Gender law ignored as inequality persists

Gender law ignored as inequality persists

Activists rallied in Bangkok last year to promote the 2015 Gender Equality Act but much remains to be done. (Photo by Jiraporn Kuhakan)
Activists rallied in Bangkok last year to promote the 2015 Gender Equality Act but much remains to be done. (Photo by Jiraporn Kuhakan)

Heralded as a milestone law that criminalises unfair discrimination against people who have gender expressions different from their original sex, Thailand's Gender Equality Act has been disappointingly under-used since it was passed by the government two years ago this month.

Meanwhile, different forms of discrimination and violence against people with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities still persist.

As an anti-discrimination law, the Gender Equality Act promises legal measures towards equal treatment for all. It plays a welcome role in protecting people from discrimination and compensating those who have been discriminated against.

However, it remains challenging how this progressive legislation is to be effectively used and enforced when many policy-makers, authorities and the public at large have yet to embrace, in hearts and minds, the fact that every human being is equal in rights and dignity, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expressions, or other status.

On the global stage, Thailand projects itself -- and it is widely perceived to be -- a liberal and tolerant society in terms of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights.

Indeed, the country is supposed to be a global social champion when it comes to such rights. Thailand ratified the United Nations Human Rights Council's landmark Resolution on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in 2011, together with several related international obligations.

The country has also hosted many conferences and events that aim to advance the human rights of LGBTI people, including transgender women's beauty contests.

The annual Miss Tiffany's Universe competition in Pattaya, for example, is a global delight for many LGBTI supporters and others.

In addition, Thailand offers a variety of services, including cutting-edge medical clinics where gender-affirming surgery is performed, and gay bars and saunas operate freely.

Despite this progressive veneer, acceptance of individuals as they are, with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities and expressions that do not conform to dominant social norms and expectations, is still a major challenge in Thailand.

We have seen brutal murders of gays and lesbians labelled by authorities as "love gone sour" rather than the hate crimes that they are.

For instance, the killing of a 28-year-old woman, Suphaksorn Ponthaisong, last January in Kanchanaburi was touted by police and the media as "a love triangle murder".

She was accused of having a romantic relationship with a mistress of a police superintendent in Ratchaburi who was alleged to be the mastermind of the murder.

Additionally, bullying of transgender youth is also common in schools.

While Thailand's transgender clinical services are some of the best in the world, drawing hundreds of clients from distant places, it has yet to extend legal recognition of a new gender identity to the transgender population.

Marriage equality has been a long time coming. In 2011-12, the National Human Rights Commission, together with the Sexual Diversity Network, sought government support for draft legislation on same-sex marriage.

By 2014, the Civil Partnership Act was ready for submission to parliament, but did not proceed for a combination of reasons, including disagreement over the legal age of marriage and adoption arrangements.

These and other disputes over the financial and legal protection of partners of same-sex marriage reflect the key challenge that society faces in overcoming deep-rooted cultural norms and expectations that regard marriage as a conventional reproductive union.

While some elements of the 2016 constitution are highly controversial, the government asserted its commitment to empower marginalised communities to exercise their rights through effective legal protections and safeguards.

The new charter includes several provisions that recognise the rights of marginalised communities.

For example, Section 4 states that the "human dignity, rights, liberty and equality of the people shall be protected", while Sections 26 to 63 extend rights protections and anti-discrimination measures to criminal justice, education, age, religious belief, freedom of expression, and other spheres.

Thailand's present political and legal commitment to protect populations from all forms of discrimination based on sex and gender is progressively in sync with human rights principles.

Unfortunately, those entrusted with implementing the law, including responsibility for enforcing anti-discrimination policies, and the broader population, remain out of sync.

The Gender Equality Act sheds fresh light on the term "discrimination" and its implications for society: When it occurs; when it is neglected or ignored; and when it is challenged and ultimately overcome.

The latter calls for a redefinition of interactions between individuals, of cultural expectations, and of religious norms, to ensure that human rights come first and foremost.

Without this change, LGBTI people will continue to be left to their own devices in countering discrimination in the home, community, school and workplace.

This brings us back to the original question: Will the Gender Equality Act fulfil its potential as a tool for people to reject discrimination and uphold diversity, inclusion and gender equality?

It is no easy task to apply an anti-discrimination law to support an LGBTI population that is not legally recognised.

It now lies with the authorities to take the final steps, going beyond the binary, in ensuring that every individual in Thailand is legally recognised for their chosen gender identities and expressions -- and for their choice of choosing to be in a same-sex partnership.

There is a fervent hope the law will eventually move the hearts and minds of society towards understanding and acceptance.

Lazeena Muna-McQuay is a development professional who specialises in gender, human rights and sexual health. She provides technical support to several international organisations, after transitioning from a 12-year tenure with the United Nations.

Lazeena Muna-McQuay

Development professional

Lazeena Muna-McQuay is a development professional who specialises in gender, human rights and sexual health. She provides technical support to several international organisations, after transitioning from a 12-year tenure with the United Nations.

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