Hanging in the balance

By: Valérie Bah - Posted on: April 19, 2013 | Culture & Life

Considered by many as a gay-friendly oasis in Southeast Asia, is Thailand readying itself to become the first country in the region to legalise same-sex unions? 

By Valérie Bah

Natee Theeraronjanapong and his same-sex partner of 20 years were hoping to create a media and political storm when they filed for a marriage certificate at the district office last year.The news that a lesbian couple had been denied marriage registration in Chiang Mai emboldened Natee – one of Thailand’s most prominent gay rights activists – to seek a licence. However, when the office refused to issue him one, he didn’t take the matter lightly. Claiming that Thailand’s marriage law contravenes his human rights, he filed a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission, the Parliamentary Human Rights Commission and the Administrative Court.

When Natee’s cause hit newsstands nationwide, Police General Viroon Phuensaen, a Pheu Thai Party parliamentarian, summoned a group of 15 scholars, parliamentarians and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) activists to draft a bill granting same-sex couples the same marriage rights as other couples.

While the passage of such legislation would place Thailand firmly on the map as the most progressive country in the region with regard to gay rights, the drafting of the bill has failed to make waves in the Kingdom, and widespread apathy threatens to derail the movement.

“There’s a gay civil union bill?” asked Jitsupa ‘Fai’ Vijitpond, as she turned to her long-term girlfriend Kamonmarn ‘Au’ Piengta. Fai’s lack of awareness of gay activism in Thailand is indicative of the laissez faire attitude of Bangkok’s LGBT community.

Conventional and seldom confrontational, it stands in stark contrast to sister communities in capitals where activism is well organised and structured.

Compared to Berlin’s Weimar-era decadence, which celebrated sexual liberation, and New York City’s 1969 Stonewall Riots – a major event leading to America’s modern-day gay liberation movement – Bangkok’s LGBT community is mostly flash, no fire. Some gay pride festivals have faltered in parts of Thailand, while others have been denounced for their excessive commercialism. Across the border in Phnom Penh and Yangon, LGBT groups have organised gay pride festivals in cities with less established gay scenes.

“[In Bangkok], there is nothing that discriminates against gays openly,” said American business-owner Christopher Schultz, who has a civil union with his partner of 13 years, Thai fashion designer Tawn Chatchavalvong. “So what do you have to fight against? It is like boxing against the wind.”

In a society pinned to the tenets of Theravada Buddhism, which neither endorses nor prohibits homosexuality and is open to its kathoey (transgender) subculture, perhaps it is no surprise that Thais shrug off questions regarding sexuality.

“We’re not interested in such things,” said monk Thanawangso Phikky from Wat Tri-Tossathep. “It is people business, not monk business.”

Yet such indifference has helped to create an environment where gay rights advocacy is passive, despite a need for change.

While couples like Schultz and Chatchavalvong may never have “experienced overt discrimination”, Thailand’s legal system ensures they face inequality daily. As current laws only recognise unions between “man and woman”, gay couples are left in a legal black hole when it comes to joint taxation, family health coverage, visitation rights in hospital and inheritance rights.

“The legal status of partnerships acts as a form of protection, whereby the recognition of joint income and shared assets amount to financial protection. Without it, individuals are left vulnerable,” said Tawn Chatchavalvong.

While the passing of the bill is vital to the progression of gay rights in Thailand, Sattara Hattirat, a campaigner from lesbian activist group Anjaree who assisted in drafting it, said its wording is flawed.

“The bill uses the word ‘partner’ while Thai law uses ‘spouse’. Thus  ‘spouses’  have supporting laws that regulate benefits and divorce, while ‘partners’ are a stand-alone definition. Why not just say ‘marriage for all’ and get rid of the gendered term?” she asked, adding that the issue of adoption is absent from the draft. “If the bill is passed, Thailand could end up with a flawed civil partnership law.”

While supporters threatened to gather 10,000 signatures if the cabinet rejected the bill, perhaps better coordinated action that creates a livelier public debate in the future will see Thailand pass the region’s first civil union bill.

“In the end, it all depends on the LGBT community making noise about the weaknesses of the bill,” said Sattara Hattirat. “The mainstream LGBT community doesn’t care about their rights. But I think they’re happy to have been addressed by parliament for the first time.”