BANGKOK: When Kridchaya and Pimsirinuch decided to share their lives together and build a family of their own, marriage was not on their mind.
It was not because they did not want to wed. But the fact that they are both women bars them from having a legal relationship in Thailand, where same-sex couples are not recognised by the law.
“We didn’t think about having a legal partnership because it doesn’t exist,” said Kridchaya Tangtweetham, a business owner and mother of a three-month-old girl.
The couple spent five years trying to conceive and at least half a million baht (US$15,800) on assisted reproductive technology. The arrival of their child, from their perspective, has made the family complete.
Legally though, they are not equally protected by Thai law as heterosexual families. But this could change soon.
Thailand could become the first country in Southeast Asia to allow same-sex couples to have a legal relationship. Its House of Representatives is set to review two legal proposals aimed at extending more rights to people within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) community.
One of them comes from the Move Forward Party, which proposed amending the marriage section of Thailand’s Civil and Commercial Code to include the LGBTIQ group.
Currently, the law only permits marriage between males and females, who are legally recognised as husband and wife.
The party has proposed to amend the code so that couples of any sex can be recognised as spouses, filling the legal void that has deprived many same-sex couples of legal rights and protection.
“By amending the existing law on marriage, the rights afforded to opposite-sex couples will be extended. This will then allow people of any sex to marry. It’s the right solution, given that every citizen must use the same law and the same standard. This is equality,” said Tunyawaj Kamolwongwat, Member of Parliament from the Move Forward Party.
The other proposal is the Civil Partnership Bill prepared by the Ministry of Justice. It was endorsed by the Cabinet on Jul 8.
Unlike the proposed change to the existing law on marriage, this Bill creates a new legal term of “civil partners” to define same-sex couples registered under the Bill, and extends them certain rights enjoyed by husbands and wives.
For instance, civil partners can adopt children and have the power to act on behalf of one another in criminal cases. They can also inherit in the absence of a will.
However, civil partners are not entitled to personal income tax exemptions given to opposite-sex couples, or access benefits of state employees they enjoy.
Some have hailed these developments as a step forward for the LGBTIQ community, while others are either against it or say that more still needs to be done.
GOVERNMENT SAYS BILL WILL STRENGTHEN FAMILIES, ACTIVISTS SAY IT'S NOT GOOD ENOUGH
The Civil Partnership Bill will now be reviewed by the House of Representatives, along with the amendments to the Civil and Commercial Code proposed by the Move Forward Party.
According to deputy government spokeswoman Ratchada Thanadirek, the Civil Partnership Bill could help strengthen families with gender diversity and promote human rights.
“As for other rights that are only available to opposite-sex couples, when the Bill comes into effect, it will be evaluated and developed to accommodate different contexts, including amending related laws,” she said in a press conference on Jul 8 after the cabinet endorsed the legal draft.
For some rights advocates, however, the government’s offer is not good enough.
“It’s like the LGBTIQ shouldn’t be given certain rights,” said Naiyana Supapueng from the Foundation for SOGI Rights and Justice, which advocates human rights in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity in Thailand.
For her, the use of “civil partners” instead of “married couple” is discriminatory and the fact that same-sex couples do not benefit from a set of rights afforded to heterosexual couples are unconstitutional.
She questioned, for instance, why Thai law only allows the husband or wife of civil servants to enjoy their spouse’ healthcare benefits and excludes same-sex partners when they are all citizens of Thailand.
“It means the LGBTIQ are second-class citizens when in fact, citizens should be equal before the law and receive the same protection,” Naiyana said.
“I think we mistakenly view gender diversity as an issue of marginalised people when it’s actually about all the citizens. We should realise that sexual orientation and gender identity is a human right. Every citizen should know we have liberty and freedom to choose how to live our life according to our sex or gender,” she added.
GENDER EQUALITY OR DISCRIMINATION?
Asst Prof Ronnapoom Samakkeekarom from the Faculty of Public Health at the Thammasat University pointed out that there are two sides of the same coin.
On one hand, it is seen as a step forward to promote gender equality in Thailand, where the group has long fought for legal recognition.
“It’s a legal form of social innovation that could change public perception and promote gender equality among Thais. If you look at the legal outcome from an academic point of view, I think the bill could bring about change in the context of equality in the Thai society,” he said.
By recognising same-sex couples, he added, the law could change people’s mindset towards the LGBTIQ community and help create more social acceptance of the population.
Its outcome could lead to social change and set up a new standard for equality.
But on the other hand, the Bill has also been criticised for what appears to be discrimination against same-sex couples, by creating a new gender box to differentiate them from heterosexual couples and only granting them certain rights.
“By stipulating that people of the same sex can enter into a civil partnership, the Bill has created a new standard and a specific group. It gives rights as a charity, a supplement,” Ronnapoom said.
According to Ronnapoom, however, it is unfair to say law makers who drafted the civil partnership bill have no understanding of the LGBTIQ group. Rather, he said, it depends on from which point of view the Bill is analysed.
“Looking from the Ministry of Justice’s point of view, they know it would take a very long time to amend the Civil and Commercial Code because technocrats would come out to defend a main law of the country,” he told CNA.
On the contrary, the bill on civil partnership could take less time to come into effect and therefore serve same-sex couples more promptly by filling the legal void that bars them from officially founding a family, he added.
“There are people who are in trouble now, with no social resources to compensate for the lack of legal recognition,” Ronnapoom said.
These people with limited social resources are highly vulnerable.
RELIGIOUS GROUP AGAINST THE MOVE
Meanwhile, a religious group has voiced its opposition to the Civil Partnership Bill.
"The Bill goes against ethics and will greatly disgrace society. Thailand is a country that has long valued the importance of religious teachings and ethics, supporting good deeds that are based on religious principles to promote the family institution and its society,” the Muslim for Peace Foundation said in a statement on its Facebook page on Jul 9.
“This bill could cause social disintegration, destroy ethics, disregard religious teachings, and lead to a social crisis that may escalate to a point where it cannot be remedied,” it added.
The statement drew heavy online criticisms and was later withdrawn.
Ronnapoom noted that there is a general perception that the LGBTIQ community is well-accepted in Thailand, while in fact, their identities are simply tolerated as long as they do not infringe on the rights of heterosexual citizens.
Members of the LGBTIQ community have presence and roles in various sectors, from entertainment to education and politics.
“A cultural explanation would be that Thais are considerate – we think about others. This creates a cultural buffer that prevents them from confrontation. This buffer helps the Thai society coexist with the LGBTIQ group. But coexist doesn’t mean understand,” he told CNA.
A number of Thais still associate LGBTIQ with abnormality as their society hardly tries to create a better understanding of the group, he added.
“People just accept to coexist with them,” Ronnapoom said.
"HOW LONG SHOULD WE KEEP WAITING?"
The two proposals regarding legal partnership of same-sex couples may have attracted different views in Thailand. Still, many people see them as a result of the growing awareness of gender diversity and equality in Thailand.
For Kridchaya and Pimsirinuch, the Civil Partnership bill may not give them the same legal protections as heterosexual couples but it presents them with rights they never thought they would have.
For them, “civil partners” is simply a legal term created to promote gender diversity in a society where same-sex couples do not have any legal recognition – an option for couples like them who otherwise are legally non-existent.
“When you’re talking about gender diversity, the law should be diverse too,” Kridchaya said.
“It’s not that we’re totally satisfied but we’re aware that in practice, in reality, we can do it step by step instead of taking a leap,” Pimsirinuch added.
“What if the equal marital rights never happen? How long should we keep waiting for that?”