Thursday, August 8, 2013

Could Thailand be the First Asian Country to Legalize Same-Sex Marriage?

Same-Sex Partnership Bill Panel Discussion at FCCT
So it has admittedly been quite a while since I last updated, so let's try to catch up on what I have been up to in the LGBT advocacy world of Southeast Asia. One event in particular that stood out in the past few weeks was a panel discussion on a same-sex union bill that is currently being drafted and presented to the Thai parliament by Wiratana Kalayasiri, a democrat from the southern Thai city of Songkhla. Held at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) in Bangkok, the panel consisted of leading activists from the lesbian, gay, and transgender communities in Thailand as well as Kalayasiri. 

Thailand has perhaps become internationally famous for its seemingly open and accepting attitude towards LGBT people, but the reality of the situation is more complicated and reflective of a passive tolerance. For instance, while kathoey (trangenders) may be very visible in larger Thai cities, this does not necessarily translate into acceptance or integration into larger society. Non-discrimination laws do not exist for LGBT Thais and among some Buddhists there is the belief that LGBT people were born this way because of misdeeds in their past life. As you do not see the same level of violent homophobia and transphobia compared to other countries, Thailand seems to suffer from a different kind of problem: how do you create a social movement when there is a perception that society is already (relatively) tolerant? Do you need a certain level of visible oppression to galvanize a movement?

The debate on same-sex marriage started last year when a gay couple in Chiang Mai decided to try to get married, an act clearly prohibited by the section 1448 of the Thai civil code. After being denied by the local government, they took their case to the Parliamentary Human Rights Commission, the Administrative Court, and the National Human Rights Commission, claiming that Thailand’s constitution guarantees them equal protection under the law. This politicization of the case grew into the current work to draft the civil partnership bill, which notably exists separately from the Thai civil code.

Legally speaking this can be interpreted in various ways. As Anjana Suvarnananda, the founder of Anjaree, a leading Thai lesbian organization, pointed out during the panel, the civil code is what ultimately needs to be amended--a process which is undeniably challenging. This bill, as it would stand separately, risks being seen as a case of granting "special rights" to same-sex couples. Accordingly, LGBT activists on the panel were adamant that rather than naming gays and lesbians, the law needed to define marriage as a union between two people. 
Effectively, rather than campaign for same-sex marriage, the goal became to advocate for "gender-neutral" marriage.
Personally, I see this as having several advantages. In particular, it is much more cognizant of transgender individuals. Prempreeda Pramoj Na Ayutthaya, a transgender panelist, explained that pushing for same-sex marriage was something that many transgenders felt uncomfortable about. Would this mean that their relationships would be defined by their sex at birth (which Thai transgenders cannot legally change)? Are transgenders rendered as homosexual or heterosexual? What if two transgender people are together? 
How do we even talk about marriage when neither partner sees themselves as a man or a woman?
Rather than striving to mark difference, by coming back to the basic principle that marriage should simply be considered a union between two people, it avoids making this an issue specific to LGBTs. Be that as it may, the bill remains deeply problematic. Aside from the fact that it is a stand-alone bill, it states that the legal age of marriage for same-sex couples should be 20. The legal age for heterosexuals is 17. The reasoning behind this discrepancy has yet to be clearly explained, and it is still unclear if parliament will even pass this bill as is. 

A greater issue is finding agreement with the Thai LGBT community on the bill. While some wish to see the legislation pushed through--even with its flaws--others, like myself, remain concerned that this bill could lay the groundwork for making future amendments more difficult. I tend to take the approach that legal recognition of LGBT people should not be done purely through the creation of new, separate legislation--revising current laws, like the civil code, to be more inclusive is the ultimate goal. For now, the bill is still being revised before it is officially presented to parliament, but it does serve as an interesting comparison for same-sex marriage debates in the West and certainly sets the stage for this topic to be debated in other countries in the region.

Jamison Liang
MA Candidate, Anthropology & International Development
Sigur Center Grant for Asian Field Research 

1 comment: