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Taiwan leads the way in Asia with landmark marriage equalityruling

by Heather Cassell

Taiwanese LGBT activists celebrate the Constitutional<br>Court's landmark decision for marriage equality outside the parliament in<br>Taipei May 24, 2017. Photo Credit: AFP/Sam Yeh
Taiwanese LGBT activists celebrate the Constitutional
Court's landmark decision for marriage equality outside the parliament in
Taipei May 24, 2017. Photo Credit: AFP/Sam Yeh  

Hundreds of people cheered and hugged each other outside of the Constitutional Court in Taiwan May 24, after the Council of Grand Justices announced its landmark decision that marriage equality was a constitutional right.

The court's decision paves the way for Taiwan to become the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage and the future LGBT rights in Asia.

The 15 justices read their decision that denying two people of the same sex to marry violated their constitutional right to freedom and equality, which was shown to the crowd outside the court on a large TV screen.

"This is a landmark victory for the LGBT community and human rights, and I believe its positive implications will spread beyond the shores of Taiwan in a time where the world needs more optimism to counter the darkness," wrote Jay Lin, who co-founded the Taiwan International Queer Film Festival, in an opinion piece for the International News.

Pioneering Taiwanese gay rights activist Chi Chia-wei, 59, told the Telegraph he was "leaping with joy like a bird," after his more than 30-year battle for same-sex marriage in Taiwan.

"I now believe it will be possible to change the law within two years. If the ruling party is aggressive, then, even by this summer," he continued.

However, the court's decision wasn't unanimous. Two judges filed dissenting opinions. One justice recused himself from the case, according to the Republic of China (Taiwan) Constitutional Court's news release.

 

Challenges ahead

Despite the groundbreaking decision for LGBT couples hoping to gain the same protections as their opposite-sex counterparts, such as inheritance, adoption, parenting, and rights in the case of medical emergencies, the battle isn't yet won.

Under the ruling, lawmakers have two years to either amend existing laws related to same-sex couples and families, create new laws to comply with the ruling, or allow the court's ruling to be upheld if they take no action, according to media reports.

This leaves the door open for opponents of marriage equality to pressure legislators to create laws that don't grant all the rights of marriage to LGBT Taiwanese, experts said.

During the past year, conservative and religious groups have joined forces. In December, opponents of marriage equality mobilized, bringing out 30,000 protesters against a bill drafted by Yu Mei-nu, the Democratic Progressive Party parliamentarian proposing to amend the laws to legalize same-sex marriage. The actions stalled the bill, which is awaiting its second reading.

President Tsai Ing-wen, member of the DPP, which currently controls the legislature, could push the bill through, but to Yu and the LGBT community's disappointment she's faltered on her public support since being elected in 2016.

Yu believes if Tsai publicly backed the bill then legislators who are wavering would vote in favor of the new laws legalizing marriage equality.

The court took up the issue in February.

One case was brought by Chi, who filed a lawsuit in 2013 after his repeated attempts to register to marry his partner of 30 years was rejected. The case was joined by authorities of Taipei, which faced a lawsuit after it rejected marriage applications from same-sex couples and sought clarity regarding the law, reported the New York Times.

Chi's partner remains anonymous.

According to a Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation survey in November, about 46 percent of the island's public favors same-sex marriage and about 45 percent oppose it, reported Voice of America. However, surveys in recent years vary widely regarding support for marriage equality and opposition to same-sex marriage.

Conservative leaders Robin Chen, a spokesman for the Coalition for Happiness of Our Next Generation, and Father Otfried Chan, secretary-general of the Chinese Regional Bishops Conference, and other opponents are capitalizing on that narrow margin. Chen and Chan expressed concern that Taiwan lawmakers were pushing the laws through too fast without discussion, they told The Guardian.

Chan called the process, "A one-sided game."

Chi's response is that the choice is simple.

"To legalize marriage would mean that Taiwan's civil code and constitution will say that gay people are people," he told the newspaper. "If the law can be changed, Taiwan's gay community will have human rights."

