After new legislation permitting same-sex marriage came into effect in Taiwan on 24 May 2019, LGBT couples and their families began celebrating their new freedom. Journalists and foreign diplomats (including Canadian representative Jordan Reeves) crowded into Taipei City Hall to witness the historic moment. Across Taiwan, 526 couples (185 male and 341 female) registered marriages
After new legislation permitting same-sex marriage came into effect in Taiwan on 24 May 2019, LGBT couples and their families began celebrating their new freedom. Journalists and foreign diplomats (including Canadian representative Jordan Reeves) crowded into Taipei City Hall to witness the historic moment. Across Taiwan, 526 couples (185 male and 341 female) registered marriages with local governments. The following day, a mass wedding banquet was held on Ketagalan Boulevard in front of the Presidential Office. Across the street, about 50 Christian fundamentalists protested by staging a mock funeral for Taiwan’s democracy, which they say is endangered by this change.
A Winding Judicial Path
Taiwan became the first country in Asia to recognize same-sex marriage after more than 30 years of LGBT activism. In 1986, Chi Chia-wei was turned down when he applied to register his marriage with his male partner, marking the beginning of lobbying for marriage equality. The first LGBT group, the lesbian organization Between Us, was established in 1990. Over the next decades, Taipei became a centre of LGBT activism; by 2016, it was hosting Asia’s largest Pride Parade, with over 80,000 participants. Marriage equality became one of the main goals of the movement after several LGBT groups joined forces in the Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan.
In May 2017, Taiwan’s Council of Grand Justices ruled that denying legal rights to same-sex couples constitutes gender discrimination. It gave the legislature two years to revise relevant laws. Yet in November 2018, conservative groups initiated a citizen’s referendum on same-sex marriage. One question was, “Do you agree that marriage defined in the Civil Code should be restricted to the union between one man and one woman?” The second was, “Do you agree to the protection of the rights of same-sex couples in co-habitation on a permanent basis in ways other than changing of the Civil Code?”
With a turnout of only 56% of eligible voters, the first question passed with 72% and the second with 61% support. A third question, proposed by LGBT groups in favour of marriage equality, failed because it got only 33% of the votes. The only way to respect both the court ruling and the referendum results was to leave the existing Civil Code unchanged and draft new legislation.
On this year’s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (May 17), Taiwan’s legislators deliberated the final wording of the law. In the spirit of radical transparency, the entire legislative proceedings were live-streamed to some 40,000 supporters holding a vigil on the street outside. As the vote was counted — 66 in favour, 27 against — the crowds cheered with joy. President Tsai Ing-wen said Taiwan proves that “progressive values can take root in an East Asian society.”
The legislators, choosing between three proposed laws, selected the strongest one, the one proposed by the Executive Yuan. To the consternation of conservatives, it used the term “marriage” and went far beyond civil union. There were still compromises with conservative forces, however. The law forbids adoption except when the child is a blood relative of one of the parents. It limits marriage rights to Taiwanese citizens and spouses from countries that have also legalized same-sex marriage. LGBT activists would like to see fuller marriage equality, but they also know that they got the best legislation possible under the circumstances.
LGBT Rights as an Expression of Democracy
Taiwan has much to celebrate, as this advance in human rights places the nation among the world’s most progressive democracies. Taiwan has its own constitution and an independent judiciary to interpret it. The law was passed by elected legislators and signed into law by an elected president. Taiwan has the rights to expression and to free assembly that enabled an independent LGBT movement.
The same rights also made it possible for conservative Christians, even though they constitute less than 6% of the population, to mobilize opposition to marriage equality. Taiwanese society may be sharply divided on many political issues, but it is committed to democracy. The main message of the anti-LGBT lobby is that Taiwan’s government failed to respect the democratic mechanisms of last year’s citizen referendum.
This contrasts sharply to China, where LGBT groups have been shut down, gay social media has been censored, and online vendors have been forced to remove rainbow-themed products. Chinese censors even cut gay scenes from Bohemian Rhapsody, a film about rock star Freddie Mercury. Taiwan proves that a Chinese-speaking society can democratize and become a model for progressive human rights.
Although Taiwan’s legislature passed this law entirely for domestic reasons, the democratic world did not hesitate to send its congratulations. Global Affairs Canada announced on Twitter, “Congratulations to the people of #Taiwan, the first in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage.” The UK Foreign Office even offered a film on social media and announced that Taiwan “becomes the first place to legally recognize same-sex marriage in Asia.” In this way, LGBT marriage contributes to Taiwan’s soft power in its quest for international recognition.
As Taiwan gears up for the January 2020 presidential and legislative elections, people are already speculating about what the impact of the new legislation might be. The conservative Happiness of the Next Generation Alliance immediately encouraged their followers to vote out the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government. Some Christians even established a political party called the Faith and Hope League in 2015 specifically to oppose same-sex marriage. It is unclear if progress on LGBT rights will increase support for the DPP or allow the opposition Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to rally support from social conservatives and return to power.
After the wedding banquets, LGBT activists are bracing themselves for what comes next. They hope to advocate for fuller equality, but also need to educate the broader population about LGBT issues and homophobia. It took decades to get this far, but as in North America and elsewhere, it will take sustained effort to protect these hard-won rights.
Scott Simon, Ph.D., is Professor in the School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies, Co-holder of the Chair in Taiwan Studies, and Researcher at CIPS, University of Ottawa. Proficient in both Mandarin Chinese and Japanese, he has conducted research on various social and political issues in China, Taiwan, and Japan. He is the author of three books about Taiwan.