Taiwan legalised marriage equality as part of its broader democratic effort to contrast the island with Mainland China. Observers and policymakers in Asia should heed three lessons from Taiwan.
After two years of COVID-19 lockdowns, over 120,000 people gathered in Taipei in late 2022 to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community in east Asia’s largest pride event. For the LGBTQIA+ community, there is much to be proud of.
Taiwan made history by legalising same-sex marriage in 2019, a first in Asia. This was not surprising to many, as the island is considered to be one of the most progressive societies in the region when it comes to LGBTQIA+ rights. Legalising same-sex marriage was seen as a significant milestone in its democracy. Not only did it send a symbolic and tangible message to the international community about Taiwan’s commitment to human rights and progressive values, it became an important aspect of Taiwanese identity.
The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) passed legislation in 2019 that granted same-sex couples many of the same rights as heterosexual couples, including the right to get married and adopt children. This landmark decision was praised by local and international human rights groups, but it also highlighted the need for continued progress in advancing LGBTQIA+ rights in Taiwan.
In addition to the legalisation of same-sex marriage, Taiwan has also made significant advances in transgender rights. In 2018, the Legislative Yuan passed a law that recognised the right of transgender individuals to change their legal gender on official documents without the requirement for gender reassignment surgery. The law also banned discrimination against transgender individuals in employment and education and ensured access to hormone therapy, mental health services, and employment support.
While Taiwan’s advancements in LGBTQIA+ rights are commendable, there are still challenges to be addressed. Same-sex marriages conducted outside of Taiwan, and transnational marriages, remain unrecognised by the government (though change appears to be on the horizon), and transgender individuals continue to face increased social stress and conflicting cultural attitudes. These challenges, combined with high levels of depression and anxiety in the LGBTQIA+ community, have resulted in higher suicide levels than among their heterosexual counterparts.
In the region, Taiwan remains unique in its legalisation of same-sex marriage. With other Asian societies such as Singapore and Thailand navigating LGBTQIA+ rights, three lessons emerge from Taiwan. Policymakers in the region should take heed.
Same-sex marriage and transgender rights fronted conversations of LGBTQIA+ rights in Taiwan.
As the conversation on LGBTQIA+ rights continues to gain momentum in Asia, the legalisation of same-sex marriage and progress in transgender rights will likely be at the forefront of these debates. Despite opposition from traditional and religious values that support heteronormativity and cisnormativity, there is an increasing openness and acceptance of diversity, particularly among the younger demographic in Taiwan. This shift in attitudes is not limited to Taiwan, as younger generations around the world are driving cultural and social change towards a more inclusive and accepting stance towards the LGBTQIA+ community.
Same-sex marriage is a vital marker of legal and social recognition of LGBTQIA+ rights, as marriage serves as a gateway to many civil rights and benefits. In many societies, rights such as inheritance, tax benefits, pension benefits, migration and work rights, estate and property rights, government grants for public housing, better healthcare and insurance benefits, custody, and adoption rights are contingent on marriage.
Constitutional courts and legislative bodies play a larger role in shaping attitudes and expanding rights than national referendums.
The road to recognition for LGBTQIA+ rights is diverse. The Netherlands and Iceland legalised same-sex marriages through parliamentary vote. Supreme courts in South Africa and Colombia ruled that bans on same-sex marriages were unconstitutional. Switzerland held a referendum, and Australia a plebiscite. Constitutional courts and legislative bodies will play a more influential role than national referendums, particularly in Asia where societal attitudes are heavily influenced by conservative and religious groups.
Taiwan serves as a prominent example of the power of constitutional courts in shaping LGBTQIA+ rights. Its constitutional court ruled in mid-2017 that the ban on same-sex marriage violated the rights of LGBTQIA+ individuals and the principle of equality guaranteed by Taiwan’s constitution. Intriguingly, and most importantly, the constitutional ruling required the government to recognise same-sex marriage within two years.
Changes to LGBTQIA+ rights in Asia will likely follow Taiwan’s constitutional and legislative processes, due in part to the prominence of centralised systems of government and strong legislative and judicial systems. In many Asian countries, human rights organisations struggle to advance LGBTQIA+ rights through national conversations and referendums due to the strong influence of traditional values. Instead, the role of national legislatures and judiciaries becomes more pronounced as they navigate the potential challenges posed by court cases related to LGBTQIA+ rights.
In India, for example, the courts have a history of progressive decisions on LGBTQIA+ rights, including striking down Section 377 of the Penal Code, a colonial-era law criminalising homosexual activity. Similarly, Singapore recently decriminalised homosexuality by striking down Section 377A of the Singaporean Penal Code, but limited marriages to heterosexual couples only. Its government cited its concern that Singapore’s courts will be more likely to rule in favour of LGBTQIA+ rights without legislative input.
Constitutional courts and legislative bodies will play a crucial role in advancing LGBTQIA+ rights, particularly in Asia where societal attitudes towards these rights are challenging to change. As human rights organizations continue to challenge anti-LGBTQIA+ laws, constitutional courts and legislative bodies are likely to be at the forefront of these efforts, grappling with the complex issues posed by the recognition of LGBTQIA+ rights.
LGBTQIA+ rights will be shaped by domestic partisan politics and transnational civil society groups.
Taiwanese partisan divisions on same-sex marriage, and LGBTQIA+ rights more broadly, means its future is uncertain. The stalwart Kuomintang (KMT) party, along with religious groups such as large Christian organisations, opposed the legalisation of same-sex marriage. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and various Taiwanese civil rights groups such as the Taiwan Equality Campaign, a local LGBTQIA+ advocacy and research organisation, on the other hand, supported legalisation.
Civil rights groups are concerned about a future KMT-led government due to their past opposition to same-sex marriage and their claims that LGBTQIA+ rights conflict with traditional Taiwanese values. Some groups are urging the current government to strengthen protections in case laws are reversed in a possible KMT party return to power.
It should be noted, however, that not all evangelical Christians in Taiwan hold the same views on LGBTQIA+ rights. Some support legalisation, seeing it as consistent with Christian values of love and compassion, while others oppose it. Be that as it may, evangelical organisations, supported by international church networks, formed the most vocal opposition to same-sex marriage.
Taiwan’s legalisation of same-sex marriage and advancements in transgender rights serves as a potential model for other Asian societies. These milestones in LGBTQIA+ equality are prominent markers of progress and will continue to drive discussions on LGBTQIA+ rights in Asia. Policymakers in the region, particularly in countries like Singapore and Thailand, would benefit from examining Taiwan’s journey as they navigate their own LGBTQIA+ rights issues.
Kazimier Lim (he/him) is a public policy consultant based in Sydney and was a delegate in the 2022 AIIA study tour of Taiwan as part of the #AIIANextGen Network. He holds a Master of International Relations (Advanced) from the Australian National University and has a background in academic research focusing on Asia, international prestige, and the geopolitics of aviation. Follow him on Twitter.
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