Thai Gays say what God Hath Joined, Let no Man put Asunder
Thailand, which has arguably the most laid-back attitudes in Asia if not the world towards its very visible lesbian, gay and transgender communities, appears set to consider the passage of a same-sex civil union bill sometime in 2013, gender rights activists say.
For two months, lesbian, gay and transgender activists have been pounding the pavements of Bangkok and other cities, seeking to collect signatures for people who support the recently drafted same-sex marriage bill.
After wandering for hours in the sun, 50-year-old Natee Theerarojanapong, the president of Thailand's Political Gay Group, rested on a footpath and talked about the community's campaign to win support for the measure.
"I will fight until Thais accept that we're all human beings. And that we deserve the right that everyone shares," said Theerarojanapong, who has collected more than 1,000 signatures so far. "We need the right to love, to be loved and the right to stay with our beloved one, like everyone does."
If passed, Thailand's measure would be the first legal recognition for same-sex couples in Asia, much of which is notoriously conservative. Eight of the 11 countries that have legalized same-sex marriage are in Europe. Only Argentina, Canada and South Africa are outside Europe.
In Taiwan, which holds what is billed as Asia's largest annual gay rights parade, a same-sex marriage bill has been pending in the legislature since 2003. A same-sex Buddhist couple married in Taipei last year without waiting around for the law. Last July, Vietnam said it would consider an amendment to the country's marriage laws allowing for same sex marriages, but so far there has been no movement.
After being denied the right to marry in Thailand last year, Theerarojanapong and his partner filed a petition with the National Human Rights Commission, arguing that he has been discriminated against because of his own sexual orientation. T he first petition for marriage registration between same-sex couples filed in Thailand, it was followed by a move by the House of Representatives to draft a bill on same-sex marriage which was finished in January and is now awaiting a hearing session.
Despite Thailand's lenient attitude towards gay sexual practices, much of Thai society also remains deeply conservative and getting the bill through the parliament is expected to be difficult.
Wirath Kalayasiri of the opposition Democratic Party, who presented the bill to the House, described it as a dicey political move. While gay and transgender establishments dot Bangkok's main business district, last year a national government-sponsored survey showed that nearly 60 percent of Thais believe that same-sex marriage is unnatural and sets a bad example for children.
Those attitudes could be changing, as they appear to be changing all over the planet. Last July Nok Yonlada, nee Kirkkong Suanyos, won a district seat in the Nan Provincial Administrative Organization after campaigning openly as a transsexual - followed by news media from Japan, Germany, Mexico, USA and the UK.
Nonetheless, "It's very risky for me to support the bill," Wirath said. "There is a lot of teasing from my colleagues saying, ‘Wirath, are you becoming homosexual?' I know they were only joking, but it is still insulting," he says.
Many also say the bill still has many loopholes. "The bill declares that it's only for same-sex marriage, but sexuality is more complicated than just the same or opposite sex," said Anjana Suvarnnanond, the founder of Anjaree, Thailand's first lesbian group.
Lawyer Nampufa says that Thai law doesn't recognise same-sex marriages, civil unions or domestic partnerships and that it's time to update the country's marriage law, which has been in place since 1953.
"In fact, homosexuality itself has never been illegal in Thailand. They simply conclude that the marriage can only be approved when both the man and woman consent. So why not amend the law?"
The Sexual Diversity Network is drafting its version of the same-sex marriage bill, in case the House-sponsored version is denied cabinet approval. Vitaya Saeng-aroon from the network says what they're doing is pushing for equality.
"Some gay groups are afraid that this will stir up the issue and turn public opinion against us, but for me, it's clear that if we don't start now, we'll never have the rights that we should have," he says.
Saeng-aroon says that members of the LGBT community are like second-class citizens.
"It seems like we can do anything, but actually there are many things we can't do," he says.
(A different version of this article was first broadcast on Asia Calling, a regional current affairs radio program produced by Indonesia's independent radio news agency KBR68H. www.asiacalling.org.).