Taiwan Court Weighs Becoming First in Asia to Allow Gay Marriage

(Bloomberg) -- Taiwan’s constitutional court could decide as soon as Wednesday whether to become the first place in Asia to allow gay marriage, even as legislative efforts to change the law struggle to overcome weak public support.

The Justices of the Constitutional Court were expected to rule after 4 p.m. on whether a civil law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman violates constitutional guarantees of equal protection. The case was brought by gay rights activist Chi Chia-wei after the Taipei city government rejected his and his long-time partner’s application to marry in 2013.

“Gay rights are human rights, too,” Chi, 58, said Tuesday. “Taiwan has become a sophisticated society. Our marriage system and regulations should also evolve with time.”

The case puts Taiwan at the forefront of Asia’s debate over gay marriage. Same-sex couples, who have secured marriage rights across much of Europe and the Americas in recent years have had little success in Asia, home to more than half of the world’s population.

Some Asian countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam have lifted bans on gay marriage without formally recognizing such unions. Israel honors same-sex unions performed overseas. In the broader Asia-Pacific region, New Zealand’s parliament voted in 2013 to allow gay marriage.

Divided Society

The court is considering whether a civil code provision stating that marriages “shall be made by the male and the female parties in their own concord” violates constitutional guarantees of equal rights. A judgment declaring the measure unconstitutional could force authorities to accept marriage applications immediately. The court could also order the code changed, in which case lawmakers would have time to amend various laws.

Efforts to legalize gay marriage in Taiwan gained traction after President Tsai Ing-wen led her Democratic Progressive Party to a landslide election win last year on a pledge to support the right. Public outcry for the change grew in October after the suspected suicide of a French professor who had been unable to marry his Taiwanese partner of 35 years.

Still, legislation guaranteeing the right has advanced slowly and lawmakers haven’t scheduled further debate on the bill since conducting the first of three required public readings in December. More than 49 percent of Taiwanese oppose the change, compared with 38 percent who support it, according to a China Times survey of 708 adults published in March.

“Gay marriages and regular marriages are fundamentally different in nature; so they shouldn’t be ruled by the same law,” said Chen Chih-hung, chairman of the conservative Faith and Hope League. “Taiwan’s society is still very divided over whether to legalize gay marriage. This is a highly controversial issue so at least we need to reach some sort of consensus before proceeding.”

‘Comrades’ Fight

The Justices of the Constitutional Court could force the debate. The 15-member panel, which considers only constitutional questions, includes seven members appointed since Tsai became president. One has recused himself from the case because his wife is a legislator who backs gay rights.

The plaintiff, Chi, has been a leader of Taiwan’s gay-rights movement since at least 1986, when he held a news conference to publicly declare his sexuality while Taiwan was still under martial law. The Taipei city government, which rejected his marriage application, has also asked the court for an interpretation.

Taiwan is governed by the Republic of China constitution that predates the island’s civil war split from the mainland in 1949. That document guarantees all rights and freedoms “not detrimental to social order or public welfare” and equal protection “irrespective of sex, religion, race, class or party affiliation.”

Regardless of the outcome, Chi vowed to keep fighting for equal rights for gay couples, sometimes referred to as “comrades” in Chinese. “Love between ‘comrades’ is no less, nor inferior, than love between other couples,” Chi said.