Gay rights activists in Thailand recently received some good news. Proposed legislation offering same-sex couples the same legal rights as heterosexual married couples is heading to parliament. If the bill passes, it would make Thailand the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex civil unions, which may not seem unrealistic considering the country’s well-known tolerance towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couplings. That said, there are several, perhaps insurmountable, hurdles that stand in the way of Thailand becoming the first country in Asia to break this barrier.
First, public opinion – or at least perceived public opinion – may not be on the side of the cause. A government survey found that nearly 60 percent of Thais are not in favor of gay marriage. Activists have countered that the polls don’t tell the whole story. Who’s correct? Polls being what they are in Thailand it’s anyone’s guess, but strictly speaking this law is not looking to redefine marriage. Instead it would create create civil partnerships where LGBT couples would have the same legal rights as marriage when it comes to issues of inheritance, child care and medical care.
Second, the man behind this legislation, MP Wiratana Kalayasiri, a Democrat from Songkhla and Chairman of Legal Justice Human Right committee, notably pointed out at a recent forum that, “if we look at the parliament today most are over 45, they are older and most have an older way of thinking.” To get the bill passed 251 parliamentarians need to sign on.
Third, the Thai political system is notoriously, for lack of a better word, fickle. Wiratana himself said, “some people say you can find a copy of the Thai constitution in magazine racks because it changes as often as many magazines.” And with rumors of another coup in the wind perhaps this isn’t the best time to pursue a groundbreaking law.
Fourth, the proposed law’s language is still being ironed out. As it reads now the bill doesn’t put same-sex civil unions on the same level as traditional marriage. For example, if you want to get hitched and you’re gay, under the proposed law you couldn’t do so until you’re 20, the age of maturity in Thailand. Oddly enough, straight couples can get tied down today at 17. Activists also take issue with how gender is categorized in the current bill’s language. Transgender individuals would be forced to choose between labeling themselves male or female. Activists would prefer more gender neutral language.
Fifth, changing the law involves changing Thai civil law. In the words of Anjana Suvarnananda, a prominent Thai activist at the forum, “our civil laws are the Bible, we don’t touch them. We have a long up hill struggle if we want to change them.”
So could Thailand realistically become the first Asian country to legalize same-sex civil unions?
The answer is an unenthusiastic maybe.
It’s worth noting that two other bills were proposed in the Thai parliament about a decade ago, and they obviously didn’t have success.
In Southeast Asia a better bet is Vietnam, where a similar bill is being considered and seems to be making impressive headway.
Perhaps Thailand should start thinking about second place?