Bangkok, Thailand – Somphat Satanavat has big plans for his wedding day.

He’s started looking for just the right hotel for the banquet, something in a neoclassical or colonial style. He knows the type of traditional Thai music he wants to play and thought about the guest list.

But as a gay man in Thailand, where the law requires marriage to be between a man and a woman, this is still just a dream for him and his partner of 25 years.

Somphat said for now: “I [am] I just plan in my head.”

This could change soon.

Last week, the Thai government’s cabinet approved a bill that would amend the country’s Civil and Commercial Code to define marriage between two “individuals.”

If approved by Parliament, Thailand would be the first country in Southeast Asia to legalize same-sex marriage and only the second in all of Asia after Taiwan.

The government hopes to act quickly and hold the first of three votes the bill must pass by next month to become law.

“The Prime Minister [wants to] press [it] very much. He wants this bill to appear in parliamentary debate as soon as possible,” government spokesman Chai Watcharong told Al Jazeera.

If and when approved, “all legal rights after marriage will be 100 percent equal to those of a man and a woman,” he said.

“We believe there is no reason to say no because people should have the right to decide their own way of life. Even though they are male and masculine, they love each other…so they should have the right,” he added.

Thailand has been here before

The two previous governments each introduced their own bill on same-sex partnerships or marriage. However, they failed to leave the House of Commons before Parliament was dissolved to make way for national elections, bringing the process back to square one each time.

LGBTQ rights advocates say this is the best chance Thailand has had so far to pass the law.

Thailand’s current government is only months into its four-year term, leaving plenty of time to push through the bill barring a sudden coup or collapse. Major parties on both sides also support the law.

Rapeepun Jommaroeng, a consultant and policy analyst for the Rainbow Sky Association of Thailand, which advocates for LGBTQ rights, expects resistance from some religious groups, particularly the predominantly Buddhist country’s Christian and Muslim minorities. But, he says, they are unlikely to derail the bill.

“The country has made it clear that we will not force any religious leaders, priests or monks to do this [same-sex] Wedding ceremony,” Rapeepun said.

“This law is not about forcing people to do things they don’t want to do. This is intentionally broad to give people equality,” he said.

“It’s just about giving two people the freedom and freedom to be united.”

LGBTQ couples take part in same-sex marriage registration at a department store in the Thai capital Bangkok after lawmakers passed four different bills on same-sex unions on first reading in June 2022 [Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

The law’s passage is also facilitated by Thailand allowing Islamic law to replace some national laws – except those dealing with defense or security – for Muslims living in the southernmost provinces, where they are in the majority. This should result in the Civil and Commercial Code and any amendments no longer being applicable to Muslims in the south.

Chai, the government spokesman, confirmed to Al Jazeera that the code does not apply to Muslims in these provinces.

For the rest of the country, the LGBTQ community believes the bill represents a new departure in Thailand, bringing them a greater sense of respect, equality and freedom to be themselves.

If passed, “it will mean the country has reached a new level of civil liberties or civil liberties to recognize diversity in Thai society,” Rapeepun said.

“This is a time where they can celebrate and be themselves and not have to lie anymore.”

It can literally mean the difference between life and death, says Tunyawat Kamolwongwat, who was among the first four openly LGBTQ lawmakers elected to Thailand’s parliament in 2019.

He was re-elected last May and recalled a trip to the north of the country last year when a young woman approached him to tell him the story of a close friend who was gay and had been rejected by his family committed suicide.

“He decided to kill himself because of his family [did] Don’t accept his life[style]. She told me this story and I [was] cry, and I think it will [soon] “Change so people can get out,” Tunyawat said.

Tunyawat said recognizing same-sex marriage would give LGBTQ people a voice that has long been denied them.

“We can stand up and tell the person who bullies us that I am human because we all have equal rights.”

LGBTQ couples take photos of themselves on a rainbow flag-themed walkway at Sam Yan MRT station in Bangkok, Thailand during Pride Month 2021 [Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters]

The law would also allow same-sex couples to adopt children and open up a number of other options reserved for married couples.

“It’s not just about marriage status, but also about legally announcing that they are a couple. But another thing is that it is related to social welfare and social services and other benefits related to the law,” said Kath Khangpiboon, a trans woman and lawyer who teaches gender studies at Thailand’s Thammasat University.

Benefits include tax deductions and the right of spouses to provide each other with medical consent, manage property jointly, and pass on assets.

Such issues have weighed heavily on Somphat, who owns a confectionery company and worries that he may pass on his share of the business to his life and business partner if he dies, or that his partner will be denied the right to make medical decisions for him if he ever fell into a coma.

For LGBTQ government employees, the marriage would also provide new access to a range of public health benefits.

Most Thais seem ready

Somphat recalled a friend, a trans woman who teaches at a public school, whose partner needed thousands of dollars in medical care to treat a life-threatening illness.

Because they couldn’t get married, Somphat said, the woman couldn’t add her partner to her health insurance and they couldn’t afford the treatment, and he died.

“I don’t just want to exchange rings, I want to have a nice day with flowers and friends,” Somphat said. “We need… the law of our land [to] “Accept what I am,” he said.

If Parliament passes the bill, advocates say the law could finally keep pace with Thailand’s image as a country that accepts and even embraces the LGBTQ community.

A 2022 poll by the government’s National Institute of Development Administration found that nearly 80 percent of respondents supported legalizing same-sex marriage.

Supporters attribute the lack of progress so far on such a law to the outsized influence of conservative political donors or the military, which is allied with the country’s deeply conservative monarchy and itself wields significant political power, whether directly or through proxy parties.

Rapeepun also attributed the delay to pressure from some of Thailand’s neighbors.

In Southeast Asia, Brunei and Malaysia, both Muslim-majority countries, and Myanmar ban gay or lesbian sex. He hopes Thailand will soon become a “beacon” of hope for those longing for change elsewhere, or at least a refuge for those seeking respite from persecution because of their sexual orientation.

Somphat looks forward to the day that happens.

“If possible, I will go to the government office on the first day and register for marriage,” he said.

He then added: “I can tell everyone that he is my husband according to the law… I think it will be a very happy time.”

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