In Their Own Words: LGBTQ Asia Responds to Taiwan’s Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Taiwan’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage in May 2017 commanded international attention, particularly due to its being one of the first Asian countries to do so. As a queer South Asian person who was born and raised in a very homophobic South East Asian country, I had grown up with the constant rhetoric of “LGBTQ is a Western colonial invention” and still have to contend with comments from the leaders of my country claiming that LGBTQ rights are antithetical to Asian cultural norms, and even fear for my livelihood as fellow LGBTQ activists and community members are oppressed, harmed, or even killed.

Taiwan’s ruling made me curious about how the news was being received by LGBTQ people across Asia. Did they too face cultural and institutional oppression against their gender and sexuality, or were their countries more accepting? Would the ruling have any impact on their livelihoods? Is Taiwan an inspiration for their leaders to consider marriage equality or LGBTQ rights overall, or will it not matter as much?

I made a list of countries in the Asian continent and researched and reached out to at least one LGBTQ activist, organization, or community member in each, including posting on region or country-specific social media groups and direct contact. Out of the countries on my list (excluding the Pacific Islands of Oceania and counting Taiwan, Macau, and Hong Kong as distinct countries), I was able to find at least one contact for 42 of them, and (at the time of writing) received 27 responses from 18 countries, as well as a couple from regional organisations. While there were significant efforts to prioritize female and non-binary interviewees, a considerable number of respondents were male, often owing to the stronger presence of out gay male activists in their local LGBTQ community. Responses came from cis and trans women, cis and trans men, and non-binary people. Some respondents are anonymous or pseudonymous by request.

The responses, while varied and distinct, often carried similar themes. While my respondents were generally supportive and happy about Taiwan’s decision, most did not think that the ruling would be as impactful on their local community as some might guess — citing insularity, lack of media attention, and/or lack of cultural similarity between Taiwan and their home countries. Some respondents felt that the ruling could be used as leverage for their local activism, while others felt that focusing on marriage equality could actually backfire in their efforts to earn the rights of LGBTQ people to exist without fear of persecution or harm. There weren’t necessarily any clear correlations between the legal status of LGBTQ people in their country and the perception of such communities in society: some of the countries with the highest rates of violence against LGBTQ people were countries that decriminalized homosexuality or never had laws against homosexuality in the first place. To be clear, affirmations of a country’s LGBTQ-inclusive legislation in this piece isn’t a referendum on or analysis of the experiences of LGBTQ people as a whole there, or the country’s stance on human rights issues in general. Marriage equality is only one piece of a complex and ever-shifting social and legal reality for LGBTQ people worldwide; to full explore more than that would take much more than one article, and even any discussion of the experiences of LGBTQ people here is necessarily only one portion of a much larger picture.

As one of my respondents, Loretto of Stonewall Japan, warned: “Coming from a Western standpoint we may be tempted to lump Asian countries together, but that would be a mistake.” Even so, it is useful to see how different countries and regions within the continent share concerns and priorities for their local LGBTQ communities and see opportunities for cross-cultural support and understanding.


Central Asia and Eurasia

Most countries in this region, except for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, have decriminalized homosexuality; some, such as Armenia, have even signed the 2011 United Nations joint statement on ending acts of violence and related human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. However, homophobia in the region is still extremely strong, with very little protections for LGBTQ people as well as growing intolerance from the Government and wider society.

The editorial board of the kok.team project, an LGBTQ news and community resource based in Kazakhstan, described some recent government attempts at institutional homophobia: “In 2014 Parliament tried to adopt a discriminative law on protect[ing] children against so-called ‘homosexual propaganda.’ This attempt failed because that year Kazakhstan participated in the competition for the right to hold [the] Winter Olympics. [The] international sports community protested against this law — that’s why our legislators withdrew it.” They also talked about the Members of Parliament of Kazakhstan questioning Kazakhstan Minister of Information Dauren Abayev about the Kazakhstan flag being flown at New York Pride this past June, only to be told that there are no legal measures that can be enacted against the person.

