‘This time is real’: Taiwan counts down to Asia’s first same-sex weddings

Gay rights supporters celebrated outside parliament after the legislation was passed last week. (AFP pic)

TAIPEI: Lesbians Chu Pei-syuan and Liang Tsung-hui will this week tie the knot for the second time – this time at home, after Taiwan became the first place in Asia to allow same-sex marriage.

Taiwan’s parliament legalised gay marriage last week, reinforcing its reputation as a beacon of liberalism in Asia, but the move has divided the self-ruled island.

The bill, which offers same-sex couples similar legal protections for marriage to heterosexuals, will take effect on Friday and Chu and Liang will be among the first to wed under the new law.

“Finally we are no longer strangers in the eye of the law – we will be recognised as a couple,” 32-year-old Chu, a part-time retail worker, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the capital Taipei.

The pair, who met 12 years ago when they volunteered at an LGBT+ charity and fell in love, married in Canada in 2012, using up three years of savings to travel there.

But the marriage was only “symbolic” as it was not recognised back home, said Liang, a 35-year-old social worker.

This Friday, they will join about 200 gay couples who have booked to register their marriages on the first day of the law being in force, with mass weddings also planned.

Limitations

The bill passed just days before a deadline set by a top court which ruled in 2017 that Taiwan must legalise same-sex marriage by May 24 – and it was not without controversy.

Two-thirds of voters in a November referendum voted to retain the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman under the current civil law.

Same-sex marriage in Taiwan will be allowed under a separate new law – a move government said respected both the court ruling and the referendum results.

Even then, conservative and religious groups tried to stage a last-ditch attempt last week for a watered-down version of the bill which offered less protections but failed.

There will be limitations under the new law, however.

It allows same-sex marriages only between Taiwanese, or with foreigners whose countries recognise same-sex marriage.

Same-sex couples will only be allowed to adopt children biologically related to at least one of them.

“It’s still a compromise version (of what we wanted) but it’s the closest to our ideal expectations,” said Jennifer Lu, the chief coordinator of the Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan, an alliance that spearheads the gay unions campaign.

“This is the best scenario for us at the moment,” said Lu, who has a long-time lesbian partner, describing the move as “historic”.

A push for same-sex marriage has been slow elsewhere in Asia, where socially conservative attitudes still prevail.

Thailand has drafted a civil partnership bill that would legally recognise same-sex couples as civil partners, but LGBT+ activists said it does not grant marriage equality.

The same-sex marriage issue has become a political hot potato for Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who campaigned on a promise for marriage equality in the run up to 2016 polls.

It had become divisive even within her ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which suffered a poll defeat last year that was blamed partly on Tsai’s reform agenda.

The new measure could also undermine her bid to seek a second term in elections next year.

The Coalition for the Happiness of Our Next Generation, which has campaigned against gay marriage, warned the public would “strike back” at the next general election in 2020.

“The will of some seven million people in the referendum has been trampled,” the group said in a statement.

Pink economy

But on the Aiguo East Road dubbed the “Bridal Street” in downtown Taipei, bridal shops welcomed the news, expecting an uptick in gay couples signing up for wedding photoshoot packages that can cost more than US$3,000.

LGBT+ group Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan said legalisation could spur the “pink economy”, with couples spending at least US$23,000 on weddings.

“Once it is legalised it will not be controversial any more and people will be much more open about their sexuality,” said Fanny Pan, a manager at Lishe Wedding, one of more than 10 bridal shops on the street.

“It really shows Taiwan does not discriminate against anyone,” she said.

Chu and Liang said they now felt their rights as a couple were protected.

Chu recalled how when she was treated for depression a few years ago, Liang was not allowed to stay because hospital authorities did not recognise their relationship.

On Friday they will join others at a mass wedding ceremony in the city centre, wearing tailor-made matching shirts.

“We have married before, but this time it is for real,” said Liang.