BANGKOK Aug 21 On a sweltering Saturday night
in Bangkok's Patpong entertainment district, a group of men
spill out of a neon-lit bar blasting dance music. Among them is
Aashif Hassan and his long-term partner, both visitors from
"We're celebrating tonight. Where we're from, it's illegal
to be gay. Here we feel liberated," said Hassan.
Known for its laissez-faire attitude, Thailand has
positioned itself as a holiday destination for gay couples and
could soon be cashing in on another niche market if a proposed
law makes it the first Asian country to legalise gay marriage.
Other Southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar, Malaysia,
Singapore and Brunei ban sexual relationships between men, but
Thailand has become a regional haven for same-sex couples.
A civil partnership law in the works aims to give lesbian,
gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) couples the same rights as
heterosexuals. One lawmaker sees it passing by next year.
Same-sex unions are not currently recognised under Thai law,
which defines marriage as between a man and a woman. That stops
gay couples applying for joint bank loans or medical insurance.
In 2012, a group of lawmakers and LGBT activists formed a
committee to draft legislation recognising same-sex couples. But
critics of the law say it will not give a level playing field
because it raises the age of consent to 20 from 17 for
homosexual couples. For heterosexuals it is 17.
Rights activists have another problem: the law would force
transgenders to register their birth gender on their marriage
certificate. Thai law makes it impossible for people to change
their gender on a national identification document.
Beyond legal aspects, some wonder whether Thailand, quite
conservative in many ways, is really ready to blaze this trail.
Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1956 but considered a
mental illness as recently as 2002. Many Thai Buddhists believe
homosexuality is a punishment for sins committed in a past life.
In one notorious case in 2011, Nurisan Chedurame, 24, was
found dead on her village rubbish dump with her head smashed in.
Local media quoted police as saying her involvement with another
woman was the reason she was murdered.
That same year, two women thought to have been in a sexual
relationship were shot in a rice field outside Bangkok.
A worrying pattern of violent crimes prompted the
International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission to write
to the Thai government in 2012 demanding that police stop
dismissing gender-based violence as crimes of passion.
Anjana Suvarnanda, a co-founder of the Anjaree Group, an
LGBT rights group, said violence towards lesbians was often
blamed on the victims. Many turn to mainstream social networking
sites like Facebook to air their grievances.
"Our inbox is overflowing with messages from women whose
parents are pressuring them to marry men," said Anjana.
Thai film and television has no shortage of LGBT stars. But
Prempreeda Pramoj Na Ayutthaya, a transgender rights activist
and programme officer at UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural
agency, in Bangkok, said acceptance is often superficial.
"The entertainment industry accepts us with open arms
because we poke fun at ourselves and make people laugh. But if
we want to be taken seriously in a field like medicine we are
not afforded the same courtesy," Prempreeda told Reuters.
Her friends will hesitate to back the draft bill, she said,
because they do not want to be identified by their birth gender.
Wiratana Kalayasiri, an opposition lawmaker pushing the
civil union bill, said getting it on the agenda was tough as
most members of parliament have conservative views on the issue.
"At first they bad-mouthed me and wondered if I would be
struck by lightning for backing this," he said.
But many now see the merits of appealing to LGBT voters, he
said, predicting the bill would pass in "less than a year".
Rights activist Anjana believes there is no time to waste.
When her friend collapsed and fell into a coma, it took
hours for staff at a Bangkok hospital to attend to her.
"They insisted her husband sign the medical release form.
Her partner is a woman, but the nurses refused to acknowledge
this," said Anjana. "We urgently need the law to protect us. The
rest, including less societal pressure, will follow."
(Editing by Alan Raybould, John O'Callaghan and Ron Popeski)