Thailand becomes first Southeast Asian country to approve same-sex marriage bill

Nontharat Phaicharoen
2023.12.21
Bangkok
Thailand becomes first Southeast Asian country to approve same-sex marriage bill Participants hold a rainbow flag during a Pride Parade in Bangkok, Thailand, June 4, 2023.
[Sakchai Lalit/AP]

In a historic first for Southeast Asia, Thai lawmakers on Thursday passed a bill to begin the process of legalizing same-sex marriages, capping off a years-long campaign by advocates for LGBTQ rights.

The Marriage Equality Bill, which saw multiple versions proposed by the ruling and opposition parties as well as through a public petition, received resounding support in the House of Representatives. As many as 369 MPs voted in favor of it versus 10 who voted against the proposed legislation.

“The benefits of this [bill] affirm the government’s commitment to human rights,” Deputy Prime Minister Somsak Thepsuthin said while presenting the government’s version of the bill to Parliament. “We are working to ensure everyone has equal access to family life, free from unfair discrimination.”

“This law should not be seen as belonging to any particular party. It should be a collective effort for the benefit of all Thai society,” he said.

Different versions of the bill proposed by the ruling and opposition parties had only minor differences and had agreement on key issues.

The core feature common to all versions of the bill is the alteration of the marriage definition from a union between “male and female” to “two individuals (of any gender).” 

This change grants “spouses” access to a host of legal rights that were previously exclusive to heterosexual couples.

If approved by the king, the Thai government will publish the bill in the Royal Gazette before it becomes law – a process that would make Thailand the first country in Southeast Asia and only the third in Asia to recognize same-sex marriage.

There is no timeline for completing the process.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin previously announced that the Cabinet had approved a draft amendment to the code regulating civil unions in Thailand.

“This law will enable same-sex couples to engage and marry under the Civil and Commercial Code, granting them rights and responsibilities equal to heterosexual married couples,” he told reporters.

Tunyawaj Kamolwongwat, a member of the LGBTQ community and an MP from the main opposition Move Forward Party, addressed Parliament to share a personal perspective.

“I was born a transgender. Whether I laugh or cry, my transgender identity always remains with me,” Tunyawaj said. “Transgender individuals have a place in society, have rights and dignity, and deserve to live life as they wish, including within a family setting.”

Public support

The bill enjoys overwhelming support in Thailand, with a survey during formal public consultation showing nearly 97% in favor. 

Thailand boasts one of the most vibrant LGBTQ communities in Asia, a region where only Taiwan and Nepal previously recognized the rights of same-sex couples to marry.

Annually, thousands of Thais participate in Pride Month celebrations and tourism authorities actively promote the country’s welcoming environment for LGBTQ travelers.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center, an American think-tank, revealed that 60% of Thai adults support the legalization of same-sex marriage. This places Thailand behind only Japan (68%) and Vietnam (65%) in terms of support for such a measure in Asia.

However, discrimination against gay and lesbian individuals persists in Thailand, particularly in employment and health care, advocates say.

Same-sex couples were previously unable to adopt children, make emergency health care decisions for their partners, or access spousal benefits, including tax deductions and government pensions.

If enacted, the law is expected to address many of these issues, said Matcha Phorn-in, a rights activist and executive director of the Sangsan Anakot Yawachon Development Project, an advocacy group led by LGBTQ feminists.

“Looking at the current societal atmosphere, there’s hardly any concern. The principles of all drafts show no hidden discrimination,” she said. 

“However, once the law passes, our next step is genuine participation. The law must not lead to people of diverse sexual orientations becoming second-class citizens through its enforcement.”

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