In Thailand, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists are currently making headway in advocating for same-sex marriage. The passage of a new civil partnership bill is high on the agenda, and their demands are gaining momentum. However, the debate does not stop there, since the activists are seeking to place LGBT rights on a more comprehensive societal platform, trying to link it to the ongoing general human rights discourse in the country. The question remains whether they will be successful in convincing the general public that LGBT rights and human rights are inseparable, and therefore intrinsically intertwined.
Introducing gender diversity through the prism of human rights
In the wake of economic growth and an increasing openness toward cultural and social influences from the outside world, a human-rights-based discourse has been firmly taking root in Thai society since the early 1990s. The 1997 Constitution, known as the “People’s Constitution,” institutionalized these democratic changes. This charter enshrined a comprehensive catalog of 40 human rights, and it established a special organ, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which was tasked with protecting and guaranteeing these rights on behalf of the Thai people. Many members of the newly formed NHRC took an interest in LGBT issues.
In turn, LGBT activists and scholars seized this unique institutional and legislative opportunity to reframe their strategies. What followed was a lively and constructive exchange between the existing LGBT networks, which consisted of lesbian groups, gay organizations with past experience in HIV/AIDS advocacy, as well as transgender activists and the NHRC. At this point in time, the movements advocating for the principles of gender diversity began to advance from fragmented, isolated groups into a serious national movement. A first success came as a result of targeted lobbying with the Ministry of Defense to remove the derogative term “mental disorder” in reference to transgender persons from a military regulation (Sor Dor 43).
Despite these first successes, the proponents of LGBT rights in Thailand realized that in the perception of the general Thai public, the intrinsic connection between human rights and LGBT issues was far from being widely accepted. Thus, the gender diversity networks planned – with the support of the NHRC – to set up a national agenda to lobby jointly for concrete changes. The advocates suggested that the term “sexual diversity” should be explicitly enshrined in every Thai constitution as a matter of principle.
In 2006, another serious political rupture occurred, with the military ousting the elected Pheu Thai government. Although the 1997 “People’s Constitution” was rescinded by the government, the NHRC continued to exist under an interim charter, pending the drafting procedures leading to a new constitution. The gender diversity movement maintained its regular meetings with the NHRC to influence the constitutional drafting committee members under the coup regime in accepting the inclusion of the principle of gender diversity in the new charter. This demand was firmly rejected. However, as a result of intense lobbying efforts, the drafters agreed to include a generic “non-discrimination clause” prohibiting gender-based bias in Article 30 of the new 2007 Constitution. Given the difficult political circumstances under which these negotiations took place, the outcome was nonetheless regarded by many LGBT activists as a milestone achievement in the ongoing struggle for the acceptance of gender diversity in Thailand.
Difficult relationship: LGBT movements and the military government of May 2014
Since the military coup of May 2014, civil society has yet again been faced with severe restrictions and controls. Public seminars are being cancelled, scholars and activists summoned and intimidated by the authorities, and peaceful gatherings disallowed. Despite that, in 2015, the junta government passed the “Gender Equality Bill.” According to the drafters, this bill was poised to eliminate discrimination and unfair treatment based on a person’s gender. However, gender diversity advocates felt that the bill contained a range of vaguely defined exceptions on grounds of religion and national security, which defeated the overarching purpose of the law in effectively curbing gender-based discrimination.
Even worse, the government is currently proposing a so-called “Protection of Children Born from Medically Assisted Reproduction Technology Bill,” which would explicitly ban LGBT people from using surrogacy technology. This policy sends an unequivocal message that the state is still prepared to openly discriminate against LGBT people at an institutional and legislative level. At this critical point, political fragmentation among LGBT advocates is on the rise. Overall, many activists feel that, in contrast to 2007, LGBT campaigners should not get involved in the drafting of yet another post-coup constitution in the slim hope of furthering the particular interests of the movement. They feel that it is time for the LGBT movement to integrate into a broader civil society campaign that questions the legitimacy of the political developments in Thailand, and that promotes genuine public participation and democratic processes and structures.
The relevance and the impact of the struggle for gender diversity spearheaded by the LGBT movement in Thailand will remain weak as long as it is solely focused on legislative procedures and constitutional drafting without due consideration to the overall political structure in the country. Critical proponents of this integrated approach from within the LGBT movement call for a strategic shift away from purely “technical and single issue-based” legal reforms to a broader involvement of the LGBT movements in campaigns promoting liberal and pluralistic freedoms, such as the right to freedom of speech and assembly, the right to access justice, and non-discriminatory state policies at all levels of society. By following this path, the LGBT movements would not only support other marginalized groups in their struggle for recognition and democratic participation, but also regain momentum in strengthening its own position at the heart of Thai society. One example of this integrated lobbying approach could be seen when a number of LGBT activists openly supported the students from the “New Democracy Movement” who were arrested following peaceful demonstrations against military rule.
This article was published in Perspectives Asia #4: The Gender Issue. To download the full publication with other interesting articles on Gender topics in Southeast Asia follow this link:http://www.th.boell.org/en/2016/01/05/perspectives-asia-4-gender-issue