TAIPEI, TAIWAN – Nestled among the efficient bustle of a stock-standard business district, between mid-class hotels servicing the surrounding neutral government buildings, an unfiltered burst of kaleidoscopic color emerges. Beyond a generic police blockade, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and other supporters of the LGBT movement congregate. T-shirts shout for equality, rainbow pins emblazon backpacks, and attendees drape their bodies with oversized multi-colored flags.
It could be any LGBT event anywhere in the world – but this week, it was in Taiwan, a tiny island nation with a reputation as a lone beacon of tolerance on a continent where at least twenty countries still outlaw same-sex activity.
VIDEO: ???????? Same-sex marriage supporters gather outside the Taiwanese parliament in Taipei as legislators debate Asia's first gay marriage bill ahead of a parliamentary vote on Friday pic.twitter.com/aDAdpdmdW6
— AFP news agency (@AFP) May 14, 2019
Cindy Su stands steady in the frontline of the battle as Taiwan tips on the verge of becoming the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage. Squinting into the bright sunlight on Tuesday, her quiet voice and story are followed by a tsunami of cheering. Su, CEO of Lobby Alliance for LGBT Rights, is well-known to the crowds: after marrying her now-wife Lana Yu in Canada, Su gave birth to twin girls in Taiwan two years ago.
However, without Taiwan’s recognition of same-sex marriage, only biological mother Su maintains parental rights; in the eyes of the law, her wife Yu could be a stranger to her own children.
Landmark Ruling and Need for a Solution
Taiwan’s jump to the forefront of Asia’s LGBT movement was galvanized after a 2017 Constitutional Court ruling that it was unconstitutional to deny same-sex couples marriage rights. Taiwan’s top court granted parliament two years to amend laws to guarantee same-sex couples the freedom of marriage.
Now, just one week before this deadline, parliament is debating three bills, all offering different levels of recognition for same-sex couples. For Su, only the bill submitted by the government’s executive branch will suffice. Under this framework, same-sex marriage would be legalized under a new law, but with limitations to adoption and foreign spouses.
“This bill is already a step back from absolute equality, so that’s the least we can take,” Su told The Globe Post. “We refuse to accept anything less than marriage; we refuse to take anything that doesn’t give us equal parental rights.”
LGBT groups condemn the two other bills that are in the ring, saying they highlight differences instead of resolving them. Introduced by legislators from the two main political parties, these bills would refuse to use the terms “marriage” or “spouse” for same-sex couples and would limit their rights. In a further blow, one of these two bills would allow relatives to request annulment under the pretext of preventing sham marriages.
According to Chief Coordinator of Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan, Jennifer Lu, these two proposals are downright unconstitutional. “They discriminate against same-sex couples and their families, force different treatment, and demote LGBT people to second-class citizens,” she told The Globe Post.
Obstacles to Taiwan’s Marriage Equality
The political discord is just one pothole on Taiwan’s road to LGBT acceptance. With four months to go before the deadline to amend the laws, a government referendum asked voters whether they wanted to restrict the definition of marriage in the Civil Code to between a man and a woman. A resounding two-thirds of the voting turnout said yes.
According to Su, the mother of twins, the majority of referendum voters did not understand the question. “It was misleading,” she said. “Every time we explain our situation, people understand and wish that we could have the same rights and security as they do.”
But Tseng Hsien-ying, president of anti-gay marriage group Coalition for the Happiness of our Next Generation, is frustrated that the LGBT-supported bill uses the title “marriage” despite the referendum results.
“We have said all we can say. People are getting angrier because the government obviously does not treat them as the masters of the country,” Tseng told Focus Taiwan earlier this week.
Kyle Knight, a researcher in the LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch, said the referendum result was a harrowing public indictment against diversity and tolerance. “It forced LGBT Taiwanese to expose their lives to the public and ask for popular support,” he said to The Globe Post. “It is in times like this that it’s even more important for the government to step in to affirm the fundamental rights of minorities and protect people equally.”
This Friday, the parliament will vote on each bill. It’s down to the wire, with the Constitutional Court declaring that if the deadline passes the Civil Code will simply be extended to same-sex couples with no amendments. It is unclear what will happen if multiple bills pass.
According to Susan Dicklitch-Nelson, Professor at Franklin & Marshall College and Director of the first LGBT rights country-by-country barometer, the vote will be a defining moment for the island. “Friday will enshrine either equality or intolerance in Taiwan,” she told The Globe Post.
Dicklitch-Nelson warned that democracy does not always guarantee human rights or equality. “We have far too many examples in history where the most vulnerable minorities’ rights are neglected or violated because the majority of the population, or a strong, vocal, and powerful lobby pressures lawmakers to ignore minority rights,” she explained.
According to Su, the mother-of-two, the opposition in Taiwan stems from a small group with a loud voice. “I have never experienced bad feelings from other people, including people who have seen my family. We are very open and out, and try to explain what our family structure is like.”
Regardless, the vocal opposition to same-sex marriage has shocked 28-year-old Nelson Liu, who believed Taiwan was generally tolerant towards diversity, particularly in the capital Taipei. “The current debate in parliament proves me wrong,” he told The Globe Post. He attended Tuesday’s gathering to show support and to safeguard his opportunity to marry in the future.
Liu believes Taiwan is being offered a unique chance to spearhead the LGBT movement in Asia, beyond the gay party hotbeds of Thailand and Japan. “I want people to think of Taiwan when they are searching for happiness or want to get married.”
Marriage Equality Coalition’s Lu is hopeful that this could be a turning point for Taiwan. “We can send the message to the international society that Taiwan is a country where we respect different communities, different people, and embrace and treasure diversity.”
Human Rights Watch’ LGBT researcher Knight said Taiwan is setting a meaningful example. “It means a lot to LGBT people that there’s an Asian country moving in the right direction – with a government that appears to take seriously the basic rights of people regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.”
All eyes will be on Taiwan on Friday when parliament votes. Asian LGBT groups are praying for a domino effect to ripple over borders, toppling barriers of intolerance and promoting messages of inclusion and acceptance across the continent and beyond.
Taiwan takes a giant jump for LGBT rights in Asia this week – but will it stick the landing?