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How Taiwan Legalised Equal Marriage - And What It Means for the Rest of Asia

On May 17 – on what was aptly the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia – after a long and painful struggle Taiwan officially became the first country in Asia to legalise marriage equality.

The road to this historic moment was not easy and was fraught with vying political motivations, the repercussions of which now cast a long shadow across the rest of Asia. Is this a flash in the pan? A glimmer of hope on an otherwise deeply conservative continent? Or, is this the beginning of a larger movement of reform that will sweep over an area of the world that holds 60 percent of the entire human population?

Taiwan’s LGBT+ movement was birthed in the late 1980s, alongside the feminist movement, but it wasn’t until 2000 that it gained mainstream traction when 14-year-old Ye Yong Zhi tragically died after being the subject of intense bullying about his sexuality. The widespread public outcry led to the Gender Equity Education Act and a more open and public discussion of LGBT+ rights. As a result, Taiwan’s younger generation were given the opportunity to learn about gender equality and the LGBT+ community. 80 percent of that generation now support marriage equality.

The marriage equality bill was first introduced in 2013 but was met with such fierce public criticism it didn’t go forward. Sadly, it took another death for there to be any momentum – this time it was Jacques Picoux, a French lecturer and LGBTQ+ activist who taught at National Taiwan University. His partner had died the year previously and he was unable to make any medical decisions on his behalf because they were not legally married. Their tragic story once again ignited public debate over the LGBT+ community, with the Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan and progressive legislator Yu Mei-nu seizing the moment to propose an amendment to the civil code to legalise equal marriage.

In 2017, the constitutional court ruled that the civil court had to recognise same-sex marriage and gave the legislature two years to pass a law that would grant Taiwan equal marriage.

Once again, there was a massive public outcry. A referendum was held in 2018 to decide if Taiwan wanted to go through with this reform. After a long and ugly campaign in which the LGBT+ community was vilified and subjected to fake news and flagrant discrimination (news reports linked same-sex marriage with HIV), the referendum returned a resounding 72 percent “no” vote.

Nevertheless, a supportive government ruled that the referendum result did not matter and that it was still unconstitutional to discriminate against entire minority group and forbid them from being able to marry. The constitutional court’s ruling would go ahead.

So, early on the morning of May 17, a huge crowded gathered outside Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan and waited in the rain until marriage equality was officially and finally granted.

“In the end, this hard-fought victory marks a new page in Taiwanese history — at least for the moment,” said an elated Jennifer Li, the chief coordinator of Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan. 

“Thanks to the courage of members of the LGBTQ+ community who stepped up, came out, shared their stories with families and friends, and helped the public to learn about the difficulties faced by the community, our right to marriage has finally been recognized.”

A supportive government ruled that the referendum result did not matter and that it was still unconstitutional to discriminate against entire minority group.

Corporations also played a crucial role in this landmark victory. 15 companies that included Google, O-Bank Co and EY, all banded together to extol the benefits of same-sex marriage, such as fostering innovation and collaboration.

However, Li points out that many crucial LGBT+ issues remain unresolved in the country, including workplace discrimination, rights to adoption and surrogacy. The fight, as always, continues. 

The reaction across the rest of Asia has been mixed.

“A common argument in many Asian countries is that same-sex relations do not belong in traditional Asian cultures,” said Li. “Some even claim they stem from cultural colonization and propaganda from Western countries.”

Oddly enough China attempted to take credit for the moment with the Communist Party's official newspaper, People's Daily, tweeting out an image supporting “love is love” with a comment that suggested it was China that was behind this ruling. 

"If you go back in history, there were times when same-sex relationships were widely practiced and accepted in China," said Human Rights Watch China researcher Maya Wang. "After the collapse of the Han Dynasty, and before reunification under the Shu Dynasty, you have several hundred years when it was widely accepted."

Despite reported widespread acceptance of LGBT+ people among China’s youth, Wang does not hold out hope that we’ll see marriage equality there anytime soon. LGBT+ images and books continue to be censored on television and in libraries.

"You have to be very careful being an activist in China," she noted.

Progress may be slow across Asia, but just in the last year we have seen tremendous change. India decriminalising homosexuality, Hong Kong allowing spousal visas for same-sex couples, and now Taiwan legalising marriage. While countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei seem to be slipping backwards and implementing cruel anti-LGBT+ legislation. It is important to remember progress never moves at the same rate in any part of the world, and that it very rarely travels in a straight line, but rather zips and zags. What’s happened in Taiwan this past week should be noted for the incredible historic achievement that it is, and hopefully the beginning of a much larger push for equality.

27 down, 168 to go.


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