Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president, adjusts her glasses during a news conference at the Presidential Palace in Taipei, Taiwan. (Photographer: Ashley Pon/Bloomberg)

Taiwan Lays Down Historic Marker for Same-Sex Marriage in Asia

(Bloomberg) -- Taiwan’s ruling party forced through a landmark marriage-equality law in the face of staunch local opposition Friday, making it the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex unions.

Lawmakers from President Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party voted in favor of the bill drafted by Taiwan’s cabinet, rather than two rival proposals that would have limited rights and protections for same-sex couples.

Tsai praised the vote in a tweet Friday. “On May 17th, 2019 in #Taiwan, #LoveWon,” she said. “We took a big step towards true equality, and made Taiwan a better country.”

Tens of thousands of LGBT rights advocates gathered outside the legislature in Taipei calling for the law’s passage. The Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan, a gay rights alliance, put the number at 40,000.

Taiwan has long been something of a beacon for LGBT rights in East Asia. Taipei’s annual gay pride event is the largest in the region. Pro-same sex marriage activist Jennifer Lu said Friday’s vote would have a wider impact throughout Asia.

“I’m pleased that Taiwan has made progress and is sending a message to the world,” she said. “Experiences from other countries suggest that the social discord will settle down as soon as same-sex couples start to get married. People will find that the world keeps running as normal.”

Despite the law’s passage, the deliberations over gay marriage had laid bare societal divisions eight months ahead of the next presidential election as typically young urban progressives came out in favor of the measure while religious groups and older voters opposed it.

Widespread Opposition

Widespread public opposition to gay marriage, including by DPP supporters, presents Tsai with a dilemma. More than 72% of people voted in favor of limiting marriage rights to heterosexual couples in the Civil Code in a November referendum.

Foxconn Technology Group’s billionaire founder Terry Gou, who has announced a run for Taiwan’s presidency, expressed misgivings over the new law.

“It’s a bit of a regret that this amendment isn’t in line with the referendum,” he said after Friday’s vote. “But Taiwan is a country ruled by law. I respect it.”

The government’s bill created a new law specifically outlining same-sex marriage outside the Civil Code in order to comply with the plebiscite.

Taiwan Lays Down Historic Marker for Same-Sex Marriage in Asia

The conservative Coalition for the Happiness of Our Next Generation accused the president on Friday of promoting the same-sex marriage legislation in an effort to pander to young voters and said it could initiate a referendum aimed at overturning the new law.

Tsai signaled her support for the LGBT community before becoming president in 2016. But since then, she has remained largely silent on the issue, preferring to allow the courts and the legislature to take the lead on enacting marriage equality.

Elsewhere in the wider Asia-Pacific region, Australia legalized same-sex marriage in December 2017, and has since held thousands of gay weddings. It’s been legal in neighboring New Zealand since 2013.

“Taiwan taking the first step to legalize same-sex marriage will influence the thinking in other countries around Asia,” said Wolf Bear, one of the pro-LGBT demonstrators outside the legislature. “This vote is so important. Not only will it change Taiwan, it will influence other countries too.”

Constitutional Union

The constitutional court ruled in May 2017 that language in Taiwan’s Civil Code restricting marriage to a man and a woman was unconstitutional, and set a two-year deadline for the legislature to pass regulations governing same sex marriages.

Tai Lee, a 54-year-old Taipei resident, said he joined Friday’s rally to show support for his stepson’s right to marry. “The government’s version of the act is compromised. It’s not an ideal version but we can accept it for the moment,” he said. “Many other countries have something like this as a first step.”

Regardless of whether the legislature had passed regulations codifying gay partnerships on Friday, same-sex couples would have had the right to marry later this month anyway as the court’s 2017 ruling rendered legal obstacles to the unions unconstitutional.

More than 200 same-sex couples have registered to marry on May 24, the Taipei-based Apple Daily reported.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.