It would be the first country in Asia to legalise it
On The eighth floor in a gritty suburb of the capital, Taipei, sits the ten-year-old Wei-ming temple, a Taoist house of worship—but an unusual one. Nearly all the visitors buying bundles of prayers or bringing handwritten ones of their own to be burnt by the priest at the altar are gay. The deity receiving the prayers, and to whom the shrine is dedicated, is the Rabbit Spirit, a 17th-century folk deity from Fujian province in mainland China who protects men who have sex with men. In late imperial China, “rabbit” became a derogatory term for homosexual. In this temple the rabbits are reclaiming the label.
Taiwan’s open tolerance of homosexuality and its liberal view of sexual minorities generally is unique within Asia. Taipei’s annual gay-pride parade is a lively celebration that draws 80,000 people or so a year, including gay people from all over Asia. Perhaps religion has something to do with it: Taoism and Buddhism, the country’s most widespread faiths, have less doctrinal objection to homosexuality than many religions. Some in Taiwan ascribe its tolerance to the island’s long history of influences from the outside—centuries of settlement by mainland Chinese; Dutch and Japanese colonial rule; American popular culture—mingling with the island’s aboriginal traditions to create a uniquely open, hybrid society. But that explanation only goes so far and, as elsewhere in Asia, older generations are much more conservative about gay issues than younger ones.
So the chief factor has to be Taiwan’s modern political history, and in particular the struggle to throw off the thuggish dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT). Gay rights, feminism, environmental awareness and demands for political freedom: all emerged in the grassroots protest movement that led to the end of martial law in 1987 and culminated in full democracy.
Issues like gay rights thus became a badge of the island’s democratisation, championed by a rowdy media. Chiang had once ruled that people with “sexual-orientation impairments”—ie, homosexuals—were mentally unfit to serve in the armed forces. But in 2002 the army began admitting gay and bisexual recruits. Discrimination was outlawed in hiring and at work. And a landmark education act in 2004 opened the way for tolerance to be taught even in primary school.
Around the same time a push was made to legalise gay marriage. That failed. But this year members from both the ruling Democratic Progressive Party of President Tsai Ing-wen (herself a longtime promoter of gay rights) and the more conservative KMT, now in opposition, have very similar gay-marriage bills before the national legislature. They would give same-sex couples the same rights as any others, including to adopt.
That would make Taiwan the only country in Asia to permit gay marriage, unless you consider New Zealand part of the continent. In contrast, in 2014 Singapore’s Supreme Court upheld a law mandating a two-year jail term for men engaging in acts of “gross indecency”—ie, gay sex. Malaysia sends “effete” youths to boot camp. Aceh province in Indonesia punishes gay sex with 100 lashes. Thailand, one of Taiwan’s few rivals in tolerance, has decriminalised gay sex, opened the army to gay recruits and banned most forms of discrimination based on sexual orientation—but legalising gay marriage remains a distant prospect. Nepal is also unusually liberal.
It is still possible that Taiwan’s gay-rights movement will be a victim of its own success. In mid-November, as the legislature was reviewing the draft gay-marriage laws, some 10,000 protesters converged outside; some broke through the gates to stage a sit-in in the courtyard. Mainly Christians, they knelt and prayed, warning that the proposed laws were not only an affront to religion but would also promote promiscuity.
More Taiwanese support gay marriage than oppose it, according to polls. In response to the protests, Ms Tsai declared that “everyone is equal before love.” But the president has other priorities, not least the economic issues that are of greatest concern to ordinary Taiwanese. How much political capital her government will expend on gay marriage is unclear. The legislature has called public hearings on the subject—a concession to the protesters.
Jason Hsu, a KMT politician who backs gay marriage, says pressure from constituents not to legalise it is growing fast. To drum up greater support, however, opponents are having to soften their tone. Many are suddenly calling for a law that would recognise gay partnerships but not marriages. “Protect homosexuals. Set up separate legislation,” run the new banners.
Mr Hsu argues that that would be discriminatory, in that it would single out gay people for different treatment. Moreover, it is far from certain that adoption would be allowed under such a law. Even if, as elsewhere, such partnerships become a way-station on the road to gay marriage, Mr Hsu is against dawdling. “Taiwan”, he says, “is a decade behind…We have to show the world it is still a progressive country.”
Huge rival demonstrations are promised for this weekend. Many Asians admire Taiwan’s lively popular democracy, in which spirited debates in parliament often reverberate in the streets. The young leaders of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy “umbrella” movement of 2014, which brought central Hong Kong to a standstill with mass protests, were following the lead of the environmental activists who brought Taiwan’s nuclear-power programme to a halt, and from the “sunflower” demonstrators who invaded Taiwan’s legislature to block a free-trade deal with China. The fact that Taiwan is debating same-sex nuptials is encouraging. It would be even better if the country that hardly any others recognise became the first in Asia to recognise that gay people deserve equality.
Source – The Economist