Sean L’Estrange and Chakgai Jermkwan got married 11 years ago in a small ceremony at Cambridge City Hall in the U.S. city of Boston. Then, the two men flew back to their home in Bangkok, where they run a drag bar together.
But once they touched down in the Thai capital, their status changed: in the eyes of the law, they were no longer married as same-sex unions are not recognised in the Southeast Asian nation.
That could be about to change as a bill to legalise gay marriage is expected to come before parliament for deliberation on Thursday. For L’Estrange, who has U.S. and Irish citizenship, legal recognition would put paid to what he sees as an absurd anomaly.
“Can you imagine (U.S. President Joe) Biden getting on a plane and when he arrives in Thailand, (Jill) is not his wife anymore?” said L’Estrange, who has lived in Thailand for 14 years.
“It’s a bizarre thing if you put it into the straight world yet that’s exactly what happened to us,” he told Openly.
L’Estrange and Jermkwan are among many couples hoping that 2024 will see Thailand become the first Southeast Asian nation to legalise same-sex marriage.
In November, the cabinet approved a draft marriage equality bill, which is thought to replace the terms “husband” and “wife” with “spouse”, and give LGBTQIA+ couples the same rights as heterosexual couples when it comes to medical consent and passing on wealth.
The exacts wording is unknown, however, as the bill has not been shared publicly yet.
After the cabinet approved the bill, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said the bill would be brought to parliament during a session starting in December. He has previously said the bill will “strengthen the family institution that includes gender diversity”.
If the bill is approved by parliament and receives royal assent, Thailand would become the third place in Asia after Taiwan and Nepal to recognise same-sex marriage, although some rights groups say the process in Nepal is still inconsistent.
“The government’s decision is a monumental step for Thailand to provide full and equal rights for LGBTI+ people,” said Mookdapa Yangyuenpradorn, Thailand human rights associate at NGO Fortify Rights, adding that the setting of a date for discussion in parliament is a positive sign.
“So far, prolonged delays have meant prolonged discrimination against the LGBTI+ community, and we have already been waiting for too long for these fundamental rights.”
Last year, four bills on the issue were considered but none was passed before parliament was dissolved. Since then, a general election has taken place, installing Thavisin as prime minister.
“The last government, a military government, was opposed to the idea of marriage equality so we see a stark difference between the last government and this government,” Yangyuenpradorn said, adding that while there may be some opposition, it is likely to be less significant than in the previous administration.
Liberal land but outdated laws
Thailand, known as Land of Smiles, has one of Asia’s most open and visible lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBTQIA+) communities, adding to its image of tolerance and attraction as a liberal holiday destination for foreign tourists.
In neighbouring countries such as Brunei, Malaysia and Myanmar gay sex can still lead to a lengthy prison sentence.
But activists say Thai laws and institutions have yet to reflect changing social attitudes and still discriminate against LGBTQIA+ people and same-sex couples.
In 2021, the Constitutional Court ruled Thailand’s current marriage law, which only recognises heterosexual couples, was constitutional, but recommended legislation be expanded to ensure rights of other genders.
Numerous bills have since failed to make it into law.
Evan Wolfson, a civil rights lawyer and founder and president of non-profit Freedom to Marry, flew from the United States to Thailand in early December to help activists campaign to push the legislation forward.
“The Thailand government should know that the eyes of the world are on them with expectation and hope they are going to finish the job, do the right thing, and help Asia move forward,” he said, adding that there would also be economic advantages through increased tourism and business.
If other Southeast Asian countries see LGBTQIA+ tourists opting to spend even more money in Thailand, they may then move to amend their own laws, said Phuket-born Robert Conner, an LGBTQIA+ advocate.
Borderless.LGBT, an initiative of Borderless Healthcare Group, is hoping to make Thailand a hub for LGBTQIA+ retirement and healthcare, while others see a potential boom in the wedding industry.
Pink dollar premium
Chonlada Lafferty, founder of Bridal Planner Thailand, based in Phuket, is already thinking about how to prepare her business for a potential boost. There has always been interest, she said, but that is likely to increase if same-sex unions are legalised.
“We have to train the staff because mostly we get the opposite sex so how to handle the questionnaires and … change the way that we communicate,” she said.
Party planner Ken Kreangsak Leing agrees that the economic benefits could be significant.
“The pink dollar could do a lot for the economy,” said Leing, adding there is potential for expansion of high-end gay nightlife, tourism and weddings. Leing is also hoping for more personal benefits.
He met his partner, former tour guide Stephan Frenzel, almost 10 years ago in a nightclub in the beach town of Pattaya.
To mark their anniversary, they hope to hold a marriage ceremony in Hua Hin, three hours south of Bangkok, but they also want their union to be legally recognised.
“If something happened to (Frenzel), I wouldn’t have any legal rights,” said Leing, explaining that he would be prohibited from making medical decisions on Frenzel’s behalf. Wayne Ho, clinical assistant professor at the University of Southern California and one of the founders of the Borderless.LGBT, says many couples worry about similar issues.
“There’s been situations I’ve seen where there are conflicts (with family members) because it’s a same-sex union without any legal protection when it comes to end-of-life care, power of attorney, and even financial planning after death,” he said.
If the bill is approved finally, L’Estrange and Jermkwan will opt for a marriage ceremony in their Bangkok bar, where staff wear T-shirts supporting gay marriage rights every Friday.
“It’s hard to get excited, but there is hope,” L’Estrange said. His partner, though, is more circumspect, aware that Thailand has been here before only for proposed legislation to fall at the last hurdle.
“It’s hurt too many times,” Jermkwan said.
Reporting by Rebecca L Root.
GAY TIMES and Openly/Thomson Reuters Foundation are working together to deliver leading LGBTQIA+ news to a global audience.