In June, Thailand welcomed its first Pride Parade in almost 16 years. The celebratory event in the capital Bangkok not only brought together thousands of members from the country’s highly visible LGBTQ community but also underscored a host of issues: from the rights of sex workers to legal gender recognition to marriage equality.
As one of only nine Asian signatories to a 2011 declaration of LGBTQ rights at the United Nations Human Rights Council, Thailand has often been hailed as a haven for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning individuals. Yet, the country still lacks mechanisms for safeguarding LGBTQ rights. For too long, human rights violations against LGBTQ people have persisted while the voices of LGBTQ activists have fallen on deaf ears. Despite Thailand’s reputation for inclusion, social stigma and discrimination against gender and sexual minorities still prevail in the conservative country.
But there’s hope. When nationwide youth-led protests calling for political reforms erupted in 2020, LGBTQ demands were added to the agenda, alongside the broader calls for democratic change. And now, with the return of the Pride Parade in Bangkok spurring similar events in other Thai cities, and rainbow flags flying high, LGBTQ issues are finally on the table in Thailand.
A few days after Bangkok’s historic Pride Parade, Thai lawmakers passed at their first reading four different bills on same-sex unions. Three of the draft bills would confer a differing and questionable legal status on civil unions between people across all genders. The opposition Move Forward Party proposed the fourth and strongest of the batch: the draft Act for Amendment to the Civil and Commercial Code, better known as the marriage equality bill. It seeks to revise binary terms in the Code to provide the fundamental right to marriage and family for everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
While four draft bills on the same body of rights would seem like an improbable win for the queer community, competing efforts by politicians vying to jump on the rainbow bandwagon may not actually pave the way for marriage equality in Thailand.
Instead of resolving the binary nature of Thailand’s existing marriage law, the three civil partnership bills complicate the issue by defining non-heterosexual couples as “civil partners” – a legal definition that was previously nonexistent in Thai law. This would entail arduous steps to ensure that all relevant legislations are amended to reflect this new definition. More worryingly, the civil partnership bills rely on legislation being enforced mutatis mutandis – with the necessary changes having been made – giving room for misinterpretation that could serve to perpetuate inequality.
Not only does the working definition institutionalize the othering of gender and sexuality minorities, but also it wrongly signals to the Thai public that LGBTQ couples are different. Rubbing salt in the wound, the three bills place LGBTQ partners off-limits for some forms of state welfare that are provided to heterosexual couples, making the drafts discriminatory from the outset. In the eyes of Thai law, LGBTQ couples are already less entitled to their basic human rights than their heterosexual counterparts.
The Rainbow Coalition for Marriage Equality, a network of over 40 civil society organizations and activist groups, remains critical of the civil partnership bills, pointing out their disregard for equality and human dignity. Other rights groups, like the Manushya Foundation, highlight how the civil partnership bill amounts to a form of second-class citizenship.
All four bills are currently being scrutinized by a parliamentary subcommittee tasked with deciding whether to send any of the drafts, or a consolidated draft, for approval from other levels of government before voting it into law. While Thailand edges closer to the same-sex marriage dream, this is not the time to rest on our laurels. A choice between backing civil partnership or full same-sex marriage equality remains on the agenda, and all eyes should be on what happens next.
We should all know that the government-backed civil partnership bills will not provide equal rights to LGBTQ couples. If passed in one of their current forms, Thailand’s gender equality dream will falter. The laws may also face fierce legal challenges from LGBTQ activists for being unconstitutional, not to mention being misaligned with Thailand’s obligations under international law.
As Pride Month celebrations wind down, it’s high time that Thai policymakers get down to some serious work and realize that it’s not enough for them to wave rainbow flags on Bangkok streets. They must also walk the talk and make true marriage equality a reality in Thailand.