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  Opinion   Columnists  26 Jun 2024  Anita Anand | Some lessons from Thailand’s same-sex marriage law: Social attitudes can change

Anita Anand | Some lessons from Thailand’s same-sex marriage law: Social attitudes can change

The writer is a development and communications consultant and the author of Kabul Blogs: My Days in the Life of Afghanistan
Published : Jun 26, 2024, 3:33 am IST
Updated : Jun 26, 2024, 3:33 am IST

As the first Southeast Asian nation to legalise same-sex marriage, Thailand sets a precedent for LGBTQ+ rights and inclusivity.

Members of the LGBTQ community celebrate outside the Thai Parliament after the passing of the final senatorial vote on the same sex marriage bill in Bangkok on June 18, 2024. Thailand on June 18 became the first country in Southeast Asia to legalise same-sex marriage, in a historic parliamentary vote hailed as a
 Members of the LGBTQ community celebrate outside the Thai Parliament after the passing of the final senatorial vote on the same sex marriage bill in Bangkok on June 18, 2024. Thailand on June 18 became the first country in Southeast Asia to legalise same-sex marriage, in a historic parliamentary vote hailed as a "victory" by campaigners. (Photo by Lillian Suwanrumpha / AFP)

On June 18, Thailand made history as the first country in Southeast Asia to pass a marriage equality law, recognising same-sex couples. The law, approved by the Senate and earlier by the House of Representatives, and once approved by the King, can come into force three months after it is published in the Royal Gazette.

This development, the culmination of more than two decades of effort by activists, was supported by an overwhelming majority of legislators in the Upper House. It had passed in the Lower House a few months ago.

The law describes marriage as a partnership between two individuals, instead of between a man and woman, and with this, LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, and others) couples will have the same legal rights and recognition as heterosexual couples, including those related to tax relief, inheritance, adoption, and healthcare decision-making. These rights are denied to same-sex couples because they are not married.

My first acquaintance with Thailand’s challenges in what was known as “population issues” in the early 1980s was meeting Mechai Viravaidya in Washington DC, at a briefing by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). In a room full of population advocates and policymakers, Mechai stood tall. The son of a Scottish mother and a Thai father, he had the best of both genes. He spoke about Thailand’s high birth rate, sex tourism, AIDS and poverty and their inter-connectedness. His analysis was an impressive, with a fresh take on all these issues, and the first time I had heard a person speak so candidly about issues of sex and sexuality. With this background, he started his organisation Population and Development Association (PDA) in the mid-1970s. The meeting ended and as we stepped out of the room, he stood by the door, shaking our hands and pressing a condom into our palms.

Later, in the 1990s, I met Mechai several times in Thailand while I was working on a documentary on reproductive health issues. We shot at various clinics his organisation PDA had helped set up, in collaboration with the government and the corporate sector, including the immensely popular restaurants he’d started called Cabbages and Condoms.

In Asia, Taiwan was the first country to legalise same-sex marriage in 2019, and then Nepal followed in 2023. Ironically, the three countries – all of them being traditional societies -- have been able to pass same-sex marriage laws. The Thai and Taiwanese are mostly Buddhist and the Nepalese are Hindus. While nothing in these religious traditions suggests that same-sex partnerships are not right, they don’t favour it either. The predominant view is that a marriage is between a man and a woman.

The institution of marriage is primarily for procreation. The idea that two people of the same sex could live together, have sex, and not procreate is an abhorrence to many. But times change, and the LGBTQ+ movements in countries have become more persistent and strategic. Many of these movements have pitched their issues as human rights and challenged clauses in their constitutions. In Nepal and Taiwan, where same-sex laws have passed, members of the community often face discrimination, prejudice, and even violence. In Southeast Asia, rising religious conservatism and colonial-era laws have made life hard for the LGBTQ+ community, and same-sex relations are criminalised in several countries, including Myanmar and Brunei.

In 2023, India’s Supreme Court declined to legally recognise same-sex unions in a landmark ruling, after campaigners had sought to obtain the right to marry under the law. Lessons from countries where same-sex marriage is recognised suggest that persistent campaigns by the LGBTQ+ community and other human rights groups can pay off. While discrimination and violence against the community may continue, it is a question of time as public awareness increases.

In Thailand and other countries, in the media, TV serials and films, more LGBTQ+ people feature than before, and personal stories of people in the community coming out to parents, the extended family, and friends are now commonly portrayed. There is more awareness.

According to a 2015 opinion poll, 89 per cent of Thais said they would accept a colleague who is gay or lesbian, 80 per cent would not mind if a family member was LGBT, and 59 per cent were in favour of legalising same-sex marriage. Fast forward to 2022, in a poll by the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA), 93 per cent of Thais accepted LGBT friends or colleagues, 91 per cent would accept a LGBT person as a family member, and 80 per cent supported same-sex marriage. In a government survey conducted between October 31 and November 14 in 2023, 96.6 per cent of the Thai public supported the same-sex marriage bill.

This acceptance by Thai society suggests that people, over time, can change their minds and lean towards accepting new social norms. The area of family is particularly difficult as it implies sex and heterosexual sex, between a man and a woman. The idea that two people, of the same sex, or sexual orientation along the spectrum want to call themselves a “family” is difficult for most people to accept. But living our lives by societal prescription and heterosexual norms leads to mental health problems, unhappiness, and even suicide.

However, definitions of family are changing; divorce rates are higher, more people want to be single, and many people don’t want children. There are different permutations and combinations of families and care is not a matter of opposite sexes or bloodlines.

In matters of the heart, we cannot choose who we fall in love with or desire.

Tags: thailand, same sex marriage, marriage equality