In 2015, the Thai legislative body passed the Gender Equality Act which outlaws discrimination based on sexes (including sexual orientation). The bill has garnered some criticisms due to its outdated notion of sexuality as well as its overly broad exceptions, for example gender discrimination is allowed if it is for protecting the welfare and safety of a person, for following religious rules, or for the security of the nation.
Per the critique, the law is toothless. Some even argue that the law serves only to whitewash the government to appear human-rights oriented on an international stage. This view is shared by certain activists active in the field of LGBTQ+ rights advocacy. You could refer to the article Jasmine and I co-wrote last year (Read more here). We discuss this issue at length.
Despite the above, I am here today to argue that the law is not entirely pointless. It could be proven useful if taken seriously.
In June 2020, the president of a renowned school in Bangkok with branches spanning all over Thailand issued a policy statement instructing its personnel to ensure that there is no “abnormal” behavior as pertains to sexual expression occurring on school grounds. The statement reads:
“When hitting puberty, students typically express their sexuality in two ways: normal and abnormal. If abnormal, teachers must instruct students to conform to their gender roles per sex assigned at birth. It is imperative that there must not appear expressions as pertain to ‘third sex’ on school grounds. This is because any school that has numbers of LGBTQ+ students will suffer from the erosion of its reputation. And parents will not send their children to attend such school as a result…”
The policy which is originally in Thai was delivered to all fifty schools under the school brand and applied to more than a hundred thousand students and personnel under its supervision.
This statement was quickly shared across social media platforms and gained public attention amid the time where there is an alarming rise of students bullying their LGBTQ+ peers. I believe that the statement violates the Gender Equality Act and does not seem to fit in any exceptions.
As an equality-conscious lawyer, I decided to take matters into my own hands. The choices were either to collaborate with rights advocacy groups or to file a complaint to an authority. I was inclined to pursue the former alternative at first, due largely to the seeming ineffectiveness of the bill. However, I thought that this presented a good opportunity to put the legislation to a test. As such, I filed a complaint to the National Human Rights Council of Thailand, an authority overseeing human rights violations in general.
After almost a year-long collaboration and patience, on April 2nd, the council issued a judgment ruling that the school had violated human rights. The ruling consists of two parts: the verdict and the recommended course of action.
- The Verdict
The council took issues with the abusive choice of words that appears in the policy statement. According to the council, the school refers to LGBTQ+ individuals as having “abnormal sexual behavior” and that “there must not be “phet-ti-sarm” appears on schools’ grounds” which devalue LGBTQ+ individuals and reflect the biases towards the LGBTQ+ individuals. Such a policy, according to the council, constitutes gender discrimination under the Gender Equality Act. Moreover, the policy violates human rights as protected under the Thai Constitution and, more specifically, children’s rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) to which Thailand is a member state. Consequently, the council gave the school sixty days to update its policy and to officially communicate with its executives and personnel to rectify the misconception concerning sexual orientation.
- The Requested Course of Action
On a more interesting note, the council also went further to submit a letter requesting the Education Ministry to immediately update its national curriculum. The national curriculum which is adopted by schools all over the country was last updated in 2008. The update should encompass the principles of gender inclusivity and human rights under the Gender Equality Act and the international agreements on human rights to which Thailand is a member state, e.g., the CRC. The process should also involve consultation with students and other relevant personnel.
This ruling marks one of the very few times, if not the only time, where the Gender Equality Act is enforced on such a large scale. The ruling should be celebrated and I sincerely believe that it could help contribute to the national narrative of gender equality and human rights. As a lawyer, I will continue to press on the Education Ministry to work on this matter to ensure a safe, inclusive, and scientifically-based curriculum.
By Pongnut Thanaboonchai
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