Thailand still lags in LGBT issues

In what appears to be a historic move on LBGT rights, Taiwan has legalised same-sex marriage, with the law sailing through parliament by 66 to 27 votes.

The approval of the law on Friday appeared to coincide with the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia when gay people staged a colourful parade and gave loud cheers to the parliament decision. With the bill coming into law, Taiwan becomes the first nation in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage, an impressive result for the strident campaigns by the Taiwanese LGBT rights activists who had championed the cause for about two decades.

The bill, which offers same-sex couples similar legal protections for marriage as heterosexuals, will take effect after President Tsai Ing-wen signs it into law some time this year. The bill has won praise for recognising the rights of LGBT couples, giving them many of the tax, insurance and child custody benefits available to male-female married couples.

The success story of the LGBT movement in Taiwan should inspire and set an example for fellow Asian states where various levels of acceptance or tolerance of same-sex relationship are evident.

Brunei has a harsh position on LGBT rights. In March, the country announced that it would apply draconian sharia law that would stipulate death by stoning for gay people. Global uproar, with threats by celebrities to sanction Brunei business interests over the controversial law, led to the tiny but wealthy state shelving the plan.

Thailand and Vietnam, compared to other Asean members, are more open to the issue. Vietnam is known to have taken some steps towards recognising same-sex unions.

Thailand has earned recognition for its tolerance towards LBGT people which to a large extent allows gay people to be open about their sexual identity.

Earlier this year, those in the tourist sector proudly announced a plan to promote Thailand as an LGBT-friendly destination. According to a Bloomberg report, the country's tourism industry represents about one-fifth of the economy and is expanding at a faster pace than other sectors.

The report quoted LGBT Capital as saying that revenue from the LGBT inbound tourism market is estimated to be US$5.3 billion (168 billion baht), which accounts for 8.4% of the tourism industry. Bangkok, according to apartment rental site Nestpick, emerged as Asia's best city for LGBT visitors, ahead of Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

But the country needs to aim higher than becoming a gay-friendly destination or risk complacency with what society believes to be a tolerance to LGBT people that is still superficial in various aspects. In fact, there is more room for the country to make improvements on LGBT issues especially in the area of rights protection to the group. What is needed is a law and policy that addresses discrimination for gay people, including job opportunity and promotion.

With regard to job opportunities, it's true gay people in Thailand are employed in various sectors, yet LGBT people still complain that barriers remain which effectively block them from high-paying, high-status jobs, or even some ordinary jobs. Last month, a transgender woman with a bachelor's degree in education complained via social media that several schools turned down her application for a teaching position because of her gender identity. Such refusal is against the constitution which guarantees equal rights for citizens regardless of gender.

More importantly, their dreams of a law on same-sex marriage are still a far cry from becoming real.

The Thai state appeared to embrace civil union but not full-scale same-sex marriage. A bill on civil partnership gives gay couples to a certain extent legal rights to jointly manage assets and liabilities and give or receive inheritances but critics see differences compared to what heterosexuals are entitled to.

The state is still sluggish about calls for an amendment to the Civil and Commercial Code, Section 1448, that will allow anyone to be legally wed, regardless of gender.

Despite imperfection, some proponents still regard the civil partnership bill as a good start for the country. The Prayut Chan-o-cha cabinet approved the bill in principle in December last year, and sent it to the now-defunct National Legislative Assembly (NLA). This means bill proponents will have to wait further until the new parliament starts functioning, a process that takes some time given the coalition talks taking place.

There are some positive signs that several parties show high awareness about LGBT issues and have pledged support while some prominent transgender politicians were elected in the March 24 polls.

These new political faces should kick the ball and ensure the bill gains attention from their colleagues so the present social tolerance on LGBT issues transforms into a legal mechanism that protects their rights.

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