Mamikon Hovsepyan, Executive Director of Pink Armenia, thought it was “interesting” that Armenian media and extremists were “silent on this issue.” “[A] few media outlets wrote about Taiwan but there was no discussion on it,” he explains. While the Armenian Constitution limits marriage to heterosexual couples, the country recognizes all marriages performed abroad, including same-sex marriages. However, attacks against LGBTQ people and community spaces in the country, such as multiple attacks by Neo-Nazis on the lesbian-owned bar DIY Rock Club in 2012, have stirred up heated debates on “LGBTQ rights vs national interests.”

Armine Oganezova, the owner of DIY, an alternative music bar in Yerevan, stands inside what is left of her club after a fire-bomb attack in May 2012. From RadioFreeEurope.

Armine Oganezova, the owner of DIY, an alternative music bar in Yerevan, stands inside what is left of her club after a fire-bomb attack in May 2012. From RadioFreeEurope.

Attempts at same-sex marriage in Armenia and Kazakhstan in the past decade have garnered controversy and awareness about the plight of the local LGBTQ community. In 2006, Harutyun Zhonzhikian, the founder of the Armenian Gay and Lesbian Organization (AGLA), married Misha Meroujan (whom he met through AGLA), both making the trek down from Paris to marry at the Armenian Apostolic Church in Echmiadzin to reflect their still-strong connections to Armenian culture. In 2013 LGBTQ rights activist Vladimir Kornakovsky made headlines by organizing a lesbian wedding in Karaganda, a city in north-eastern Kazakhstan, between Kristina Chernysheva and her partner Karolina. Heartbreakingly, a year later, Chernysheva was found brutally murdered; Karolina has been detained as a suspect.

Kristina and Karolina's wedding in Kazakhstan by Vox Populi

Kristina and Karolina’s wedding in Kazakhstan by Vox Populi

Russia was cited by all respondents as a major influence on the social-political factors affecting their local LGBTQ communities. These countries were formerly part of the Soviet Union and still hold a significant number of Russian migrants.

“For now I think we are not relevant to comment on it [since] Armenia is under the pressure of Russia these years,” said Hovsepyan. “We are too far from equal marriage recognition but let’s keep in touch and probably there will be some development in the nearest future.”

“Kazakh nationalists say it is the Russian influence — Russian colonists brought ‘homosexualism’ [to the] Kazakh steppes in [the] 18th century and before this we had no ‘homosexualists’,” says the kok.team, though a representative of Tajikistan-based organization Equal Opportunities cites Russian influence for the country’s homophobia. “Unfortunately, due to the influence of Russia on the economic, social and political life in the country, the situation of LGBTQ people is not entirely in a good position.” In 2011 Equal Opportunities collaborated on a report on crimes and structural oppression against LGBTQ people in Central Asia with Kyrgyzstan-based organization Labrys and the Sexual Rights Initiative , an international coalition focused on advancing human sexuality rights in the United Nations.

As a result, some in the region don’t even really see themselves as Asian. “We do not have any contacts and ties with the countries of Asia (even there are no flights, connections at different levels, a language barrier, religion, etc),” says Equal Opportunities. “Therefore it is difficult to say, it is possible to affirm that the changes in [other] Asia’s countries cannot affect us in Tajikistan.”

That being said, they still see opportunities for collaboration with others in the continent. “The countries of Asia can share their experience on the development and mobilization of the community, developing health programs, advocacy companies and other activities which can help to unite LGBTQ people here. How to work with governmental organizations, with journalists, etc.” Indeed, kok.team’s earlier recounting of international pressure making a difference on the Government’s attempts to institutionalize homophobia demonstrate the potential power of cross-border cooperation in making a difference for local LGBTQ rights.

Western Asia / Middle East

Coverage of the (truly) horrendous treatment of LGBTQ people in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran tend to build assumptions that the entirety of the region is heavily homophobic, especially due to Islam being the State religion for most of the region. However, laws related to LGBTQ people differ across the board — ranging from highly oppressive regimes to relatively open laws for queer and/or trans people.

