Marriage law equality call risks staining rainbow flag
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Marriage law equality call risks staining rainbow flag

LGBTI activists, dressed in colourful outfits, rally near Siam Square Wednesday to promote the 2015 Gender Equality Act, as well as the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. (Photo by Jiraporn Kuhakan)
LGBTI activists, dressed in colourful outfits, rally near Siam Square Wednesday to promote the 2015 Gender Equality Act, as well as the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. (Photo by Jiraporn Kuhakan)

Last month, a photo of Saudi Arabia's Girl's Council went viral because of one peculiarity: the total absence of women and girls in it. Thousands of Thais -- including many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people -- must have sniggered at the image. Surely in 2017, laws and policies cannot be formulated without proper representation of the very people they purport to serve?

But their smugness should not last long, because with an ounce of self-reflection they would remember that theirs is one of a few countries on Earth where formal and substantive representation has been entirely annihilated.

As if that weren't ironic enough, many LGBTI activists in Thailand rejoiced when Wallop Tangkhananurak, chairman of the social, children, women, the elderly and disabled people's affairs of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), hinted on April 30 at the military-appointed body's willingness to consider a "same-sex marriage law".

The timing seems perfect, as LGBTI people around the world are commemorating the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) this week. A high-profile event was to take place at the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre yesterday. Lo and behold, activists were to submit signatures to the NLA and Ministry of Justice petitioning for such a law through the opening ceremony.

But those behind this initiative should be careful what they wish for. Considering the NLA's ignoble records, hoping that such clicktivism will yield the desired result is the high mark of extreme naivety or desperation.

Yes, the petitioners -- and the rest of us -- may actually get "a" law. But it will most likely be, at best, perfunctory like the fundamentally flawed Gender Equality Act which explicitly permits discrimination on the grounds of national security and religious reasons; or, at worse, damaging like the Surrogacy Act which bars anyone from surrogacy except legally married heterosexual couples.

Even more worrying than the end result is the means to achieve it. Lack of representation scars all NLA laws. The recent Gender Recognition bill is another painful reminder how it can go badly. Rather than placing importance on the opinions of transgenders, the cursorily organised public hearing focused on how the bill, once passed, would affect cis-gender people. As one Facebook comment put it, "They treat our gender identity like a dirty coal power plant subjected to environmental impact assessment."

It begs the question whether those behind the petition see any irony in it. Why do they think they deserve to be heeded? If it's the 50,000+ signatures on the petition, it must be asked why their voices suddenly matter when millions of votes were completely disregarded three years ago. Or if they insist that their human rights are inalienable, they should think about many others whose rights have been taken away by this same NLA's legislation.

With democracy abolished and human rights abrogated, what they are asking for is nothing but special favour. In the current political climate when all other voices have been silenced, such clamouring is as appropriate as someone yelping away on mobile phone in a cinema.

There are other ways to advocate marriage equality under current legislative conditions without sacrificing integrity for the sake of short-term interest. One way is to mount a legal challenge when a marriage licence is denied. The movement has succeeded before when they took a transgender's complaint on the Ministry of Defence's demeaning conscription practice to the Administrative Court whose favourable ruling in 2011 opened the floodgates for the new generation of LGBTI activists today. Or they can form a people's assembly to draft an inclusive gender-neutral marriage equality bill for everyone, not only for LGBTIs. But these will require actual work and efforts, not as quick and easy as signing a Faustian pact with the power-wielding hands.

For these reasons, the inclusion of this same-sex marriage law petition submission initiative at all is a coup de grâce for IDAHOT. But placing it at the heart of the official opening ceremony makes it a blatant stain right in the middle of the rainbow flag. This is truly unfortunate because this year's IDAHOT celebration highlights the important but much overlooked issue of family diversity.

Another irony is the IDAHOT's commemoration of the removal of homosexuality from the World Health Organisations International Classification of Diseases. If anything, it should be a day to liberate ourselves from and show resistance towards unaccountable policy-making bodies. Instead, Thai LGBTIs are using the day to display total submission to a body that represents nobody.

As someone who has been observing and involved in the local LGBTI movement for the last 15 years, I saw the best of the movement when it contested elected governments on homophobic policies, practices and positions. For example, the 2011 protest in front of Government House successfully persuaded our governments to vote in favour of LGBTI rights at the UN ever since.

Therefore, it is sad to see the movement sink to where it is now. Not only that it now fails to challenge, or at least remain independent from illegitimate entities, but goes so far as to kowtow to an unelected body that "gives" rights on one hand and takes them away on the other. This is a movement that I can no longer identify with or continue to be a part of it.

Moreover, the event is supported by several well-intentioned international organisations and friendly embassies. But good intentions and amity are not sufficient in the development field -- especially in a country still deep in self-conflict like Thailand.

While these foreign friends may also help defend other rights issues, they are doing so much more discreetly, unlike LGBTI rights which get vocal backing. This by itself may not be a problem. Certainly, LGBTI rights are a safe issue, because those in power don't see them as a threat. On the contrary, the rainbow flag seems like an easy place to wipe the stains on their boots.

However, when uncritical foreign support is poured into an event with an anti-democratic initiative such as this, it gives a wrong impression that LGBTI rights are being pushed at the expense of democracy. It's not too late to re-analyse this practice with the cardinal rule of development: the Do No Harm Principle. Surely, the last thing friends of the movement want is to harm its chance of being accepted as part of the larger human rights framework in a democratic Thailand yet to emerge.

It would be better if Thai LGBTIs observe and recognise another internationally important day, which is to be observed today, May 18, that commemorates South Korea's Gwangju democratic uprising and offers valuable lessons to an amnesiac society. I sincerely hope that when the time comes, an untarnished rainbow flag will fly in Thailand on the side of the oppressed, and not the oppressor.

Paisarn Likhitpreechakul is a writer and former gay activist with an MA in International Law and Human Rights from the UN-Mandated University for Peace, and an MA in Political Science from the Ateneo de Manila University. The opinions expressed here are personal

Paisarn Likhitpreechakul

SOGI Foundation board member

Paisarn Likhitpreechakul is board member of Foundation for SOGI Rights and Justice.

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