legal ones: “There is still discrimination in our daily life. For example, we have to use a male’s room, and we are called Mister when going to the hospital.”

Despite these obstacles and issues, the planned legislation in Thailand is remarkable for Asia. In the region, many homosexuals not only face discrimination, but even prosecution. For example, Malaysia is still criminalizing same-sex love with punishments up to 20 years imprisonment or caning.  In Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reiterated just last year, that the city state is upholding the law enabling prison sentences up to two years.

In Indonesia, apart from Banda Aceh, homosexuality is not a criminal offense. Nevertheless, LGBT people are frequent victims of verbal and physical attacks of police, Islamists, and politicians. Authorities often use a 2008 pornography law to target LGBT people. In February, members of parliament proposed a bill that would require homosexuals and transgender to report to authorities for rehabilitation.

Thailand’s neighbour to the East, Myanmar, punishes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” with up to 10 years in prison and a fine. 

Just across the border, in Thailand, homosexuals could be allowed to adopt children soon. Human rights should transcend the boundaries of sex and gender.

Sirindhara Teeramachwanich is a Project Assistant at FNF Thailand.