A week before Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, had a son, the UK made a historic move when Queen Elizabeth II officially approved a bill to legalise same-sex marriage in England and Wales.
LGBT advocates and loving couple Phanlavee Chongtangsattam (in tuxedo) and Rungtiwa Tangkanopast pose last Valentine’s Day to raise awareness of same-sex rights in Thailand. Photo by Pawat Laopaisarntaksin
On the same day that British lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people celebrated equal rights, a group of activists and politicians hosted a discussion panel on whether Thailand could become the first country in Asia to follow suit.
Hosted by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand, the discussion followed the ground-breaking move earlier this year when a group of LGBT activists and human rights advocates proposed a draft civil partnership law for same-sex couples.
Thailand is assumed to be a tolerant place for LGBT citizens _ the situation here seems to be much better than many countries in the region. But when it comes to rights, especially the right to marry the one they love regardless of gender, it's a different matter. Will Thai policymakers push what's largely socially acceptable into the sanctity of law?
Opening the talk was MP Wiratana Kalayasiri, a Democrat from Songkhla and chairman of the Legal Justice Human Right committee. With a group of LGBT activists, Wiratana is working to present the draft of the same-sex marriage bill to parliament.
"When I brought up the issue to other MPs, some of them teased me with a terrible joke. One of them said, 'Aren't you afraid of being struck by lightning for doing this?'," Wiratana shared with the audience.
"However, when I explained that LGBT people are also Thai citizens whose rights are protected under the constitution, they began to listen. After giving them more information, most of them became more understanding."
Wiratana's anecdote about what he encountered among politicians gave the audience a clue about the obstacles ahead. He said that while MPs' understanding of gender equality remains poor, their support is obviously needed for the bill to pass. LGBT activists and the public sector must work together in order to show them the bill is needed.
However, he also revealed that during the public hearing in his home town of Songkhla, where a number of the attendees were Muslims, 87% were in favour of the bill.
Anjana Suvarnananda, an LGBT activist who co-founded Anjaree Group, the first organisation in the country to campaign on lesbian and gay rights, also spoke. Anjana briefly walked the audience through the movement's development and raised examples of same-sex couples who faced difficulties getting recognition as legal partners.
Earlier this year, a National Institute of Development Administration survey showed almost 88.49% of Thais have nothing against having gay friends or colleagues and 77.56% can accept their family members being gay.
However, when it comes to same-sex marriage, only 52.96% agree with the bill. A group of LGBT activists has travelled to major cities in Thailand to conduct public hearings, receiving positive feedback. More than 4,000 signatures have been collected to support the bill. However, 10,000 signatures are required to set the bill on the agenda and 20 MPs are needed to propose it to parliament.
Another speaker _ and one of the key campaigners of the bill _ was Rainbow Sky Association executive director Danai Linjongrat. He believes getting 10,000 signatures will not be difficult, but what the group is discussing now is something more conceptual _ can the LGBT community really have faith in the bill that's being drafted? Is it a bill that will benefit people equally regardless their gender identity? Danai said the group fears the bill might stigmatise LGBT people further if it is not carefully reviewed. Ideally, the group needs the law to present genuine equality to people of all genders. For example, there has been feedback from some MPs that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry when they reach 20, when heterosexual couples today can wed at 17. The question, said Danai, is why there has to be an exception for same-sex couples.
"It is true that we may not need to take a long time to fight for our rights like what happened in other countries, but we also don't need to make it so quickly that we carelessly ignore important issues," said Danai.
Transgender advocate Prempreeda Pramoj Na Ayutthaya said, according to her experience, transgender people support the same-sex marriage movement, but their priority is being able to change the title of their names. They don't want to be identified with the sex they had at birth.
The audience was fully engaged and asked interesting questions, one of which was about a similar movement in Vietnam. Anjana explained that she met with Vietnamese activists during the International Lesbian and Gay Association (conference earlier this year and noted that they are also pushing for change. However, the Vietnamese political system is different from Thailand; most crucially, they don't have different political parties, and the one-party system means laws can be passed more quickly.
Anjana said activists there could propose and negotiate change directly with authorities. She also explained that in Vietnam they look at the situation by analysing what people are facing, what the regulations are, and try to bridge that gap, while the changes in Thailand are about correcting the absence of equality in the law today.
The discussion ended with a Thai audience member asking about whether the campaigners had thought about the consequences of the bill being passed, since he believes that it might encourage more people to be gay.
Danai answered by giving himself as an example, saying that he grew up with heterosexual parents and family members, but it didn't make him identify as heterosexual. As a kid, when he watched a loving couple in a movie, he always wanted to be the female protagonist not the hunky, masculine actor. The environment, he said, doesn't affect your identity. The bill will not make people want to become gay, but it will allow LGBT people to live more comfortably, with better lives, in society.
"But, the question is," he said. "Is society ready to give them that chance? To accept that people who are different from you also deserve the same rights that you have?"
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About the author
- Writer: Yanapon Musiket
Position: Life Writer