Thailand’s top judiciary still wrestling with watershed gay marriage

The gay flag dominates at a Thai civil rights demonstration.

The decision by the Constitutional Court to postpone yet again till December a decision on marriage equality for a Thai same-sex couple who have lived together for 10 years illustrates the sensitivity of gay issues in Thai politics. The case has been around since 2017 and was referred to the top court after the couple was refused registration of their union by a Bangkok district office and they complained to the local family court.

The eventual ruling by the Constitutional Court will center on section 1448 of the civil and criminal code that only heterosexual unions may tie the knot. To date, gay Thais have very little legal protection. The 2015 Gender Equality Act is often quoted but still allows discrimination on multiple fronts such as religion and security. As recently as 2002, the public health ministry decreed that homosexuality wasn’t a mental illness after all.

Colourful gay decorations bedeck a charity event in Bangkok.

Various bodies have endorsed the idea of gay rights. The Tourist Authority of Thailand in 2017 launched a campaign Go Thai Be Free to encourage gay foreigners to vacation in the Land of Smiles. Even the Thai Cabinet last year endorsed the idea of equality for gay couples, although discussion of the issues in parliament has been very slow. Some legislators blame the Covid crisis for pushing civil liberties issues to the back of the queue.

There are, in fact, two proposals which have been presented in parliament. The civil partnership bill is currently delayed at the Ministry of Justice for internal review. It covers property management, adoption and inheritance, but falls short of full gay equality such as pension rights and medical benefits. The same sex marriage bill is currently stalled in parliament and seeks to amend the civil and criminal code to allow marriage irrespective of sex or sexual orientation.

To date, no Asian country has adopted gay marriage without any restrictions at all. Taiwan is often quoted as the ideal after the 2019 act, but even here a Taiwanese national may not marry a same sex partner of another country unless gay marriage is recognized there too. When a written ruling from the top Thai constitutional authority does come, it’s likely to be both lengthy and complex. That’s the Thai way in such matters.