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Two decade-long battle for same-sex marriage in Thailand

Tim Newton

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“So when you see all colours of the Thai rainbow in extravagant display in social media, remember that the rainbow in Thailand currently has no pot of gold at the other end.”

The Thai government continues to disenfranchise one group of Thai society as conservative elements of the Thai government resist changes to Thaland’s marriage laws. Up to 10% of Thailand’s broad community are considered to fall under the LGBT+ banners (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender).

Whilst Thailand is seen from the outside as a broad and diverse population, accepting of its LGBT community, there remains fierce aversion by older sections of Thai society, conservative MPs and religious organisations. Those forces are currently pulling the levers of government and prevent any meaningful change to laws pertaining to same sex marriage in Thailand.

Despite the illusion of sexual freedom, popularised by countless bloggers and promotion of Thailand’s red light districts, there remains a deep conservatism in Thai society where LGBT+ citizens face daily discrimination. The apparent liberal acceptance to sexual mores stops at the end of select sois around the country where sexual excesses finish and conservative attitudes begin.

In Thailand same-sex couples are unable to be legally married under Thai law. “Marriage can only be contracted between a man and a woman”, according to Thailand’s Civil and Commercial Code.

The right for same sex couple has been on the drawing board for successive governments but, here in 2022, same sex marriage, civil unions, domestic partnerships, unregistered cohabitations, or any other form of same-sex union remain off the books.

But there has been a few stumbles forward.

In 2002, the then Ministry of Health announced that homosexuality would no longer be regarded as a mental illness or disorder.

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Then in 2007, the Thai Government broadened the definition of sexual assault and rape victims to include both women and men.

In the same year the government also enacted laws prohibiting marital rape, with the law stipulating that both women or men could be victims.

But the road to recognition of actual same sex marriage has been much longer and tortured.

In September 2011, the National Human Rights Commission and the Sexual Diversity Network, proposed legislation on same-sex marriage, seeking Thai Government support for changes to the Marriage Act.

In, what would become a long trail of obfuscation, the Government then formed a committee a year later to draft legislation providing “legal recognition for same-sex couples in the form of civil partnerships”. The move to recognition of ‘civil partnerships’ was a precursor in many other countries towards full recognition of same sex marriage.

Hearings began and by 2014, the civil partnership bill had bipartisan support in the elected Yingluck Shinawatra government. After a short period of political unrest, the Army staged another of its regular coups and installed the Army-controlled NCPO to oversee the country’s governance.

To the surprise of many, later that year it emerged that a draft bill described as the “Civil Partnership Act” would be submitted to the Army-controlled Thai Parliament. The new Bill would provide couples some of the rights of heterosexual marriage, but was criticised by advocacy groups for increasing the minimum age for participation from 17 to 20 and leaving out the right to adopt children.

In 2017, a petition signed by 60,000 people calling for civil partnerships for same-sex couples was received favourably by the Thai government and submitted to the parliament.

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The Justice Ministry convened in May 2018 to start work on a draft civil partnership bill, the Same Sex Life Partnership Registration Bill. It wasn’t ‘marriage’ but was seen as a vital step forward. Same-sex couples would be able to register themselves as “life partners” and granted some, but not all, of the rights of a marriage in Thailand.

Hearings were held later that year where a reported 98% expressed support for the new Bill. Then on Christmas Day 2018, the Thai Cabinet approved the Bill, meaning it would be introduced officially to the Thai Parliament. But its progress then stalled. A general election was held in March 2019, in short ‘rubber stamping’ the conservative Army-supported, forces to continue their control over Thai governance.

Then in early 2020 a new coronavirus arrived in Thailand.

Still, in June 2020, the opposition Move Forward Party introduced a bill to legalise same-sex marriage. Public consultation on the Bill was launched in July.

Then the government referred to Bill to the Constitutional Court in 2021. The Constitutional Court had often done the Prayut government’s ‘dirty work’ with unpopular rulings seemingly distanced from the political forum.

The Court ruled that the Civil and Commercial Code interpreted that marriages as “only between women and men” would be considered constitutional. The ruling also included phrases saying that members of the LGBTQ community “cannot reproduce, as it is against nature, and they are unlike other animals with unusual behaviours or physical characteristics”.

The Constitutional Court verdict also cites LGBTQ citizens as a “different species that needs to be separated and studied as it is incapable of creating the delicate bond of human relationships”.

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The ruling would put the same sex marriage issue back decades. Thailand’s LGBTQ community were stunned when they read the content of the Constitutional Court ruling.

“…The purpose of a marriage is to allow a man and woman to live together as husband and wife, so they can establish a family unit to have children, to maintain the human race according to natural order and to further allow the passing of wealth, inheritance and bonds between father, mother, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles. But marriage between LGBT+ persons cannot establish such delicate bonds or relationships.”

Since this landmark ruling the matter has been largely shelved whilst Thailand battles its own Covid demons.

But the country’s LGBTQ advocates continue to be frequent participants in the latest round of protests since July 2020 and into this year where, mostly, university students have taken to Thailand’s streets demanding constitutional change and changes to the constitution’s relationship with the Thai Head of State.

Still, in communities around Thailand, there is an increasing acceptance of non-traditional marriages and partnerships with LGBT couples finding their ways into daily life, running businesses and even entering Parliament as elected MPs. But their slow progress as full citizens with full marriage rights remains roadblocked at government level where their unions, no matter how long they may have been together, are not legally recognised. At all.

So when you see all colours of the rainbow in extravagant display in social media, remember that the rainbow in Thailand currently has no pot of gold at the other end.

 

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    Tim Newton has lived in Thailand since 2011. An Australian, he has worked in the media, principally radio and TV, for 42 years. He has won the Deutsche Welle Award for best radio talk program (public radio Australia), presented over 11,000 radio news bulletins, 3,950 in Thailand alone, hosted 1050 daily TV news programs and produced 2,100 videos, TV commercials and documentaries. He also reported for CNN, Deutsche Welle TV, CBC, Australia's ABC TV and Australian radio during the 2018 Cave Rescue and other major stories in Thailand. As founder of The Thaiger in 2016, Tim is the current English Content Manager for the company, based in their Bangkok HQ.

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