Same-Sex Marriage In Taiwan And The Pursuit Of True Equality

Pride parade in Taipei in October 2016
Pride parade in Taipei in October 2016
Jiang Heqing


TAIPEI — It was back on May 24, 2017 that Taiwan's Constitutional Court ruled that the constitutional right to equality and freedom of marriage also takes into account same-sex couples. Yet it took two years until the moment earlier this month — after layers of difficulties, including three homophobic referenda led by conservative and Christian groups — that same-sex couples could finally tie the knot.

Still, notwithstanding this major breakthrough, much more work remains to be done to guarantee true equality. While the Constitutional Court granted "equal protection of marriage freedoms," the recently passed bill addresses only "marriage freedom" while its enforcement of "equal protection" is debatable.

This is reflected first in the matter of adoption by LGBTQ couples. In a special law addressed to gay couples, which is not part of the Civil Code, only if a child is genetically related to one member of the couple can the other partner also become the child's adoptive parent. Yet, Taiwan had long allowed a single person the right to adopt, meaning that a single homosexual person is eligible for adoption without any biological relationship.

In other words, while a single LGBTQ person can adopt a child without any blood relation, because the special homosexual marriage law fails to stipulate a provision for the joint adoption, a gay married couple can't jointly adopt a child.

In my opinion, this is a clear legislative oversight and runs counter to the the Constitutional ruling that guarantees "equal protection." Furthermore, it implies that homosexual couples are even less apt than a single person for parenthood.

There is also an issue with international marriages. According to Taiwan's Applied Civil Law Concerning Foreign Affairs, the establishment of a marriage is to be in accordance with the domestic law of each party. That means, only if a foreigner's own country also legalizes same-sex marriage can the person be registered as married in Taiwan with a Taiwanese partner.

The gap between these legal norms shows that the legislators have yet to consider all the angles related to legalizing same-sex marriage. This oversight may not be due to malicious disregard, just like the law previously did not see the real needs of homosexuals who wished to be married. This "invisibility" itself resulted in institutional punishment of LGBTQ groups.

Freddy Lim, member of heavy metal band Chthonic and newly elected legislator holds a sign calling for marriage equality at Taiwan LGBT Pride in October 2016 — Photo: Craig Ferguson/ZUMA Wire

Viewed from the history of Taiwan's gay rights groups, we discover that the focus has never been limited to the right to marry, but rather the pursuit of integral social parity. In other words, marriage parity is regarded as one of the issues involving social justice instead of a separate appeal of the gay rights movement. It has long been true that Taiwan's LGBTQ groups demonstrate their solidarity on issues such as AIDS, old-age, education, handicap etc…, instead of being reduced simply to the battle for marriage rights.

Therefore, even though the legalization of same-sex marriage is an important achievement of gay groups, it is not the end of their movement. After all, marriage makes up only a part of people's lives, and not even part of the lives of others at all.

At the same time, one must admit that quite a number of Taiwanese people remain unconvinced by the Constitutional ruling about LGBTQ marriage rights. Though it is the Constitutional ruling that promoted the promulgation of the special law granting same-sex marriage, a lot of effort is required to push society toward progress on this topic.

From the debates of the past few years, the anti-LGBTQ groups principally made up of conservative Christians demonstrated their strong organizational ability, political networking, as well as strong financial resources. We should expect even more opposition from the anti-LGBTQ groups in the months and years to come. We can improve the way that homosexuals are treated based on academic research, the Constitutional ruling and the revision of laws; yet, solid social changes still require long-term efforts, and these changes are often implicit and slow.

Their number is small, but their voice will always be loud.

The most focal opponents are driven by their religious beliefs, though they are not a majority in Taiwan. As statistics show, Taiwan's overall Christian population is about 5%, and among them many still support gay rights. It is however worth noting that regrettably, based on my personal experiences, it is particularly difficult to communicate and change the homophobia of a stubborn religious position. Although their number is small, their voice in the media will always be loud.

What is no less worrying is that ordinary folks who are unfamiliar with gay issues might adopt a relatively conservative stance because of misunderstandings or false information even though they have no homophobic motives.

This is reflected in the work of the "Little bees of equal marriage rights' – a Taiwanese group of volunteers who used to go on the streets advocating the idea of marriage parity. They discovered that the majority of Taiwanese people were not opposed to LGBTQ rights, but rather had very limited knowledge about homosexuality.

This experience also echoes my study and observation in the Asian American community. I found that certain parents expressed their unwillingness to accept their children's homosexuality out of anxiety that their offspring will encounter bullies or employment difficulties, rather than rejecting the homosexuals.

In this light, we can say that most people opposed to LGBTQ rights do not have homophobic motives. It's just that the public needs access to accurate information related to homosexuality, and more social dialogue that will follow.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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