Thailand markets itself as a liberal destination for LGBTQ people and earns billions of tourist dollars from it, yet the nation still doesn’t recognize same-sex unions. That could change as soon as this year.
After nearly a decade, the country now has three potential paths toward recognizing same-sex partnerships, short of full marriage — a same-sex-partnership bill that received the Cabinet’s nod in 2020, a proposed legal amendment that would allow same-sex marriage and a court ruling in April on the constitutionality of denying same-sex couples the right to marry.
These signs point to Thailand possibly becoming the next country in Asia to recognize gay partnerships, a significant move in a region that lags far behind Europe and the Americas in LGBTQ rights.
Asian countries have taken steps toward greater rights for LGBTQ people in recent years, with the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan in 2019 the most significant of these. Thailand, however, is one of a few governments debating marriage equality. Elsewhere, activists have sought to expand rights by challenging discriminatory laws. India’s Supreme Court in 2018 struck down a colonial-era law banning gay sex, for example, while LGBTQ couples in Hong Kong won spousal visa rights in the same year.
Despite its free-wheeling image and welcoming attitudes to gay visitors, Thai laws lag behind public attitudes toward LGBTQ people because its government and bureaucracy have long been dominated by older men who hold conservative, patriarchal values, according to Naiyana Supapung, an adviser at the Foundation for SOGI (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) Rights and Justice.
Kerdchoke Kasamwongjit, a 56-year-old bureaucrat, would therefore seem like an unlikely force in Thailand’s fight for LGBTQ rights. The Justice Ministry official drafted the same-sex-partnership bill and hopes that his own 20-year relationship will be among those eventually recognized by the state.
“I didn’t start working on the bill thinking that I would be able to use it one day. I really wanted to create a law that recognizes queer people,” Kerdchoke said, adding that when he started work on the bill, there were no laws that mentioned LGBTQ individuals or acknowledged gender diversity.
During Kerdchoke’s decadelong fight for greater equality for LGBTQ people in Thailand, attitudes have shifted so significantly that a 2019 poll by the National Institute of Development Administration showed that 90% of people said they accepted LGBTQ colleagues, and 87% said they would accept LGBTQ family members.
Those conditions are a far cry from Kerdchoke’s early years growing up in Chachoengsao, east of Bangkok, before moving to the capital after seventh grade. He said he had heard stories of friends being chained to the house or accused of being possessed because they’re gay. He himself was bullied in school, though he said his parents were accepting of his sexuality even if he never properly “came out” at home.
Kerdchoke’s belief that he had to work harder than other people in school because of his sexuality paid off when in 1988 he became one of three people to secure a job at a competitive law enforcement agency. However, discrimination in the workplace was rife.
On one occasion, his boss told him he “wasn’t fit to work there” if he was gay, he recounted. In 2003, Kerdchoke was voted best employee by his co-workers — only for his bosses to ask for his name to be withdrawn from the award because his sexuality made him “not suitable.”
That same year, however, Kerdchoke was also asked to join the Justice Ministry’s Rights and Liberties Protection Department, a place that he said was much more accepting and gave him the opening to work on LGBTQ rights.
A major test for LGBTQ rights in Thailand came in 2012 during the administration of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, when a gay couple was denied the right to register for a marriage certificate in the northern city of Chiang Mai. Seeing an opportunity to get involved, Kerdchoke started working to create a legal pathway for same-sex partnership. He said he drafted a “simple” bill that would bypass existing marriage and family laws to allow civil partnerships, which he expected to pass more easily than amending existing laws.
Progress on the bill stalled after former army chief-turned-premier Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power in a 2014 coup. Kerdchoke took the time to further finesse the bill, incorporating input from the public and rights groups. The final version, approved by Prayuth’s Cabinet, includes provisions that allow gay couples to jointly manage assets and liabilities and adopt children.
However, the bill faces pushback from people who think that it doesn’t go far enough.
Among them is 49-year-old Tunyawaj Kamolwongwat, a member of the opposition Move Forward Party and one of the first four LGBTQ lawmakers to be elected to parliament. He prefers an alternative pathway to marriage equality through amending the country’s civil code to amend heterosexual definitions of marriage.
“Everybody should have equal rights to start a family. Same-sex couples shouldn’t be in a different category,” Tunyawaj said, adding that he expects parliament to start its first reading of the amendment before the end of the year.
Meanwhile, the Foundation for SOGI Rights and Justice is awaiting a court ruling on April 26 that could determine the right to same-sex marriage. The group filed a suit in 2020 to ask the court to rule on whether the civil code’s provisions on marriage go against the constitutional guarantee that all persons are equal under the law and enjoy the same rights and privileges.
That pathway is similar to what happened in Taiwan, where a court ruled in 2017 that the previous definition of marriage as between a man and a woman was unconstitutional, paving the way for the first gay marriages to take place in 2020.
If the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, Kerdchoke said that his bill may not be necessary as the law would need to be amended accordingly to grant equal rights to LGBTQ individuals. Otherwise, his bill, or Tunyawaj’s proposed amendment, would move forward.
“In one way or another, these paths will lead to more rights, if not equal rights, for same-sex couples in the country,” he said. “There’s really no negative outcome.”
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