GLBT (gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender) rights are a mixed bag worldwide. Within a few decades, they have become mainstream and widely accepted in the West, where gay marriage is now becoming normal and gay lifestyles are integrated into urban society. In other regions — especially Muslim countries — homosexuality is seen as a horrible perversion and treated as a crime. It has become 1 of the most glaring symbols of “Western decadence” and “immorality” elsewhere and in Russia, and gay activists cocky after their string of victories in the West run into a steep cliff of incomprehension when they try to spread their values to Africa or Asia.
East Asia mostly sits in the middle of this spectrum. It embraces a wide array of cultures, from highly Westernized ones to conservative Islamic ones. Like other regions, it has its own cultural traditions and sense of native pride that makes it instinctively resistant to gay rights, but it’s also in the midst of deep modernization, which brings it closer and closer to Western norms. As such, reactions to GLBTs varies widely from country to country, but the country in the vanguard of gay rights so far is… Taiwan.
Taiwan might seem like an odd place for a gay haven. It is Chinese in culture, and other Chinese places like mainland China and Singapore are generally unfriendly to gays. China’s Confucian culture places a great emphasis on the family, and not only is a homosexual couple a direct challenge to the traditional concept of a family, it’s impossible for them to have kids. China might be uninterested (at least officially) in having more kids, but no such population control exists in Taiwan. And Chinese culture is famous for its resistance to outside influences.
Why Taiwan is so gay-friendly remains something of a mystery, but there are theories. Taiwanese like to point to the diverse cultural influences that have shaped Taiwanese history, from the aboriginal population in the mountains that descends from island Southeast Asia to the Hakka mariners who colonized the island centuries ago to the Portuguese and Dutch traders who colonized a few forts to the Japanese who annexed and colonized it in 1895 to the mainlanders who took over again in 1945. But there are plenty of places with diverse cultural influences, and they’re not necessarily gay-friendly. Besides, it’s not like the Dutch in the 1600s were especially gay-friendly (or the Japanese in the 1890s, or the natives…).
A more likely explanation is the growth of civil society on Taiwan. Although the country was a military dictatorship at first, its societal control was never as harsh as China’s, and its dictators ruled through martial law. The Republic of China (Taiwan’s government, transferred from the mainland in 1949) was founded along liberal republican ideals, and although they weren’t really fulfilled for most of the 1900s, they remained embodied in its constitution for brave protestors to point to. Taiwan has never been as closed as China, and before 1972 it enjoyed a close relationship with America, which meant exchanges of values and students and researchers trained in American universities. Even though political reform was the main goal, other social causes like environmentalism and feminism blossomed on this fertile ground, and each popular success emboldened other groups to change an ancient and seemingly immobile society.
Religion generally plays a big role in opposition to GLBT rights, and Taiwan is a more religious country than China. But the main religion is the unnamed Chinese religion, which is more tolerant of homosexuality and alternative lifestyles in general. There is also a folk tradition in Taiwan (originating from Fujian on the other side of the Strait of Taiwan) of a rabbit god, Tu’er Shen, who was originally a man executed for eyeing a handsome mandarin too much. The god protects gays and is worshiped at temples — a tradition wiped out in mainland China but quietly thriving in Taiwan.
Taiwan has accordingly enacted legal protections for GLBTs steadily since the 1990s. Employers are not allowed to discriminate against them, they are allowed to serve in the military, and they can change their legal gender. Concurrently, there is a widespread social acceptance of homosexuality. Pai Hsien-yung portrayed Taipei’s gay scene in the 1960s with his novel Crystal Boys way back in 1983; since then, world-famous director Ang Lee has made The Wedding Banquet, about a Taiwanese-American who ends up getting married to a woman because he can’t admit to his parents that he’s gay (it’s a hilarious movie, by the way), and lesbian relationships have been portrayed in movies like Blue Gate Crossing and Spider Lilies. Taipei’s gay pride parade has grown from a modest 1,000-person march in 2003 to East Asia’s premier gay event, with 80,000 participants last year. A McDonald’s commercial about a son coming out to his father (in a McDonald’s, naturally) drew nearly universal support. Public opinion polls have mixed results, as usual, but support for gay marriage regularly tops 50% (at least).
Fairly or otherwise, gay marriage has become the ultimate litmus test for how accepting of homosexuality a country is. While it is now widespread in the West and Latin America, it is still too much for East Asia to handle. But Taiwan pushed for gay marriage in the ’00s, when the movement to legalize it built momentum in the West. Despite opposition from Christians (who are a small minority in Taiwan) and older Taiwanese who saw it as an assault on their culture, the movement gathered steam. The Democratic Progressive Party, the main opposition party in Taiwan and the main embodiment of the reformist movement, embraced the idea. In 2015, its presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, took the bold step of endorsing gay marriage in a Facebook post.
This year, Taiwan has come closer than ever before to finally adopting gay marriage. The Constitutional Court ruled on May 24 that the Republic of China’s constitution’s guarantee of equality meant that gay marriage has to be recognized. It’s now up to the Legislative Yuan (parliament) to pass the laws or amend preexisting ones, and this looks likely to happen. Even if it doesn’t, the Court ruled that it would recognize gay marriages within 2 years anyway. The ruling has been preceded (as in other countries, like America and Mexico) by the gradual legal recognition of homosexual partnerships in municipalities across the island, including almost all of Taiwan’s west coast, where most of its people live.
The dawn of gay marriage in Taiwan, when it formally comes, will be a landmark moment in East Asian history, since Taiwan — a small, overlooked island despised by its massive neighbor — would be the first country in the region to do it. The question then is: Will others take notice? Taiwanese culture subtly influences China, and there is a GLBT movement there too… but the Chinese government hates any sort of grassroots organizing, and it’s typically conservative when it comes to “public morality.” Japan and Taiwan have close and warm ties left over from their colonial relationship, and Japan also has a thriving gay scene and widespread social acceptance of homosexuality… yet it also has a much more reserved and private culture and GLBTs are expected to “get over” their flings and move on to more serious relationships and assume their adult responsibilities. Singapore is another advanced, modern Chinese country with a big, visible gay community and a famous “Pink Dot” event… but it continues to ban homosexuality. Thailand is famously accepting of GLBTs and “alternative lifestyles,” but it’s currently ruled by a conservative military junta with a dim attitude towards homosexuality.
It’s hard to say how quickly East Asia will embrace GLBT rights. Taiwan’s example has emboldened GLBT communities elsewhere, and the example of the West suggests that grassroots pressure will only grow. But religious conservatism in India and Muslim countries remains powerful. Given the Western and Latino origin of the gay rights movement, many non-Westerners are suspicious that homosexuality is really a latent human condition and consider it an unwelcome cultural import. And even the more liberal, Westernized East Asian countries prefer to tacitly accept GLBT culture without going so far as to recognize gay marriage. This just makes Taiwan’s achievement — in a Confucian society only a few generations beyond dictatorship — all the more remarkable.