 

Paving the path

Taiwan has been seen as fairly liberal, following its gradual autonomy from China that occurred throughout the late 1970s and 1980s and resulted in the country's first democratic elections in 1996. Democracy fared well as Taiwan prospered economically, becoming a beacon of freedom and acceptance as well as a popular holiday destination for mainland Chinese for more than 20 years.

During the same time, Chi began demonstrating for LGBT rights. Chi came out as a teenager in 1975 and he was imprisoned for five months under martial law for petitioning for marriage equality in 1986, reported the Guardian.

Martial law was lifted in 1987, according to the Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook.

Since then, Taiwan has moved forward, becoming a leader on LGBT rights in the region. It outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Since 2011, LGBT issues have been included in school textbooks. Transgender Taiwanese people gained more freedom to self-identify and change their legal documents when Taiwan's Ministry of the Interior removed surgical and psychiatric requirements to undergo sex-reassignment surgery before changing their identification papers, reported PBS.

In 2016, Tsai became the first woman to become president of Taiwan. Leading up to her election, Tsai publicly supported marriage equality in a Facebook video announcement.

This year, Taiwan hosted an estimated 80,000 Pridegoers in Taipei.

Lin told the Christian Science Monitor that he feels society is changing.

"I do feel that society as a whole has changed quite significantly over the past decade or so," he said.

 

Crackdown

Despite the optimism for LGBT rights in Asia, it's still a long road ahead before LGBTs in Asia will gain equality throughout the region.

Many Asian countries are far from embracing LGBT rights and face opposition from religious leaders, traditionalists, and authoritarian governments, experts said.

On the eve of Taiwan's historical moment, Indonesia publicly caned two young gay men who were caught having sex. A South Korean military court sentenced an army captain to a suspended prison term for having sex with a fellow male soldier. The week leading up to the court's decision, 27 men were arrested on suspicion of being gay in Bangladesh.

China continues to waver on what it will and will not accept when it comes to LGBT rights.

 

Leading the way

Despite challenges, experts are pondering the ripple effects throughout Asia, wondering which country will follow Taiwan's lead becoming the second country in the region to legalize same-sex marriage.

Chien Chih-chieh, secretary-general with the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights, told VOA that the organization received a flood of congratulations from LGBT activists in China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and Thailand following the court's decision.

"I believe in the future our influence should be quite profound," said Chien. "Their LGBT activists have worked extremely hard and hope their countries too can approve marriage equality."

Renato Sabbadini, executive director at the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, stated that the ruling "sent quite a strong signal," in support of LGBT rights throughout the region, reported PBS.

Jessica Stern, executive director of New York-based OutRight Action International, praised the ruling.

"This is a great victory for Taiwan and for all of Asia," said Stern in a news release.

Jean Chong, program field coordinator at OutRight Action International, pondered how Taiwan might influence other Asian countries.

"The historic ruling in Taiwan paves the way for other Asian countries to follow suit. It says you can be Asian, be valued for who you are and who you love, and be on the right side of history," she said in the release.

"Taiwan might just start a positive domino effect where we will see other countries like Japan, Vietnam, and Thailand following in these footsteps," she added.

Taiwan's court ruling is a missed opportunity for Vietnam. It lifted its ban against same-sex marriage in 2015, however, the country's government still doesn't recognize marriages of same-sex partners, nor does it provide legal protection for same-sex spouses, according to media reports.

All eyes are currently on Thailand to revive its same-sex marriage bill.

VOA reported that Pitikan Sithidej, director-general of the Rights and Liberties Protection Department at the Justice Ministry, indicated that a petition from Change.org received May 17 prompted his office to set into motion the country's stalled same-sex marriage bill.

Introduced in 2013, the legislation has been in a state of limbo due to political instability of the country at the time.

 

Lesbian Russian journalist to speak in Berkeley

 

Lesbian Russian journalist Masha Gessen will be in Berkeley to speak about her newest book "The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia."

Gessen will discuss her perspective of the Russian influence on the 2016 U.S. election at this weekend's Bay Area Book Festival.

She will appear at the Alta Stage at Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, 2020 Addison Street, Berkeley, Saturday, June 3, from 5 to 6 p.m.

 

Got international LGBT news tips? Contact the author Heather Cassell at oitwnews@gmail.com.

 

 

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