LGBT activists step up legal bid for marriage equality

Constitutional Court asked to rule on shortcomings in Civil and Commercial Code

Members of the Foundation for SOGI Rights and Justice rally at the Constitutional Court on Friday for legal recognition of same-sex marriage. (Photo by Apichit Jinakul)

Local LGBT activists submitted a legal challenge to the Constitutional Court on Friday in a bid to change laws that limit marriage to between a man and a woman, the latest in a series of attempts to achieve marriage equality in Asia.

The definition of marriage in Thailand's Civil and Commercial Code, which deals with the rights of private persons, goes against the constitution which states that "all persons are equal before the law, and shall have rights and liberties and be protected equally under the law", say the activists.

"There is no provision to allow persons of the same gender to be able to register marriage," LGBT advocacy the Foundation for SOGI Rights and Justice said in a statement. SOGI stands for sexual orientation and gender identity.

"Refusal to allow LGBT couples to legally marry affects many citizens who cannot access rights according to the law," said the group, which filed the legal challenge.

Across Asia, activists are going to the courts to challenge discrimination of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and other people and force legislators to act.

Earlier this year, Taiwan became the first place in Asia to legalise marriage equality. Litigation for marriage equality is currently underway in Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea.

But petitions in China and the Philippines were rejected, and conservative values and deep-rooted biases have hamstrung progress on gay rights in countries including Myanmar, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei.

Thailand has a reputation for having a relaxed attitude toward gender and sexual diversity; homosexuality has been decriminalised since 1956.

The legal bid is "welcome" but risky, Anjana Suvarnananda, founder of the Anjaree Foundation, an LGBT rights group, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"This route has not been tried before, and if we do not succeed in convincing the court that the Civil Code is unconstitutional, then there is a risk that the outdated notion of marriage will persist for a while," she said.

Legislators are drafting a Civil Partnership Bill to give more rights to same-sex couples, although many LGBT activists have said it does not go far enough, as it does not allow marriage, adoption or grant full spousal benefits.

"The Ministry of Justice wants full marriage equality — that is our aim. But others in the government think we should do it step by step — so civil partnership first," said Nareeluc Pairchaiyapoom, a senior official in the Justice Ministry.

The government had previously discussed amending the Civil Code to change the definition of marriage but is not considering doing so, she added.

Two-thirds of Thais have no objection to same-sex unions, a 2018 survey by the United Nations Development Programme found.

An election this year brought four openly LGBT  lawmakers to parliament, and they are pushing for more rights — from a change in dress codes to marriage equality.

The court challenge will boost such efforts, said Douglas Sanders, an academic associate at Mahidol University, who has researched marriage equality in Asia.

"What may have seemed as impossible in some countries has been made possible through judicial reviews," he said.

"Even losing isn't always terrible ... it is on TV, in the papers and on social media, which gives the issue, the individuals and organisations visibility."