What Can Asia Learn From Taiwan’s Same-Sex Marriage Victory?
Taiwan’s journey was not easy, but its path to success could offer many learning opportunities for other Asian societies and activists.
On May 24, Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legally recognize same-sex marriage, a victorious day for both country and continent.
As an Asian by ethnicity and an activist by conviction, the days leading up to the review by Taiwan’s Constitutional Court definitely cost me a few sleepless nights. And when the folks from the country’s marriage equality campaign invited a bunch of us Asian activists to send in a 60-second video to show our support for the Taiwanese, I wasn’t sure myself whether that could really help.
I come from Singapore, a country whose government disallows foreigners from being included, or to be allies, in the country’s fight for equality, and for many years I have been conditioned to accept that this was how it is going to be.
I thought, if supporting the freedom to love in a country like mine is only meant for its citizens, how can I now, from a foreign perspective, impose upon another country by meddling in the affairs of their LGBTI community?
I was glad that I did it, anyway. I was grateful that I could lend a voice, even if it meant that the ruling will not change, in any way, the status quo of the country I grew up in.
But I have always firmly believed that one country’s victory is not just hers alone, and that its victory will have wide-reaching effects on every other country that is in the same continent.
True enough, Taiwan created history this year, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the rest of Asia will be left out of this global equality pie. For me, I felt Taiwan’s landmark ruling showed us two things—that anti-LGBTI activists should now know that their long-held argument of LGBTI rights as a Western concept which will never have a place in Asia can no longer hold, and that other governments in Asia should now also be held accountable for the due right they owe their LGBTI citizens.
For those who thought Taiwan had it easy, her journey was everything but so. The country saw its first court case as early as 1986, with multiple failures, disappointments, and setbacks over the past 21 years, and no one was absolutely sure (even up to the very last minute) how the review would turn out. In the face of all these negatives and uncertainties, what made the Taiwanese activists go on?
It is a love-hate thing for me to say it, but the political will of the government is almost always the key to any form of legislative success, at least in the modern era we live in.
In the case of Taiwan, its current president Tsai Ing-Wen has been a strong advocate for LGBTI equality. She appeared in a campaign video some time ago to voice her support for the community.
Sadly, this political will is still lacking in many other Asian countries. In religiously staunch countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, religion itself is a “reason” to incarcerate LGBTI people, or reject any form of proposed anti-discrimination measure in parliament. Gay men are being caned in the public, or being arrested. We are seeing more and more religious institutions in Asia championing LGBTI equality, though their efforts are not recognized by the various states.
In Singapore, the desire to maintain social harmony takes precedence over this basic human right to love, so much so that the government tries to do all it can to ensure the society doesn’t break out in chaos.
The present administration has failed to recognize that harmony and equality cannot co-exist in the same space. In the United States where I had lived briefly and Chile where I currently live, I have witnessed for myself how the political wills of a country’s top leadership have been so important in the passing of same-sex marriage or civil unions. It is uplifting, to say the least.
It would be immature, though, to fully rely on governments to ensure the success of any form of LGBTI advocacy.
In this respect, the Taiwanese themselves are a resolute bunch. In my many trips to Taiwan, be it to attend LGBTI-related conferences or just to chill out, I have always left the island in amazement of their civic-mindedness, collectiveness, and solidarity.
The Taiwanese has had a long history of fighting for their own rights (30 years ago, they were under martial law), even up to today as they continue to fight for their own freedom against their neighboring bigger entity China, who stubbornly claims that Taiwan falls under their jurisdiction.
Perhaps this history is what drives Taiwanese society forward, allowing them to recognize that freedom is possible so long as the society comes together to stake a claim against a bigger power in question.
While other countries in Asia do not necessarily have a history like Taiwan’s, civic-mindedness can also come from education and awareness, through which people can fully understand the important role social pressure plays in relation to human rights. In other countries, collective action has paved the way to subsequent legislation.
Civil rights in the United States did not come without Americans out on the streets protesting. Chile’s dictatorship era under Augosto Pinochet may not have ended if Chileans back then did not have the courage to vote against its continuation.
Taiwan’s LGBTI activism is amazingly diverse. I remember when I attended the International Gay & Lesbian Association’s (ILGA) conference in the country’s capital Taipei in 2015, I joined a workshop where I was introduced to “Hand Angels,” a Taiwanese NGO that focused on providing masturbation services to those who are physically disabled.
Now that may not seem entirely LGBTI-focused, but the organization firmly believes that love and sex is a human right that should be for everyone. This, to me, counts as true diversity—one that is inclusive and which transcends borders.
The United States also embraces many different kinds of LGBTI activism, an inclusivity which is greatly lacking in Asia.
In Singapore particularly, we see a lot of resources (financial or otherwise) being poured into the mainstream LGBTI movement. But many other forms of activism in relation to the LGBTI community, like sex workers and transgender community organizations, are largely underfunded, mainly because the topics these organizations touch upon may not be seen as sufficiently “mainstream” or deemed too extreme for society to accept.
But being LGBTI ourselves already means we are unable to subscribe to the heteronormative narrative society imposes upon us, so why should we restrict LGBTI activism to just a single narrative?
Societies and governments need to witness for themselves how diverse this community is. We can only hope it dawns upon them one day that there is no point for legislation to be imposed upon the LGBTI community, and that people should be able to live out their lives fully without the fear of being prosecuted or being discriminated against in public.
The key for LGBTI activists in Asia is to foster strong cooperation and collaboration between organizations in different Asian countries, with ties to bigger international bodies in the United States and Europe.
More Asian LGBTI organizations need to come on board this bandwagon, especially now that Taiwan has become the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage. There is simply so much knowledge to share, and community building and joint project ideas that can be explored.
There is a popular saying which says that it is easy to break a pair of chopsticks, but the task becomes more difficult when ten pairs of chopsticks come together.
Very often, the reason I hear of organizations’ non-participation in regional or international efforts is that LGBTI activism needs to be kept domestic, in line with the country’s policy on foreign non-interference in domestic politics.
But activism is a concept that is meant to defy existing government policies. Activism only exists because of gaps in the current system that governments refuse to address, so why the need to be nice about it, and end up getting trampled over with more restrictions imposed upon us?
Larger organizations need to help those who are still scrambling to build up their own capabilities, because we are only as strong as our weakest link. I think we can afford to be little more provocative, and stop playing so “nice.”
I still harbor high hopes of more countries in Asia following in the footsteps of Taiwan. I know Asia has a ton of promising activists, and so long as their advocacy work continues to grow I remain hopeful that the human right to love who we want will one day become a reality throughout the continent.
Darius Zheng is a journalist, LGBTQ advocate, and a Human Rights Campaign Global Innovator.