Legislators in Taiwan, a small island nation of 23 million people, have quietly been deliberating on what could become Asia’s first same-sex marriage law. This historic act would reverberate around the rest of Asia, a region of the world where basic protections are largely still denied to LGBT individuals.
Three separate bills were introduced last month by the country’s new ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party that would eliminate gender from the national constitution’s definition of marriage. Supporters hope that the final proposal will offer same-sex couples important rights including welfare benefits, joint property rights, and shared custody of children.
Currently, without marriage rights only one parent in a same-sex partnership can legally get custody, leaving the other with no say in the medical, legal and educational decisions on their children — a gap that LGBT advocates have been vigorously fighting to fill. However, the tipping point in the movement was the suspected suicide of a openly gay French professor, Jacques Picoux in the capital, Taipei. His lack of legal marital status had denied him the ability to take part in crucial medical decisions of his partner who ultimately died of cancer, and left him with no legal claim over their shared property. Picoux’s death became the rallying call against the failure of the government to give him, among many others, legal recognition of his marriage.
Taiwan has long been a beacon and a source of hope for LGBT advocates in Asia, a where same-sex intercourse is punishable by death in five more culturally conservative countries. When compared to the rest of the continent, it stands apart as one of the most progressive and receptive countries for same-sex couples. They enjoy protections from discrimination in the workplace and schools, and openly gay soldiers are allowed to serve in the military. Absent a federal law, six municipal governments showed their solidarity with the movement by allowing gay couples to symbolically register their partnerships.
With the moniker of “the most gay friendly place in Asia,” the country routinely hosts the largest annual gay pride parade in Taipei. Last month’s 14th LGBT Pride Parade drew a record attendance of 80,000 demonstrators. Many took to the streets to call on the government to take action in securing them with equal rights under the law.
The parade’s attendees hopes may soon become reality. The victory of the Democratic Progressive Party of both the parliament and the presidency in the January elections has fostered a political climate favorable toward the passage of this historic bill. The party platform appealed primarily to young and liberal Taiwanese voters –80 percent of whom support same-sex marriage. Tsai Ing-wen, the country’s first female president, has also vocalized her support for marriage equality.
“In the face of love, everyone is equal”, she said during the 2015 Taipei parade.
Taiwan’s inclusive attitude stems largely from its culture, which is rooted in Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. These traditional philosophies have no strong stance on sexual orientation or gay marriage and emphasize tolerance.
However, the path toward marriage equality has not been a smooth one. The country’s LGBT movement faces sharp opposition from members of the older generation as well as from Taiwanese Christians, who view the cause as an attack on their traditional perceptions of gender roles and family values. This past weekend, more than 20,000 demonstrators, most of whom were affiliated with conservative religious and social groups,protested the marriage bills outside parliament.
Expectations still loom large for what could be a potentially historic turning point in the gay rights movement in Asia. Should Taiwan become the first to legalize same-sex marriage in the region, this powerful message would resonate across much of the region, where homosexuality is still a taboo topic. Taiwan would also join the cohort of twenty other countries, including the United States, that have legalized marriage equality in the past 15 years.