Thailand has taken a big step in protecting transgender people from discrimination.
Earlier this month, Thailand’s Gender Equality Act came into effect, signaling an inclusive future for the country’s legal treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. It is the first national legislation in Southeast Asia to specifically protect against discrimination on the grounds of gender expression.
The new law specifically prohibits any means of discrimination if someone is “of a different appearance from his/her own sex by birth” – a crucial tool in protecting transgender people. Everyone is assigned a sex at birth, but not everyone continues to identify with that label throughout their lives. Such an evolution of identity should have no bearing on an individual’s full enjoyment of their rights.
Thailand’s 2007 constitution, which guaranteed equal rights for men and women, was repealed after the military coup in May 2014, but its legacy lives on and progresses further in the Gender Equality Act. By incorporating language designed to protect people of all gender expressions, the act could make a crucial difference in Thailand. For instance, a 2014 study by the International Labor Organization found that transgender people in Thailand face major barriers to employment, noting that, “The exclusion tends to occur at the interview stage or once their legal gender title is found to be different from their physical appearance and gender expression.”
Thailand has seen sparks of progress on LGBT rights in recent years. For example, “persons of diverse sexualities” have been recognized as needing assistance in the Social Welfare Promotion Act.
But a 2015 United Nations human rights review noted gaps in Thailand’s protection of LGBT people, questioning whether lawmakers were ready to consider a legal definition of “family” that includes LGBT people. A 2015 UNESCO study found that 60 percent of participating LGBT Thai students had been bullied in the past month.
Thai activists have decreed the act as imperfect but important progress, while some have called attention to a loophole in the act that can allow for exemptions of certain institutions, such as religious ones. The government should address these uncertainties in consultation with LGBT rights groups.
The progress of the Gender Equality Act, and the momentum that created it, ought to inspire Thailand to proudly take on a leadership role on LGBT rights in the region.