Raising Hands in Victory

Thailand Becomes First Southeast Asian Country to Legalize Same-Sex Marriage

Asia The Mekong

This June, Thailand became the first Southeast Asia to pass a marriage equality bill. When the bill is approved by King Rama X, it will signal a victory for LGBTQ+ communities and Thailand’s LGBTQ+ tourism industries.

On June 18th, 2024, Thailand’s Senate passed the Act to Amend the Civil and Commercial Code (or the Marriage Equality Act) by 130 to four, voting overwhelmingly in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. This Bill has been followed closely by LGBTQ+ communities in Asia ever since Thailand's House of Representatives passed it in April by 400 votes to 15. The Bill now moves to receive the pro forma endorsement of King Rama X, a formality that is widely expected to be granted, after which the legislation will go into effect 120 days after it is published in the Royal Gazette.

The Legislation and Public Reactions

This Bill moves to amend Thailand's civil and commercial code, changing gender-specific words such as "husband" and "wife" to "spouse," and "man" and "woman" to "individual”. In doing so, the bill grants same-sex couples the right to state welfare, government pensions, adopt children, and tax deductions that they lacked previously.

Once approved by Rama X, Thailand will be the first Southeast Asian country to have legalized same-sex marriage and the third country in Asia to have done so (after Taiwan and Nepal). However, for much of the public, the celebrations have already begun. In fact, so confident of the Bill’s passage, the government had already announced a celebration before the Senate’s vote several days ago. At the event held on June 18th after the vote, the Government House was decorated with rainbow carpets, flags, and a giant balloon in the shape of two hands making a heart sign and the public celebrated with politicians, celebrities, and activists. This event was celebrated at all levels of government, with Prime Minster Srettha Thavisin posting that this was a “significant milestone in the journey of [the] Equal Marriage Bill” and that he “will continue our fight for social rights for all people regardless of their status.”

This event was also celebrated globally with the US ambassador to Thailand Ambassador Robert F. Godec posting that the “US and Thailand stand together for LGBTQI+ rights” and that on the “behalf of the United States, [he] congratulates the Thai Senate for their historic step in approving the Marriage Equality Bill.” The United States has placed the promotion of human rights of LGBTQI+ persons central to US foreign policy for years, with annual reports being published by the State Department after the 2021 Presidential Memorandum on Advancing the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Persons Around the World. The legalization of same-sex marriage in Thailand goes beyond its domestic impacts and works to bring Thailand and the US together in terms of human rights.

History of LGBTQ Rights in Thailand

This monumental legislation is a culmination of more than 20 years of effort from activists and politicians as well as past legislations that previously improved LGBTQ+ rights without legalizing marriage. Much of Thailand’s LGBTQ+ progress has happened in the 21st century. While private, adult, and consensual homosexuality was decriminalized in 1956, it was not until 2002 that the Ministry of Health announced that homosexuality would no longer be regarded as a mental illness or disorder. And in 2015, Thailand passed the Gender Equality Act to criminalize discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression and sex characteristics. However, progress since then has been slow. In 2020, Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled that the wording of the law stipulating marriage as being between only a man and a woman was constitutional.

This changed with the May 2023 election. As part of their election promise, the top two parties – Move Forward and Pheu Thai – pledged to enact marriage equality upon winning at the polls. They moved to identify themselves with the LGBTQ+ community by attending pride, hosting pride events, and most importantly, pushing for a marriage equality bill.

Asia’s LGBTQ+ Rights

Thailand’s LGBTQ+ rights history, while turbulent, stands in stark comparison to the rest of Asia. Excluding Taiwan and Nepal – which recognized same-sex marriage in 2019 and April 2024. In 2019, Brunei moved to criminalize and punish homosexual acts and adultery with death by stoning and only rescinded the law after widespread global condemnation. In 2022, Indonesia passed a law making all consensual sex outside of marriage a criminal offense, rendering all same-sex conduct illegal as same-sex couples cannot marry in Indonesia. In 2023, Malaysia went as far as to ban all Swatch products that contain LGBTQ+ elements. And in these anti-LGBTQ+ environments, many LGBTQ+ members have been seeking refuge – even temporarily – in Thailand.

LGBTQ+ Tourism in Thailand

This conservative outlook in Asia, however, has resulted in a niche industry for Thailand: LGBTQ+ tourism. The Thai government has always been aware of Thailand’s relatively LGBTQ+ friendly reputation, and so has the world, with Bangkok even being voted as the second-most gay-friendly city in Asia in 2017. This has led to an emergence of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s “Go Thai, Be Free” campaign, which advertises Thailand as a safe space for LGBTQ+ tourists with queer activities such as drag shows and pride parades that Asian tourists may have never experienced.

The economic benefits from this LGBTQ+ tourism is significant and stands to grow even more through the legalization of same-sex marriage. The Department of Trade Strategy of the Ministry of Commerce has advocated for the economic benefits that Thailand could derive from its same-sex marriage law and refers to the US’s gains from its own legalization of same-sex marriage – which found that it boosted the economy by 3.8 billion dollars between 2015 and 2019 – to point to possible domestic and international markets the bill is projected to reach.

In 2023, Thailand ranked fourth globally in generating highest revenues from the LGBTQ+ community. Therefore in 2024, with the legalization of same-sex marriage and the integration of LGBTQ+ communities into Thai society, there stands to be even more benefits for Thailand on both the economic and humanitarian sides.

For now, as the bill faces royal assent, celebrations will continue in Thailand. Thailand’s LGBTQ+ history, 20 years of activism by the queer community, and the work of the Pheu Thai and the Move Forward parties have resulted in a historical achievement. By becoming the first country in Southeast Asia to pass a marriage equality bill, Thailand will serve as a new progressive example for Asia and gain economic benefits in the process.

Jiwon Lim is a Summer 2024 Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a rising first year at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) pursuing an MA in International Relations with a functional focus in Security, Strategy, and Statecraft and a regional focus in Asia.