Thailand at forefront of push for LGBTI inclusion

Thailand at forefront of push for LGBTI inclusion

Thai LGBTI activists. Thailand is soon to be the first government in the region to recognise the rights of same-sex couples. (File photo)
Thai LGBTI activists. Thailand is soon to be the first government in the region to recognise the rights of same-sex couples. (File photo)

Thailand could become the first government in Southeast Asia to officially recognise same-sex and transgender couples, with the final draft of a civil partnership bill expected to be concluded by the end of this year.

Thailand is considered progressive -- and rightly so -- on the rights and social inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. Open discussions about civil partnership registration, legal gender recognition of transgender people, and fighting discrimination have increasingly gained attention among policymakers, the media and the general public. Much of this is due to the impressive work of the Thai LGBTI civil society and government officials who have been actively moving the agenda forward, to improve the lives of some of Thailand's most vulnerable people.

In July this year, the draft civil partnership bill was discussed at a public forum, "Gender Matters", hosted by the governments of Thailand and Canada. Such a law has been on the table for almost a decade, but its development has gained momentum over the past two years. This high-profile public conversation showcased the strong commitment of Thailand's Ministry of Justice and the wider community to greater LGBTI equality.

Additionally, there is clear evidence that public opinion supports civil partnership for same-sex couples. The forthcoming UN Development Programme (UNDP) national study on social attitudes towards sexual orientation, gender identity and expression in Thailand found that two-thirds of respondents have no objection to civil union of same-sex couples.

Thailand continues to make progress on fighting discrimination against LGBTI people. In 2015, it passed the Gender Equality Act which promotes the equality of men and women and extends non-discrimination protections to cover people whose gender expression is different from their sex assigned at birth. Since the law's introduction, there have been almost 30 cases of complaints about discrimination based on gender identity submitted to the Committee on Consideration of Unfair Gender Discrimination.

Transgender Thai model Mimi Tao poses during a photo shooting last year in Bangkok. Transgender people in Thailand still face challenges due to the absence of legal gender recognition.  (Photo by Pornprom Satrabhaya)

One of the prominent cases was in 2016 when the University of Phayao refused to issue a transgender intersex woman her graduate certificate and transcripts because she had submitted a photo in which she looked like a woman, despite her ID documents designating her as male. In December 2016, her petition on the basis of the Gender Equality Act was granted and she received her university transcripts and certificate, in person, in January 2017.

Thailand is also addressing challenges faced by transgender inmates, an issue gaining increased attention globally. The Ministry of Justice and UNDP organised the first ever meeting in September this year of more than 200 prison wardens and officers to raise awareness of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression in prison settings, and to develop regulations for the management of transgender inmates. During his opening remarks, ACM Prajin Juntong, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice affirmed that, "The Ministry of Justice gives priority to and guarantees the rights of all inmates equally, including those of transgender inmates."

However, significant obstacles remain. LGBTI people still face considerable stigma and discrimination in Thailand (as they do in our own countries). For example, findings of the recent UNDP and International Labour Organisation (ILO) multi-country study on LGBTI employment discrimination in China, the Philippines and Thailand reveals that LGBTI people experienced difficulties right from the beginning of the job search. Some 60% of respondents in the three countries said they had seen a job advert that implicitly excluded their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression in the job requirements.

Another study by UNDP, "Legal Gender Recognition in Thailand: A Legal and Policy Review", points to challenges faced by transgender people due to the absence of legal gender recognition. The vast majority of transgender people are unable to obtain official identification documents that reflect their gender identity. The failure to officially recognise a person's gender identity, including name and gender marker, in public registries and key identity and citizenship documents, makes the lives of transgender people more difficult. It affects their ability to navigate daily life -- everything from job applications to banking.

While addressing these challenges at home, Thailand is emerging as one of the global champions on LGTBI inclusion and leading the way in Asia. It was one of the only Asian countries to continuously vote in favour of the post of the UN Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Indeed, the first such UN Independent Expert was Professor Emeritus Vitit Muntarbhorn from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

Early this year, the current UN Independent Expert, Victor Madrigal-Borloz of Costa Rica sent visit requests to 12 countries, including Thailand. We encourage the government of Thailand to continue its support of the mandate and welcome the UN Independent Expert.

Thailand reconfirmed its commitment to uphold LGBTI rights during a closing statement at the "Leaving No One Behind: The Equal Rights Coalition Global Conference on LGBTI Human Rights and Inclusive Development", held in Vancouver last August. Vijavat Isarabhakdi, Adviser to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, noted that Thailand's Constitution "guarantees equal rights and protection under the law and non-discrimination to everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity".

Thailand's strong commitment to addressing LGBTI inclusion contributes to achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the commitment to leave no one behind. Through the UNDP "Being LGBTI in Asia" programme, the international community is fully committed to continuing to support Thailand's efforts in developing a more equitable and inclusive society and to share its successes and experiences with other countries.

Deirdre Boyd is UNDP Resident Representative, Thailand. Staffan Herrström is Ambassador of Sweden to Thailand. Donica Pottie is Ambassador of Canada to Thailand.

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