Dignity still elusive for LGBTQ people
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Dignity still elusive for LGBTQ people

Members of the LGBTQ+ community celebrate outside parliament after the passing of the Marriage Equality Bill in its second and third readings by the Senate on Tuesday, which will effectively make Thailand Asia's third country to legalise same-sex unions. (Photo: Reuters)
Members of the LGBTQ+ community celebrate outside parliament after the passing of the Marriage Equality Bill in its second and third readings by the Senate on Tuesday, which will effectively make Thailand Asia's third country to legalise same-sex unions. (Photo: Reuters)

Finally, Thailand has made history by being the first Asean country to legalise same-sex marriage, after the Senate, a very conservative Upper House, appointed by the 2014 Thai coup-maker, approved the marriage equality bill.

This has made many people overwhelmingly happy. It is undeniable that Thailand has made significant progress on social issues, especially when compared with many countries in the West. But how long will the honeymoon last celebrating LGBTQ rights in a country with a very high-level of social intolerance towards LGBTQ people?

Today, the protection of LGBTQ rights has been legalised, but the promotion of "dignity" among LGBTQ people remains a big challenge for Thailand.

Despite an overwhelming vote of 130 for, and four votes against the Marriage Equality Bill, with 18 abstentions, the last debate in the final reading in the Senate reflected a very typical view against LGBTQ rights and a societal perception which cannot simply be equated with the legal achievement and social tolerance towards the LBGTQ community.

This bill will certainly not change the anti-LGBTQ mindset in Thailand but it will promote and protect the rights of LGBTQ people here.

During the final scrutiny of the bill, Gen Worapong Sanganetra, a former chief of the Defence Forces and a senator appointed by the 2014 Thai coup-maker, strongly condemned the bill, saying it will significantly "corrode" and "destroy" traditional families by using gender neutral terms such as two "individuals" instead of a man and a woman and removing a gender-assigned legal term such as "husband" and "wife" and replacing them with neutral terms like "two individuals" and "spouses".

Senator General Worapong said the bill will not promote equality, but will instead bring male and female into the very same category as those who are classified as LGBTQ.

His implication is that LGBTQ people are simply not equal to males and females in his perceived "normal society". Indeed, this tone and argument are not surprising or unexpected because conforming to the superiority of a traditional gender identification has been one of the main obstacles for a society to embrace gender diversity and make progress in Thailand and elsewhere.

Indeed, a conservative view from the Senate is in line with a recent study on the "State of LGBTQ Rights in Thailand", led by Assistant Prof Sakol Sopitarchasak, a lecturer at Thammasat University.

His research found that despite the advancement in LGBTQ rights and a more open minded younger generation who are not opposed to the promotion of LGBTQ rights and a marriage equality bill, there were some doubtful "buts" in their answers. A large number of responders remain reluctant and not very comfortable accepting a member of their own family if they identify themselves as LGBTQ.

Therefore, celebrating the Thai LGBTQ community's legal achievement should not overshadow the difficulties that it and activists have gone through over the past two decades, during the fight for the bill.

Indeed, politicians and businesses have perceived this bill as a window of opportunity since the start, as engagement in the process was equated with increasing popularity and marketability in the Thai political and commercial marketplace. No one has missed the boat as we have observed the excitement and enthusiasms in engaging with and getting involved in "Thailand Pride" in the past few years. It has been a MUST-GO event for most public figures.

In many villages in Isan, in Thailand's northeastern region, LGBTQ people still struggle to be accepted and given their dignity, and not treated as a commodity that can generate money.

How much can the Pheu Thai Party-led government ensure that LGBTQ people can live with dignity, when Isan remains crucial to the future of the party?

With its bid to promote "soft power", the party focuses on enhancing economic prosperity with very little attention to the promotion of "values".

Younger demographic groups however are very receptive towards human rights issues as set in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."

Living a life with dignity in rural Thai villages is not what one can often experience, regardless of one's sexual orientation. Thus, the government's determination to educate wider society is crucial to promoting a better understandings about "dignity and rights".

In September 2023, Thailand announced its candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council for the 2025-2027 term, highlighting the government's commitment to "advancing democracy and human rights…"

The legalisation of same sex marriage is a historic move, reflecting advancement in society, whereas the structure of power is largely controlled by conservative elements, which is well received by international communities.

Nevertheless, rights in the daily life of ordinary Thais still cannot be taken for granted, especially outside Bangkok.

The legalisation of the Same Sex Marriage Bill can only help facilitate Thailand's bid to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, but it is not a green light to do so. With such an achievement in advocating LGBTQ rights, Thailand must take this opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to promoting the "dignity and rights" of LGBTQ people at home and abroad.

This will not only enhance the country's international reputation but it can also promote a dignified life for LGBTQ people in Thailand.

Titipol Phakdeewanich is a political scientist at the Faculty of Political Science at Ubon Ratchathani University.

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