In a landmark decision, Taiwan’s parliament approved a bill on Friday, May 17, that legalises same-sex marriage, making it the first place in Asia to do so.
Hundreds of Taiwanese people from the LGBT community, along with their advocates and allies, hit the streets of capital Taipei after the passage of the bill, which coincided with the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia.
Once enacted, the law would mean that married homosexual couples will enjoy the same rights as heterosexual couples in wedlock, in terms of inheriting property, taking medical decisions on each other’s behalves, and adopting children to raise them together.
The historic law will go into effect on May 24, 2019.
But the journey to history has not been easy
In 2015, veteran gay rights activist Chi Chia-wei—who has spent 30 years fighting for marriage equality—filed a request to the Constitutional Court asking for a ruling on an article in the island’s civil code, which stated that marriage is between a man and a woman.
The Taipei city government filed a similar request the same year after three same-sex couples lodged an administrative lawsuit against the government, when their marriage registrations were rejected, CNA reported.
In 2017, the island’s constitutional court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to legally marry, giving the Parliament a two-year deadline to amend or enact laws by May 24, 2019.
Three different bills were debated upon, before the most progressive of the lot was finally approved on Friday, May 17, granting recognition to same-sex marriages in a historic first for Asia.
The two other bills, submitted by conservative lawmakers, refer to partnerships as “same-sex family relationships” or “same-sex unions” rather than “marriages”. The approved bill which was tabled by the island’s Cabinet, is also the only one to confer adoption rights, albeit limited.
Making marriage equality a reality
Tens of thousands of gay rights supporters braved the pouring rain to gather outside the parliament building in Taipei, to demonstrate in favor of same-sex marriage outside the parliament. The crowd broke into joyous celebration and teary embraces after the landmark ruling.
While most of Taiwan’s LGBT community consider the legal definition as a crowning moment, activists insist that the fight must go on, especially as the existing legislation is not clear on certain matters like, co-adoption rights, unions between a foreigner and Taiwanese person, and also on the issue of gender equality education.
Nonetheless, it is certainly praiseworthy that Ing-wen pitched her wholehearted support to the cause, despite its consequences on her approval ratings before next year’s presidential elections, since most of Taiwan’s population did not favour giving same-sex couples the same privileges as heterosexual couples.
In fact, after the 2017 ruling, the government needed to conduct several referendums due to the mass outrage and backlash to the verdict. The referendum results showed that a majority of voters in Taiwan rejected legalising same-sex marriage, saying that the definition of marriage was the union of a man and woman.
That is why Taiwan decided it would enact a special new law to legalise gay marriages, without altering its existing definition of marriage in civil law as a means of placating the conservative masses.
Conservative opponents have been angered by Friday’s vote, calling it the death of democracy. For them, it shows the government’s disregard for the votes of seven million people who voted against same-sex marriage in the referendum.
Tseng Hsien-ying, from the Coalition for the Happiness of Our Next Generation, told AFP that the vote had “trampled on Taiwanese people’s expectations that a marriage and a family is formed by a man and a woman, a husband and a wife”.
This simmering unrest now tasks Taiwan with a greater challenge: to weed out homophobia from its social fabric, now that law is on the right side, and ensure the safety and interests of its LGBTQ+ population.
What this means for Asia at large
But the impact of this unprecedented milestone is certainly not restricted within the confines of Taiwan. Activists believe this will harken a positive future for LGBT rights and queer movements in Asia at large.
With Taiwanese lawmakers—primarily from the majority Democratic Progressive Party—backing the bill, gay civil unions become a reality in Taiwan, setting a precedent for many neighbouring countries, which deny its queer population their basic rights to this day.
India itself decriminalised homosexuality in a momentous hearing last year, but the idea of same-sex marriage remains a legally untenable debate here. The same is true for Vietnam and China, where same-sex marriage is still illegal, despite their top courts outlawing colonial-era laws criminalising homosexual acts (in 2015 and 1997 respectively).
“Taiwan’s action today should sound a clarion call, kicking off a larger movement across Asia to ensure equality for LGBT people,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, tweeted.
Xiaogang Wei, who heads the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute, also called the bill’s passing a historic moment, not only for Asia but for the global LGBTQ rights movement.
But the impact of this legal recognition on conservative nations like mainland China, Pakistan, and Singapore that keep harping on preserving Asian values, remains to be seen. As recently as last November, an author of same-sex erotic fiction was sentenced to ten years in prison by the Chinese Communist Party.
Earlier this year, Asia’s progress on the civil rights front suffered a huge setback when Brunei announced it would enact strict new Islamic laws to make homosexual acts and adultery punishable by stoning to death. However, it was forced to back down after facing global outrage and boycott of hotels owned by the Sultan of Brunei.
In Indonesia too, discrimination against the country’s LGBT nationals recently resulted in two men receiving 87 lashes for gay sex in the country’s conservative Aceh province.
More than two dozen countries around the world allow gay marriage, according to Pew Research.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.