2015 is shaping up to be a potential watershed year for same-sex marriage reform around the world. In March the Slovenian Parliament passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage by a comfortable 51 votes to 28, making it the seventeenth country in the world to legalize the practice nation-wide; a first in a former communist country.
Perhaps even more surprising is the current move to legalize same-sex marriage in the Republic of Ireland. In May this traditionally conservative, majority Catholic country will hold a referendum on adding a clause to their constitution stating that: “marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex,” thus making the restriction of marriage to heterosexual couples unconstitutional.
This is truly remarkable considering that homosexuality was a criminal offence in Ireland less than a quarter of a century ago, and civil partnerships have only been available to same-sex couples since 1 January 2011. Current polls estimate support for the yes campaign is at 74%. If the referendum is successful Ireland will become the first country in the world to adopt same-sex marriage by public vote.
The other major front in the struggle for marriage equality at the moment is the United States, where gay marriages can occur in 37 of 50 states. In June of this year the United States’ Supreme Court is scheduled to rule on whether states have the authority to ban gay marriage. This would potentially open the door to nation-wide legalization of same-sex marriage, which would be a momentous victory for the global marriage equality movement.
Closer to home progress is slower. In Taiwan draft legislation allowing for same-sex marriage has stalled, largely due to religious opposition, and as yet not one Asian country has formally legislated in support of gay marriage. However small signs of change are visible. On New Year’s Day 2015 Vietnam amended the 2000 Law on Marriage and Family, which had explicitly banned same-sex marriage. While there is still a provision within the Law stating “the state does not recognize marriage between people of the same sex,” couples will no longer be fined for holding a same-sex wedding ceremony.
There are many Cambodians who hope their neighbour’s move could inspire a new national discussion of reforming the marriage law. On the whole Cambodian society has a history of respect of LGBT rights. Homosexuality is not illegal and there have been Gay Pride activities held annually since 2009.
From a legal perspective, the Cambodian Constitution defines marriage as between “one husband and one wife.” However the 1989 Law on Marriage and Family which explicitly prohibited same-sex marriage has now been superseded by both the 2008 Civil Code and the 2011 Law on the Implementation of the Civil Code. Neither of these later codes prohibit same-sex marriage, theoretically making it possible to assign the roles of ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ to each member of a gay or lesbian couple.
Although they are not officially recognized, same-sex wedding ceremonies have taken place in Cambodia, with some couples even being given Family Books usually reserved for heterosexual couples. However reports of these events are few and far between, and there is strong reason to believe that more same-sex couples would marry if given the option to do so legally.
Political leaders have also voiced their support for LGBT rights in recent years. In 2004 King Sihanouk made a public statement in favor of gay marriage, stating: “God loves a wide range of tastes.” In 2007 Prime Minister Hun Sen made a speech calling on the nation not to discriminate against homosexuals. Although it should be noted that this speech is more commonly remembered for the Prime Minister’s announcement that he planned to legally disown his adopted daughter because of her relationship with a woman.
Leaving aside this odd incident, there is a real chance that a global move towards universal marriage equality could have ripple effects in Cambodia, particularly given recent developments in neighbouring Vietnam.
Tourism could also have a positive effect on LGBT rights in Cambodia. Across the border the campaign ‘Go Thai: Be Free’ was launched in 2013, specifically targeting affluent gay tourists and so far it has proved a resounding success for the Thai economy. Like its neighbour, Cambodia is a popular tourist destination and the spread of gay tourism in particular could provide a serious economic incentive for the RGC to consider promoting LGBT rights more actively.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights’ Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (“SOGI”) Project works to promote the rights of LGBT people from grassroots to government level. The SOGI Project will use recent developments from around the world to form part of its advocacy strategy with government ministries in 2015. It is hoped these meetings will pave the way a number of LGBT-inclusive reforms, including in particular reform of the marriage law.
Time will tell whether same-sex marriage will spread in Asia in the same way it is currently spreading across Europe and the United States. Whatever happens, a conversation about same-sex marriage and how it can fit with traditional Cambodian values is long overdue.
 As of 7 April 2015, same-sex marriage is legal nation-wide in: Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and Uruguay. A law legalizing same sex marriage in Finland will come into effect in 2017. Same-sex marriage is permitted in parts of the United States, the United Kingdom and Mexico.
Caitlin McCaffrie, CCHR International Intern