Thailand, conservative but tolerant, may legalise gay marriage

Thailand, conservative but tolerant, may legalise gay marriage
Pattanachat Monkhatha (L) and Vitaya Saeng-Aroon (R) shop in a supermarket in Bangkok August 16, 2013.

BANGKOK - 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 Malaysia.

"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.

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