Taiwan could lead Asia with full recognition of gay rights

Published: September 10, 2011

Last week, a group of university students praised Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen for her stance on gender equality, specifically pointing out for admiration Tsai’s promises to protect gay rights. It is of course, election season. Politicians invariably pander to voters by making pledges that are only sometimes carried out. But Tsai may not have ulterior motives. After all, “pandering” to the gay community might not exactly be a vote-getter. Gay people likely make up less than 10 percent of the population and the percentage of local voters with reservations about homosexuality almost certainly outnumber gay voters. Not much is known about its proposals, but the DPP has promised to release a more detailed “white paper” on the subject of the promotion of gay rights before the January presidential election.

The ultimate goal of Taiwan’s gay rights movement is no doubt the legalization of same-sex marriage. A bill termed “The Basic Human Rights Law,” which would have made Taiwan the first place in Asia to allow same-sex marriage was in fact drafted in 2003 during the administration of former President Chen Shui-bian, but no action was taken by Taiwan’s legislature. President Ma Ying-jeou’s administration has promoted gender equality and women’s rights, but gay rights have not made much headway during his term. When Ma served as Taipei mayor, he attended a gay rights awareness event and was quoted as saying “Homosexuality is a natural phenomenon that cannot be suppressed away nor spread beyond its natural bounds. Gay rights are a part of human rights.” While Mayor Ma seemed ahead of the curve on this issue, President Ma and his administration now seem to prefer sticking to a “don’t rock the boat” strategy.

There has even been some backsliding: a plan to teach “gay issues” in elementary and junior high school curricula was recently cancelled by the Ministry of Education citing a lack of “social consensus.” But when it comes to human rights and equality, a consensus is not required. In the United States, courts integrated schools and permitted mixed-race marriages during a time when the majority of voters would have rejected any pro-equality ballot measures. There is no need to teach children the “mechanics” of gay romance, but a curriculum that discusses the fact that gay people are “normal” individuals who are a part of every society on earth would have been a good step forward.

Let’s be frank: Gay rights affect a very small section of Taiwanese society, so small as to make some wonder what all the fuss is about. But as Ma once noted, “Gay rights are a part of human rights.” The fight for equal rights for gays has been described as “the last major human rights struggle.” How a nation treats its gay citizens is a good indicator of the general progressiveness of its society. It would likely cost President Ma a little political capital to directly call for legalizing gay marriage in Taiwan, but the overall benefit to the nation and the region could be worth it. Taiwan’s people for the most part do not have strong religious objections to homosexuality and there is little organized opposition to gay rights here. All that’s needed for this nation to become a bellwether for Asia is a nudge in the right direction from those in power.

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