“The civil union bill misses the target” says Thailand’s first transgender MP

After 5 years of military rule, Thailand held general elections in March 2019, fulfilling a long delayed promise to restore democracy in this Southeast Asian nation. Even so the electoral process lacked fundamental democratic principles and its outcome provoked international critique, a generational change in Thai society can now be seen in the country’s political landscape.

Founded only twelve months before the election, the Future Forward Party attracted more than six million voters, making it now the second largest opposition party in the parliament. Especially young voters felt drawn to the party’s vision on Environmental issues, Welfare and Labor Policy as well as Citizen Rights, questioning the establishments of old elites and conservative social structures. This led to the election of Thailand’s first four transgender MPs running as Future Forward candidates, with independent filmmaker Tanwarin Sukkhapisit being one of them.

Isaan Record, long-term partner of Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Southeast Asia Office, interviewed Tanwarin Sukkhapisit on the factors that are influencing a sea-change in Thai society’s attitudes towards gender equality, focusing on a long discussed civil union bill. This bill would allow LGBT+ to enter a marriage-like partnership which is awaiting a final decision from Thailand’s yet-to-be-decided government.

IR: While Taiwan has recently pipped Thailand to the post of becoming the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage, Thailand is apparently not far behind, and may yet become the first country to legalize same-sex marriage in Southeast Asia. Do you think the proposed civil union law will create equality for LGBT+ people in Thailand?

TS: Absolutely not. “[Gender equality] is one thing that [this law] will definitely not achieve. The civil union bill actually serves to widen the rift rather than bridge it because it contradicts the basic premise that we’re all equal.

IR: Can you explain the logic behind that?

TS: Section 1448 of the Marriage Act currently defines marriage only as a legal union between a man and a woman. [The Future Forward Party] sees this as unconstitutional because the constitution states that all Thai citizens are entitled to equal rights before the law. Yet, if I were to marry a man under the civil union bill, we as a couple would have fewer familial rights than those legally wed under the Marriage Act.

It is my belief, as well as the Future Forward Party’s policy, that if we are all equal as humans, then we should all enjoy the same basic rights and privileges under the same laws. Why create a separate marriage law for LGBT+ when we could just amend existing marriage laws to apply to all persons regardless of gender and sexuality?

If we are to truly have gender equality we must amend Section 1448 of the Marriage Act, and just change “between a man and a woman” to “between two persons”. Everyone must have equal rights before the law, regardless of sexuality.

IR: But do you see any benefits from passing this law at all?

TS: I’m not denying that the civil union bill has its benefits; I just think that it misses the target. But I want to make it very clear that I’m deeply grateful to all the people who have been working so hard to make the civil union bill a reality. To the activists, people in government ministries, government agencies, and civil society who got behind this: thank you.

The making of the civil union bill showed me that we have so many allies in all areas of society, including those who work in government, who can see that there is a problem, who are trying to understand, who are making an effort to make things fairer even if they might not themselves be directly affected. This is very heartening.  

I just think that the civil union bill is a misplaced effort. That’s all. But the intention and effort behind it is great. It shows that there is a real will in Thai society to create space for all forms of human diversity.

Either way, the bill is already doing a great job of raising awareness in Thai society.

IR: What are the chances of amending the law after it has passed?

TS: I think there’s a very good chance that we will eventually make the necessary changes to all relevant laws. The Future Forward Party has enough MPs to initiate debates on amending laws in parliament. I don’t think the amendments to Section 1448 of the Marriage Act that we’re proposing will be opposed by many MPs, be they the government or opposition.

IR: Was there any particular event that led to the proposal of the civil union bill?

TS: It’s not so much just one event but a global trend that we’re witnessing. Around the world, we’re seeing things like legalization of same-sex marriage, and the legal recognition of preferred gender pronouns being enacted.

Social media has also played a pivotal role in LGBT+ acceptance in Thai society, because it took the covers off of real LGBT+ life. Social media helped to get us out of the closet on a societal level, so to speak, and it humanized us in the eyes of society, in the eyes of people who might not have otherwise had much meaningful contact with LGBT+ life.

Through Facebook posts, through the memes, the photos, the stories that are shared, society gets a glimpse into gender diversity as it is really lived, and not through the filters of the mainstream media which tends to have a very narrow field of gender norms and roles.

I have to thank social media for allowing people to see how “the others” live, not just in Thailand but all around the world.

It allows sexually diverse people to find each other, to network, and to communicate. You could say that social media itself is the event, or phenomenon, that is helping Thailand and other countries around the world to become more progressive.

IR: What effect will the government that is shaping up have on the civil union bill?

TS: Regardless of whoever forms the government, with or without the incumbent prime minister, everyone is beginning to see the importance of this issue.

[On May 13] I formally petitioned parliament to allow MPs to dress according to their sexual identity during all official and royal functions. There was a lot of criticism, but that’s exactly what I wanted. I want society to have this discussion. I want this issue to get the spotlight.

The fact that enough votes were cast to put me here as a party-list MP, in a party that campaigned on a platform of equality and respect for all, means that a lot of people, millions of people, want these issues to be seriously addressed, and their voices ought to be respected by the government.  

I knew that by raising this issue in the way that I did, I would attract attention from people who agree and disagree. But the disagreement fuels the public discourse. This is how people who don’t understand get to understand.

I’m not out to force anyone to change their minds. I want people to bring their ideas and beliefs out into the open where they can be seen and heard, where these differing viewpoints can be exchanged.

This is the essence of democracy. The democratic way is what we’re currently doing: raising an issue that is a source of friction in society so that it can be resolved. We have to live with our differences, we can’t go around forcing people to think the same way about everything. That’s not democracy.

There is no right or wrong outcome, because the result will be a product of society–which includes politicians–as it really is, and in this way we will know what we’re working with.

IR: Do you think the new government will add or take anything away from the civil union bill?  

TS: We have no way of pre-empting that. Among the appointed senate there will be people with all kinds of opinions.

We’ll just have to thrash it out democratically. Everyone thinks that they’re doing the right thing, the best thing for Thailand, according to their own belief systems, so I would rather appeal to that. I’m an optimist in this respect. There are more MPs than appointed senators anyway.

IR: What else has to change in order to achieve gender equality in Thailand?

TS: I entered politics and became Thailand’s first transgender MP because I wanted to be a force for change in society. I want to generate greater understanding about gender diversity.

After we’ve amended Section 1448, we’ll have to bridge a few gaps in understanding that exist in society; Understandings that result in the stigmatizing of gender diversity as a mental illness, for example.

We see this all the time in [military] conscription.

When a katoey goes to deal with military conscription, she must first have a doctor certify her as mentally ill. This shows us that the government and the medical establishment still do not regard transgender people as equal, as if their sexuality somehow makes them less of a citizen, less human even. I want us to reach the point where a katoey is just viewed as an ordinary transgender person rather than an abnormal specimen.

Another thing is education. Sex education in Thailand still teaches that LGBT+ people are sexual deviants who ‘turned’ that way due to how they were raised, the company that they kept, etc. They refuse to accept that the sexuality of LGBT+ people was given to them by nature, that this is a normal human being who just happens to have this sexuality.

We can’t just change laws. We have to change the understanding [about LGBT+] in society.


This interview was published first at The Isaan Record website on May 23, 2019 <https://isaanrecord.com/2019/05/23/the-civil-union-bill-misses-the-target/> and republished with permission.