Taiwan is on the verge of making history and becoming the first Asian country to allow same-sex marriage.
A legislative committee approved a marriage equality bill on Dec. 26, the first big victory in a process that will likely last at least until midyear. Supporters say they have the endorsement of a bipartisan group of almost half of parliament. Marriage equality also has the backing of President Tsai Ing-wen, who campaigned on the issue.
But polls show Taiwanese people are still closely divided on the issue. Some Christian and Buddhist groups have vocally opposed it and mobilized parents’ associations on social media, including apparent support from a controversial anti-gay group in Massachusetts. Massive street demonstrations on both sides have rolled through Taipei and other cities over the last few months.
Yu Mei-nu, the legislator who introduced the marriage equality bill, said in an interview at her offices in parliament that she was cautiously optimistic about its chances. Her most recent tallies show 54 of Taiwan’s 113 legislators backing marriage equality, she said, although “some of them are under pressure so they might flake.”
“We’re almost close to passing it,” she said. Advocates are rushing to get the bill — which also allows same-sex couples to adopt children — approved before the 2018 elections, when “every issue becomes politicized,” said Yu, who worked as a women’s rights lawyer before being elected.
Taiwan is seen as one of the most gay-friendly places in Asia; its annual pride parade is regarded as the largest in the continent.
A previous marriage equality bill failed to pass in 2013. Since then, gay rights groups have lobbied officials and built support.
The story of a gay French professor who committed suicide in Taipei after the death of his longtime Taiwanese partner also went viral last year, spurring support for marriage.
A few days after the bill passed its committee, there was an upbeat air at the headquarters of the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association, the largest LGBT group in the country.
The cluttered offices have a lived-in feel, with comfortable furniture and rainbow flags hanging from the wall. One billboard was covered with recent front pages about the marriage equality success. “We want this to feel like home,” said Wayne Lin, 40, the group’s chairman.
The organization launched in 1998, in the wake of a string of gay youth suicides. Since then, it’s offered a hotline for LGBT people to call in times of distress, or when they just need to talk to someone. Five nights a week, trained volunteers gather in a locked room to answer calls on everything from starting relationships to AIDS testing to family issues. There’s even a separate hotline for parents of LGBT kids — it’s answered by other parents who listen to the callers’ concerns and talk about their own experiences. Volunteers answer almost 2,000 calls a year.
Now they’re leading the marriage equality fight and focused on telling personal stories of gay people.
“We’re trying to reach out to people and show them that LGBT people could be someone you see every day, in the office or the MRT,” Taipei’s subway system, Lin said. “This is the first time we’ve seen that we can influence our political system.”
One debate among activists is whether it’s better to directly change the civil code, which governs family law, or create a separate new law for gay and lesbian couples. Yu’s bill would change the code. Lin said his group supports that: Passing a new law would be “a separation, just like old days [in the US] when black people could sit on the bus but only in certain seats. That we don’t like.”
Their biggest tool is the street demonstrations. Taiwan is known for its vigorous political protests, and the marriage issue is no different: Organizers said about 250,000 people came to the largest pro-marriage protest so far, on Dec. 10.
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People thronged the avenues around the Presidential Office Building, decked out in rainbow colors and hoisting handmade signs and flags. Young children of gay parents ran around and played while the crowds chanted slogans. Each protest has been shadowed by smaller counterdemonstrations by marriage equality opponents.
Ryan Guo, 21, a student at National Taiwan University who’s attended several of the demonstrations, said he thought “it’s my duty” as a gay person to show up. “People think protests are aggressive or antagonistic, but it’s actually a very merry and joyful scene,” Guo said. “We go as a group, and we’ll check out hot guys and chat and gossip.”
“It’s like hanging out with friends on a weekend,” he added — just a few hundred thousand friends who want to change their country.
The protests have gotten heated at times, with physical clashes between pro- and anti-marriage equality factions. In November, a group from the against camp asking for a referendum on the issue broke into the legislative building and held a sit-in. Leslie Shih, 25, said marriage opponents threw plastic bags full of water at her and her friends at one demonstration.
But she didn’t let the intimidation dampen her spirits. “I’m very proud of Taiwan,” Shih said. “Marriage equality is just the starting point.”
Shih feels totally comfortable being lesbian in Taipei — her family, schoolmates and co-workers at a wine company have all been totally supportive, she said. Her boss even let her skip work to attend a protest.
If marriage passes, Shih predicts, broader nondiscrimination protections and more rights for transgender people will follow.
“A lot of people will gradually accept this movement,” she said. “When society becomes truly friendly [toward LGBT people], there’ll be no need to go to the streets.”
Meanwhile, the street battles are also playing out on social media. In Taiwan, many older people use the messaging app Line, while young people are more predominantly on Facebook. In Line group chats for school parents’ associations around the island, opponents have shared stories about their worries that gay marriage would lead to AIDS or turn their kids gay.
Those kinds of insidious social media rumors amount to “fake news,” Yu said. “They’re demonizing gay people … it’s not democratic and not moral.”
Some locals think marriage equality could have broader consequences for the island. Taiwan’s geopolitical situation is suddenly more tenuous after US President Donald Trump’s phone call with Taiwan’s leader in November, which broke decades of precedent. An upended US-Taiwan relationship could threaten to inflame relations with the mainland, which are already low. The same week that the marriage equality bill passed, China sent its aircraft carrier near the island, and the Taiwan air force scrambled military jets for a show of strength.
Making history on marriage equality would be a powerful symbol for Western democracies that Taiwan deserves their support.
“Taiwan is under the threat of China and can’t speak out in the international community,” Yu said. “If we’re the first in Asia, that will definitely raise Taiwan’s international profile. The world can see that we emphasize democracy, the rule of law, and freedom.”
Approving marriage could also raise pressure on Asian countries like Japan to approve gay marriage and mainland China to improve LGBT rights.
“If we’re first,” Lin said, “other countries will be paying attention.”
Casey Tolan reported from Taipei. Shen Qiu contributed translation.
This article first appeared on PRI The World.