Thailand is on track to become the first country in Southeast Asia to recognise same-sex marriage. Thai lawmakers passed a draft bill in December that could put Thailand on the same path as Taiwan in legalising gay unions, marking a significant milestone for LGBTQ+ advocates.
However, the Kingdom must first win support for the bill from a conservative senate and review four draft bills before same-sex marriages are permitted in the politically polarised country.
According to Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at the international non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch, there is a yawning gap between Thailand’s progressive legislation and weak enforcement of gender rights laws. In their recent annual World Report 2024, Thailand’s enforcement of its Gender Equality Act 2015 was described as “piecemeal”.
Under the act, discrimination against a person’s gender expression remains legal if done to protect religious principles and national security.
The human rights watchdog is also concerned about interference from the Thai Senate that could block the bill from passing through the elected House of Representatives. The 250-seat senate was appointed by the Royal Thai Army, which blocked the former party leader of Move Forward Party, Pita Limjaroenrat, from becoming Prime Minister of Thailand, after his party emerged as the winner of the country’s 2023 election.
“The Thai Senate is composed of appointees of the past National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) government which was primarily conservative and retrograde in some ways, and may cause some problems for that draft law,” Robertson said at a press conference on 13 January 2024.
The main voices opposing the bill fear that the law may harm cis-gender people’s rights. Until recently, Thailand has remained a tolerant but unaccepting country for LGBTQ+ people, mainly due to Thai Theravada Buddhist teachings and discrimination towards non-binary gender identities.
When Thailand adopted westernisation ideology in the 19th century, non-binary gender identities began to emerge in the Kingdom. Gender terms exclusive to the country, such as ‘Kathoey’, which now exclusively refers to transgender women, were conceptualised in the 1950s.
Unprecedented civil society advocacy
Despite the challenges, Nachale ‘Hua’ Boonyapisomparn, the vice president of the Foundation of Transgender Alliance for Human Rights, thinks there is still time to strengthen public support for the bill before it reaches the senate.
“The public could help us push the senators,” said Nachale.
Nachale is part of a 39-person review committee set up by the government to combine the draft bills. Of the committee, 13 are from civil society groups and the LGBTQ+ community. This is the first time the Thai government has prioritised public opinion in a review committee usually dominated by government lawmakers.
Among the topics under review are raising the legal age of marriage, negotiating the gender-neutral definition of a parent, and ensuring fair access to adoption and reproductive technology for the LGBTQ+ community. If the bill is passed, it sets a precedent and creates a guideline to redefine gender rights for existing laws and other draft bills in the pipeline, including bills to protect sex workers and allow gender changes in official identity documents.
Chanya ‘Panan’ Rattanathada, who is the co-founder of the Young Pride Club, a youth-led community for gender rights advocacy, and also part of the review committee, said that the draft bill negotiations led by civil society groups for raising the minimum age for marriage from 17 to 18 have been successful, aligning the country with international children’s rights agreements. However, negotiations remain ongoing to amend terms like ‘father-mother’ to gender-neutral terms like ‘parent’.
This is also the first time in Thailand that a civil society group successfully submitted a draft bill to parliament, a feat that requires a threshold of 10,000 signatures to show support. A total of 360,000 signatures have been collected to date.
Nachale believes the next reading in the House of Representatives will be tabled later this month. She expects the bill to be signed into law, sometime after Pride Day, which is on 28 June.
Chumaporn ‘Waaddao’ Taengkliang, founder of Bangkok Pride parades, said that Thailand’s Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin and his cabinet acknowledge that marriage equality supports human rights and the economy.
Thai tourism boosted by the pink dollar
Pride Day is an annual celebration of LGBTQ+ rights, pride and culture. One of Thailand’s recent signature events is the Bangkok Pride parade. Chumaporn recalled that over 20,000 people marched on the streets of Bangkok in 2022 to call for marriage equality. In 2023, the number of people joining to show solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community climbed to 100,000 people, including foreigners.
Chumaporn hopes that Thailand’s experience in organising Bangkok Pride will prepare it to win a bid to host WorldPride — a series of international LGBTQ+ pride events led by the International Association of Pride Organisers (InterPride). Massive parades, concerts, and human rights conferences will be held during the event.
Sydney WorldPride in 2023 recorded 70,000 attendees from 71 countries and generated a total revenue of A$ 35,568,994 (US$ 23,211,546), including government funds and corporate sponsorships and sales of goods and services such as tickets, merchandise and food. Previous host countries have strong policies for protecting LGBTQ+ rights.
Thailand intends to bid to host the lucrative event in 2028. However, Chumaporn said more time is needed.
“I talked with the prime minister, we will bid for WorldPride after we pass at least two laws [that support gender equality],” said Chumaporn, urging the government first to pass the marriage equality bill and an upcoming gender recognition bill.
According to Chumaporn, Thailand needs to do more than just pass laws supporting gender equality to stand a chance to win the bid. The country also needs experience in hosting big events on the scale of WorldPride.
Besides its iconic parade, Chumaporn also plans for the upcoming Bangkok Pride 2024 to host the largest drag event in Asia and also pride forums on business, human rights, education and wellness topics for LGBTQ+ communities.
Thailand’s tourism industry already leverages the country’s relative openness to attract the pink dollar. Since 2013, the tourism authority has launched marketing campaigns such as Go Thai. Be Free to raise the country’s profile as an LGBTQ+-friendly destination.
According to LGBTQ+ Capital, Thailand’s international LGBTQ+ tourism revenue reached US$6.5 billion in 2019, 1.23 per cent of the country’s GDP. UN World Tourism Organisation reported that up to 10 per cent of all tourists globally identify as LGBTQ+. In a report, the organisation mentioned that the LGBTQ+ community travels more frequently and spends more.
Commerce potential in LGBTQ+ drama series
Thailand’s media entertainment industry is thriving due to LGBTQ+ series and films. A popular LGBTQ+ content type in Thailand is the ‘Y series’, which depicts romantic relationships between two male lead characters.
In 2023, the Y series generated around THB 2 million (US$ 56,100) in export revenue, up from THB 1 million (US$ 28,050) in 2022. Countries receptive to LGBTQ+ communities represent the largest proportion of international demand. Among them are Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam and Korea.
On 31 January 2024, Thailand’s Ministry of commerce announced a collaboration with popular Y series and film production studio Be On Cloud Company Limited to promote Thai products and services to its international fanbases through product placement advertising.
Jojo Phruttisarikorn, a public relations specialist for Thai content providers, said that the portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters on Thai television has evolved into a form of soft power to advocate for gender rights.
While offering romantic and escapist narratives, Y drama series address gender and LGBTQ+ issues in a manner that is not overly explicit. Through creative storytelling about positive messages of self-acceptance and love, these drama series help challenge stereotypes, reduce stigma, and promote empathy and understanding among a growing global fanbase.
“Thai boys’ love drama series plays a crucial role – more so than making a loud, vocal statement about gender rights,” said Phruttisarikorn.