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Thailand: Gay couples to ‘live more freely’ with civil unions

Suthida and her partner Ann Baker pose for a picture in Bangkok, where they are awaiting the passage of Thailand’s Civil Partnership Bill which will allow them to register as a same-sex couple. Jan. 19, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rina Chandran

Luke Cassady-Dorion believed marriage was for “boring” straight people until he met the man he wanted to spend the rest of his life with – Tae. But Thailand, where they live, does not permit same-sex marriage.

So the couple wed in New York.

With Thailand set to pass a landmark law that would make it the first country in Asia to legally recognise same-sex couples as civil partners, they are hopeful the largely conservative Buddhist society is on the path to recognising their love.

“The LGBT community in Thailand has been campaigning for equal rights for a long time, and this bill is a good and important first step,” said Cassady-Dorion, who co-founded a YouTube channel with Tae, or Thapanont Phithakrattanayothin.

“When you normalise same-sex relations, it helps gay people to come out and live more freely, knowing that the government recognises your rights,” said Cassady-Dorion, who is also a yoga instructor.

Thailand has built a reputation as a place with a relaxed attitude towards gender and sexual diversity since homosexuality was decriminalised in 1956, and authorities actively promote the country as an LGBT+-friendly destination.

Yet LGBT+ people face discrimination and stigma in schools, the workplace and health facilities and are often rejected by their families, say activists.

Across Asia, conservative values and deep-rooted biases have hamstrung progress on gay rights. Taiwan voters last year rejected legalising same-sex marriage in a referendum.

While India’s top court scrapped a colonial-era ban on gay sex in 2018, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei outlaw sexual relations between men, and Indonesia has seen an increase in raids targeting LGBT+ people.

Thailand’s civil partnership bill, which was approved by the Cabinet on December 25, is therefore an outlier in the region, giving same-sex couples the right to register their unions, make joint medical decisions and own and inherit property.

“LGBT people in Thailand have been waiting for this for a very long time,” said Vitaya Saeng-Aroon, a director at the Bangkok Rainbow Organisation.

“There are couples who have been together for 15 years, 20 years, with no recognition or legal protection; they can finally breathe more easily,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But many gay people say it does not go far enough. It does not recognise marriage between same-sex partners, or give them the right to adopt or have children as a couple.

“We want to be a family with all the rights and privileges that any family has, but this bill does not give us that,” said Areeya, a transgender woman who declined to give her full name for fear of criticism.

Areeya, who is Thai, and her partner Lee, who is American, have been together for 16 years, and they have each adopted a child as single persons.

“Marriage equality is what would be really meaningful but we don’t know when – or even if – that will happen. We don’t feel particularly compelled to register our union without any real benefits,” she said as her younger son climbed on to her lap.

Campaigners also fear they will lose public support to push for full rights once the civil partnership bill is passed.

“People may say: ‘You’ve got this, what more do you want?'” said Wannapong Yodmuang, an activist for marriage equality.

“We have campaigned for so long for equal rights, but this bill will mean we are still treated differently and given fewer rights. We are worried that people will stop fighting, and that we will lose momentum,” she said.

The bill is “unlikely” to be passed before elections scheduled for March 24, and will await the new government, said Nareeluc Pairchaiyapoom, a senior official at the justice department.

Government officials have said granting marriage equality will take longer, as it requires changing people’s attitudes and amending the country’s Civil Code, which deals with the rights of private persons, including family law and inheritance law.

But two-thirds of Thais have no objection to same-sex unions, a survey by the United Nations Development Programme found.

Thailand’s marriage law can also be changed, said independent researcher Chawinroj Terapachalaphon.

“The marriage law now says “man and woman”; they just need to change it to “person”. Everything else can stay the same – it is easily done, and it would ensure equal rights for everyone,” he said.

“Everyone understands what marriage is, but few people understand a civil partnership, and none of the existing laws support it. What we need is a full marriage law that is clear and easy to implement, rather than something so complex.”

Others are ready to celebrate civil partnership.

“We will probably have a nice party when we register our union after the bill is passed, and some sort of a traditional ceremony as well. It’s important that we celebrate it,” said Ann Baker, who lives in Bangkok with her partner Suthida.

Baker, who is half English, had considered getting married in England, but wanted to have legal status in Thailand, where they both live.

“We are hopeful that we will get full marriage rights here soon, so we can start a family,” Baker said.

For everyone looking to party, Cassady-Dorion and Tae – who address LGBT+ issues in Thailand on their YouTube channel Picnicly – have plenty of tips.

Their own wedding in 2014 was a “small ceremony” in Cassady-Dorion’s mother’s home in Niskayuna, New York, and involved the two of them cooking big batches of pad thai and green curry for the guests.

“Our wedding was the least gay thing I have ever done: it was very normal. But there really was something magical about the moment, and having our family and friends with us as we said our vows,” said Cassady-Dorion.

“Marriage should be available to anyone who wants it, and we hope that Thailand will make marriage equality a reality. This bill should only be a step towards that.”

-Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Thomson Reuters Foundation

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