ASEAN countries clearly split on gay and transgender rights

In ASEAN, gay rights run the whole gamut from death by stoning to full marriage equality.

Thailand stands alone in its adoption of gay marriage. The ruling Pheu Thai party intends to go further and to recognize gender identity changes as well as to legalize prostitution, male as well as female. There is also a proposal to legalize commercial surrogacy for same sex marriage partners. The country is making a firm bid to be the world pride venue in 2028. Even a decade ago these moves would have been unthinkable in the land of smiles.

The 10-member ASEAN is a commercial union, of sorts, but rarely interferes in each country’s domestic affairs. Nowhere is this clearer than in sexual law. Indonesia and Myanmar both have jail-time legislation which outlaws any kind of sex outside marriage, whilst Brunei can impose stoning to death for miscreants. Although the number of actual prosecutions in these countries is speculative, two Indonesian men each received 77 lashes in 2021 for “grossly indecent behaviour”. But the general idea seems to be to discourage coming-out, pride rallies and political campaigns on the “out of sight out of mind” principle.

Other ASEAN partners lie somewhere in-between. In Singapore, gay sex is legal and also gender reassignment surgery which has been available since the 1970s. But there are few protections against discrimination and gay marriage is not available. Laos, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam all recognize the legality of gay sex but not gay relationships. The Philippines is in a similar position, though its promotional tourist sites proclaim gays are welcome. Even the sexually-explicit Angeles City now has half a dozen gay bars or clubs, compared with none five years ago.

Whether Thailand’s adoption of gay marriage in the fullest sense will impact other ASEAN nations remains to be seen. The pink pound is now mega-cash to the tune of US$6.5 billion or 1.2 percent of gross national product in Thailand, according to industry consultants LGBT Capital. In another context, Thailand’s lead in abolishing many visa restrictions on overseas visitors is being followed by several ASEAN partners. Further adoption of gay rights throughout south east Asia is no longer unthinkable.