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A progressive history of gay rights in Taiwan

Taiwanese gay rights activist Nelson Chen runs through the progressive history of Taiwan’s LGBT rights movement
Taiwanese gay rights activist Nelson Chen

Gay Star News talks to Taiwanese gay rights activist Nelson Chen who is suing Taipei City Council to register his marriage. He talks about the history of the LGBT rights movement in Taiwan, why not all of the gay community supports the idea of government-sanctioned marriage and how he believes gay marriage will come to Taiwan by 2016.

Does the government support gay marriage in Taiwan?

Last Friday the leader of the opposition (Su Tseng-chang) said in a message on Facebook that he supports gay marriage. The current president Ma Ying-jeou, when he was Mayor of Taipei in 1998 allocated $1 million [Taiwan dollars, $32,500, €26,360] for LGBT rights events in the city. He was the first politician to support gay rights in Taiwan.

But Ma Ying-jeou hasn’t said anything about same-sex marriage since he’s been president because he’s worried people will think he’s gay - a lot of people say he is gay, especially politicians from the opposition.

Can you run through the history of gay rights in Taiwan?

In 1996 there was the first public same-sex wedding in Taiwan between Taiwanese writer Hsu Yu-sheng and his American partner Gary Harriman.

In 2002 President Chen Shui-bian, the one before Ma Ying-jeou, invited gay rights activists to meet him in the presidential office.

In 2003 then Vice-President and convenor of the government’s human rights commission (Annette Lu Hsiu-lien) drafted a basic human rights law that included an article on same-sex marriage and adoption rights for gay couples. But it wasn’t passed. It was being discussed in cabinet but then there was an election in 2004 and a change of government.

In 2003 there was the first Pride march. The first one was funded by the government, but since the second march in 2004 it’s been funded by community groups.

In 2006 I had the second public wedding with my partner A-Wei (Kao Chih-Wei).

In 2010 the third couple had a public wedding and the first one to come out as HIV positive.

This year the first lesbian couple had a public wedding, that was blessed by Buddhist nuns.

How are gay rights groups in Taiwan funded?

In Taipei the government gives LGBT groups $1 million [Taiwan dollars, $32,500, €26,360] for events and $800,000 for research. But there’s a problem because when groups are funded by the government they feel they can’t criticize the government. So after this year's Pride some groups have got together to form an independent organization called Rainbow Citizen Action Association.

Is HIV a big problem among gay men in Taiwan?

Taiwan has 20,000 to 30,000 HIV patients and 2,000 new infections a year. In Japan, which has a population that is six time larger than Taiwan’s, there are also 2,000 new infections a year. So it’s pretty bad in Taiwan.

It’s because Taiwan is a very free society and the most gay-friendly country in Asia. The problem is a lot of young people are not afraid of HIV anymore. Among 15 to 24-year-old gay men HIV prevalence is 28%. People who have HIV are good at first and take the ARV drugs but then after about three years they get bored and don’t take them any more and some even go to saunas and have unprotected sex. But Taiwanese HIV prevention is very progressive.

And because now Taiwan is a democratic society they can’t really do raids of saunas, to do HIV testing, which they did in the past, because all the media and the human rights associations will make a fuss.

That is why the deputy director-general of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) said he supports gay marriage, because he thinks it will stop young people having lots of lovers and they will become just like traditional married couples.

Is there grassroots support of gay marriage in Taiwan?

Some gay rights groups had a meeting two months ago and said they said they were against the government intruding into gay relationships by supporting gay marriage.

The theme of this year’s Pride march wasn’t traditional marriage, it was ‘the revolution of marriage’. Some people think you should be able to have one person in a marriage, four people, ten people - you can choose different kinds of marriage. They say, ‘we don’t like traditional straight marriage’. We don’t want the government to control us gay people through marriage.

Why do you want to get married?

I used to have an open relationship and then in 2005 we decided to commit to each other. I’m becoming more conservative as I get older.

During the six hearings that we’ve had so far none of the gay groups have come to support us. Some because they don’t support traditional marriage, and some because they believe the court case might interfere with attempts to legalize same-sex marriage through other ways.

For example the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights (TAPCPR) are not supporting us because they are worried that if we lose the government will dismiss the issue.

But we are doing it for equal rights for all gays. I believe it’s a basic right. We pay taxes like everybody else so we should be able to get married like everybody else.

What’s happening next with your court case?

On November 29 is the official hearing at Taipei High Administrative Court. If we lose we can take it to the Supreme Court but that will take a few years so we hope we will win before 2016 when there’s the next presidential election.

I think we will win this case. We’re optimistic. Our argument is that civil law doesn’t specify that same-sex couples can’t get married.

There is language that says one man and one woman, but they interpret that to mean not one man and several women - because in the past in China they had those kind of marriages. And only around 100 years ago they outlawed that.

But the point is that the Supreme Court have never discussed same-sex marriage before.

What other methods are being used to bring same-sex marriage to Taiwan?

The TAPCPR are collecting signatures for a petition. They are aiming to get one million signatures before September next year, and the population of Taiwan is only 23 million.

The government are looking into it as well but they are stalling by doing research. A Taipei University professor is looking at what has happened in other countries where same-sex marriage has been legalized.

The government used to say it was against the Taiwanese culture and now they say they need a social consensus. But a poll from China Times last month put support for gay marriage at about 70%, but around 52-56% said that they didn’t want their own kids to be gay.

I think the issue will be a hot topic in the 2016 presidential election. The leader of the opposition has already says he supports gay marriage. I think gay marriage will come to Taiwan in 2016.

The situation seems pretty good and positive for gay people in Taiwan, are there any problems?

Now the economy is bad in Taiwan and this is bad for young people because they are not financially independent it’s hard to come out to their parents and form relationships.

Taiwanese families are still quite traditional and parents give their children a lot of financial support in adulthood. When children come out, parents sometimes say ‘ok you can make your own decision, you can have your own life, but you have to earn money by yourself’.

It’s not our cultural ideology to go against our parents. Our culture is to respect our parents. But right now if gay children have to be financially independent it’s hard because of the economy.

For this reason, I’m not that optimistic about the future of the gay rights movement in Taiwan. But I believe the government will support same-sex marriage more and more.  

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