The first key to understanding Thailand’s sluggish sleepwalk towards gay marriage actually traces back to Western colonialism. Polygamous marriage was a key feature of many Oriental marriages prior to the colonisation of Southeast Asia.
While Siam (Thailand) managed to avoid being directly colonised, it did so through a series of concessions to the Western powers. In the 1930s, Siam removed polygamous marriage from its legal code in an effort to integrate with Britain, America and France. The practice still goes on unofficially and is a prominent theme on Thai soap operas.
Thus, it would not be unfair to say that history – or the unconscious effect that it often has on its descendants – has proven to be the first sedative preventing Thailand from making the leap into gay marriage. Yet, the story only begins here.
Because the Thai institution of marriage has come under Western pressure before, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that Thai people are not generally concerned about a corrosive effect on marriage as an institution because, after all, Thai marriage underwent significant legal reform in the early 20th century and is still standing.
The bad news, however, is that according to some reports up to 50% of Thais think that homosexuality is ‘wrong,’ and this includes Thais presently aged between 15-25. That percentage may read as alarmingly high to many Western readers, but when one understands ‘street karma’ it becomes easier to understand why some Thai people think that gay people are being punished in this life for sins of a past life.
Thus, much like in early ’90s America, gay people find themselves consigned to ‘certain’ social roles. In Thailand, they struggle to step outside of those roles because gay parenting is something of a Thai taboo.
Bud Lake and Manuel Santos were two gay, would-be adoptive parents in Bangkok and they became famous for using a Thai surrogate to carry their child in 2015. While they were eventually successful in starting a family, they managed to ignite a legal and societal firestorm that still smolders today.
In the West, the empirical evidence clearly demonstrates that a traditional, nuclear family is indeed what’s best for children. However, it has also been proven that single parents and gay parents can often do just as well; even if some people don’t find it to be ideal.
Yet, that lesson struggles to resonate in Thailand because most families stay together for a lifetime, and often live together for a lifetime. Hence, the thought of such a radical departure from life’s most common paradigm seems incomprehensible to many Thais.
It is common for foreigners to mistake Thai Buddhist tolerance for liberalism; but ‘tolerance’ and ‘liberalism’ are two fundamentally different things. ‘Tolerance’ does not accelerate the leap into gay rights.
Many foreigners mistake Thai tolerance for liberalism because Thais are not Puritanical. Unlike in the historical West, Thailand does not crush any outward sign of homosexuality with their fists… but that does not in any way indicate that Thai society endorses homosexuality or gay marriage.
Thailand is mainly Buddhist and many great teachers of Buddhism have had to walk-back inflammatory statements that they made about gays prior to the 21st century. Twenty years ago, for example, the Dali Lama was quoted as saying, “From a Buddhist point of view, men-to-men and women-to-women is generally considered sexual misconduct.”
The Dali Lama has no authority in Thailand, but some prominent Thai monks have said very similar things. While Buddhism’s teachings may be timeless, the awareness of LGBT issues is timely, and so many monks have had to re-evaluate their views of scripture.
Meanwhile, a few savvy Western activists have tried to improve the situation by increasing LGBT awareness in Thai society. However, this has somewhat backfired because educational campaigns work best only when a society is totally unsympathetic; but outright intolerance has never been the case in Thailand.
Throughout Siamese history, homosexuality was never criminalised. Thailand also permitted many unsavoury things that were simply disallowed in the historical West, such as gay bathhouses, prostitution, gay taverns and, nowadays, rather unsavoury social media applications.
Thus, foreign educational initiatives often fail in Thailand and, instead of eliminating anti-gay bias, it actually could be argued that foreign gay rights activists sometimes have achieved precisely the reverse of what they intended.
Yet, there is more to Thailand’s estrangement from equal marriage rights than just societal issues. There is, of course, politics. One might be surprised to learn that recent polls show a growing level of support for civil unions in Thailand. This could mislead people into believing that Thai politicians would be eager to pounce on the issue.
Yet, chronically-changing governments, a revolving door of discarded constitutions, ever-changing legislative priorities, endless committees, Asean instability and even a dose of good old-fashioned bias have all served to rain on the parade.
Additionally, many gay rights proposals have turned out to be Trojan Horses. For example, a recent proposal for civil unions would have granted equal marriage rights with one hand, but would have also raised the homosexual age of consent from 17 to 20 with the other hand. There is a newer attempt at civil unions that will supposedly be voted on next month, but it mainly covers asset management and does not grant the same rights as a traditional marriage.
Finally, gay marriage in Thailand could continue in its sleepwalk thanks to the radically-changing geopolitical condition which is rapidly departing from and/or fighting a liberal world order. Thai politicians eye a paltry 30 countries in which gay marriage has been codified into law – leaving 160 to go. They also see conservative uprisings in many of the 30 progressive countries on LGBT issues.
Yet, a recent poll on gay marriage did show a 61% approval rating for some kind of marriage equality. Thus, Thai politicians find themselves stuck in a tug-of-war between the security of tradition and the unknowns of change.
Regardless of the upcoming vote, gay marriage will continue to struggle in Thailand until Thai society either embraces it as a holistic addition to their society, or until the pressure from the outside world becomes simply too great to ignore.