Thailand’s approval of a civil partnership bill could soon pave the way for the legal recognition of same-sex civil unions, representing the first country in Asia to move in such a progressive direction.
The bill, which was approved by the military government’s Cabinet on December 25, still needs to pass the National Legislative Assembly to become law. Local reports suggest that a legislative backlog may prevent the bill’s passage before new elections are held on February 24 and a new elected government is installed thereafter.
While Thailand has a world-renowned reputation for its open gay bars, trans-beauty pageants and sex change operations, the kingdom still has a long way to go in protecting and recognizing its prominent LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) community.
And while widely recognized as a firm step towards equal LGBTI rights, not everyone in the community is celebrating the so-called Civil Partnership Bill’s finer points.
Wannapong Yodmuang, a human rights researcher at the Manushya Foundation and a Thai transgender activist, for one, argues that the bill is not as enlightened as it’s being touted by its backers.
“The bill is still lacking many crucial rights that need to be provided to the LGBTI community,” she said. “The center of this law basically just allows two same-sex people to have a partnership that allows them to manage property together… But the thing is that it’s still lacking many different rights.”
In particular, the bill fails to explicitly address the right for same-sex couples to adopt, says Wannapong, who previously served as a legal consultant on transgender rights to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) where she assisted in making legal recommendations to the Thai government.
Compared to neighboring countries like Malaysia or Indonesia, where the LGBTI community faces legal challenges and heavy discrimination, Thailand is largely open-minded when it comes to its LGBTI population. Indeed, in many ways the world views Thailand as a beacon of LGBTI inclusion and acceptance.
But despite that reputation, the LGBTI community is still widely disenfranchised and often lives under threat of persecution. According to a 2014 report entitled “Being LGBT in Asia” produced by USAID and UNDP, Asia’s LGBTI community is large and wide despite often living in the shadows fearful of persecution.
The reports said that the community is often not formally documented or recognized by official entities, including most religious institutions, governmental bodies and even educational institutions.
Wannapong says that in Thailand this is largely due to religious dogma, where many Thais don’t see that homosexuality is in line with Theravada Buddhism, the country’s main religion which influences culture, traditions and values.
It’s been clear until now, she says, that deeply conservative Buddhist beliefs have played a pivotal role in the government’s systematic obstruction of LGBTI rights, including the right to legally marry and adopt children.
Despite a world-famous sex-change industry, Thais cannot legally change their gender, a fact that has created an array of problems for the LGBTI community. Another UNDP report published earlier this year found that the trans community faces various daunting challenges in Thailand.
The report says that life for trans people is particularly difficult, as their legal gender contradicts how they identify, resulting in problems with basic public interactions from opening bank accounts to air travel because their appearance doesn’t clearly match the gender listed on their identification cards.
The report also found that many trans people have been harassed by Thai government officials based on their “contradictory” identities.
“This is the root cause of a lot of problems for us because it leads to a lot of discrimination,” says Wannapong. “For example, when you go to a job interview and people look at your documents and it doesn’t’ fit with your identity. Then people question, and this leads to stigmatization and then they might rethink our application.”
The UN’s and rights groups’ research corroborates that assessment.
“The lack of gender recognition can foster social exclusion, stigma, discrimination and violence when individuals are perceived to deviate from gender norms because their gender identity and/or expression does not coincide with their sex assigned at birth,” said Martin Hart-Hansen, UNDP’s deputy resident representative in Thailand.
“The purpose of legal gender recognition is to overcome this gap, giving official recognition to a transgender person’s gender identity. For a transgender person to meaningfully participate in society and to prevent discrimination, the provision of legal gender recognition to transgender people based on human rights standards is advised.”
Although Thailand is making tangible steps towards recognizing LGBTI rights, regional experts say that the country – and the region – still has a long way to go.
Henry Koh, an LGBTI activist and human rights specialist with Fortify Rights, says that Thailand’s new bill is progress but underscores that it doesn’t fully meet the LGBTI community’s needs.
“The Civil Partnership Bill is a great leap in the right direction towards recognizing same-sex unions in Thailand,” said Koh. “However, the proposed bill falls short of certain fundamental rights, along with protection that is equitable to those of heterosexual unions,” he said.
Those curtailed rights, he says, include the ability to legally use surrogates, freedom to make decisions if a same-sex partner falls deathly ill or into a coma, and even to take their partner’s same last name.
Others are concerned about a possible conservative backlash to the military Cabinet’s approval of the bill. There are historical and shameful reasons for those concerns.
In 2009, in Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai, the local LGBTI community hosted a second gay pride parade in what appeared to be another milestone occasion.
Not long after it started, however, the march ended in protest and threats of violence as locals severely disrupted the parade, eventually dismantling the entire event. The anti-gay protestors even forced the organizers of the event, to publicly apologize for “offending Thai culture.”
Wannapong says such incidents underscore the enduring and often overlooked lack of acceptance among many Thais.
“It’s weird for me to be in a country that seems to accept transgender people, but the fact is that we are [still] not recognized in the law,” she said. “And when we talk to policy makers and those involved in change, they always fall back on the excuse that Buddhism doesn’t accept that.
“This points to me that the country simply tolerates us, but doesn’t actually accept us.”