Most notable in the region for their laws protecting LGBTQ people is Israel, which does have anti-discrimination laws and does recognize same-sex cohabitation. While Israel does not have civil marriage for couples of any gender, they do recognize marriages held abroad, including same-sex marriages. However, much like in some of the Central Asian states, some in Israel do not really consider itself as part of Asia or Asian culture.

“From my point of view as someone who knows well the political condition in my country, Israel is more positioned as European than Asian, with no relation to the geographical map. The country[‘s] goals are to position Israel as part of the free world,” says Chen Arieli, Chairperson of Israeli National LGBTQ Taskforce The Aguda, who also discusses Israel’s political system highlighting their progressive LGBTQ laws regularly in international media coverage. “It is, of course, complicated with our main Arab-Israeli conflict and the occupation, but the close relationship with the United States and to Europe [has] established Israel much more as a main Western world than anything else.” (A Palestinian LGBTQ organization has been contacted for comment but has yet to respond as of the time this article is written.)

Gay demonstration in Zion Square by Brian Negin

Gay demonstration in Zion Square by Brian Negin

In the rest of the Middle East, some are hopeful about Taiwan’s ruling. “Taiwan’s ruling in our favor is a huge step in the right direction and we can only dream of such a reality in the Arab world, even though we know there will always be obstacles from our wider community,” says an anonymous queer woman based in Bahrain. While Bahrain decriminalized homosexuality in 1976, LGBTQ Bahranians are still subject to immense demonisation and state-sponsored violence. “An Asian country embracing same-sex marriage gives us a great deal of hope and much needed encouragement to continue the struggle for our basic rights, not just to exist without persecution but to also marry and build families with our loved ones, instead of hiding in fear.”

Others are less optimistic. “I don’t think the ruling in Taiwan will have a tangible effect on the Middle East. I think we have a long way to go […] Changes need to be from the inside,” says Dana, a trans woman based in Jordan. Homosexuality has been decriminalized in Jordan since 1951 and gender transition was made legal in 2014.

Zeinab Peyghambarzadeh by Arash Ashoorinia

Zeinab Peyghambarzadeh by Arash Ashoorinia

Iranian gender and sexuality rights activist and academic Zeinab Peyghambarzadeh, who has written about bisexual erasure in the Iranian LGBTQ rights movement and who was arrested in 2007 during a protest in support of women’s rights activists on trial, brings up institutionalized homophobia as a core part of their country’s media and political landscape. “I do not have any hope that the formal law and regulations in Iran regarding LGBT rights and even women’s rights can change soon because they are an important aspect of the official ideology of the Government especially in defining this ideology in contrast with the Western modern human rights discourse. However, the Government may stop [the] execution of some discriminatory law for a while, due to internal or international political reasons.” While homosexuality carries the death penalty in Iran, gender transition is legally recognized if accompanied by medical intervention.

Jordanian Queer Muslima, a liberation theology research scholar focusing on gender, racial, and sexual liberation within Islam, questions same-sex marriage as a priority in LGBTQ liberation, even as she is happy for those celebrating the right to marry. “In my opinion, sexual liberation cannot be detangled from racial, colonialist, classist, ableist, gendered, religious liberation. I believe a focus on rulings such as these pinkwashes a movement that seeks holistic liberation in these intersecting fields of oppression.” Citing the various structural oppressions faced by LGBTQ people such as hunger, homelessness, and misogynoir, she asks: “Who decided that equal marriage was the direst demand? Did this decision come from all peoples of the community or just those privileged few? If we truly seek communal liberation, then it is imperative to speak directly to the community — not over it.”

Peyghambarzadeh discusses the priorities of Iran’s LGBTQ community: “Of course, Iran’s LGBT communities are very diverse with different priorities, but in my opinion, decriminalization of same sex sexual conduct and stopping the hate speech against LGBT community can be a priority for different groups because they play a key role in reproducing the LGBTphobic culture.”

“Today Islamic scholars, jurists, leaders, and members of communities are working in many ways to legally, academically, and socially carve a space for LGBTQIA+ peoples. We speak against the dominant discourse that says ‘Islam is heterosexual’ through work in grassroots organizations, social organizing, academia, public protest and living.”

While many may be tempted to cite Islam as the main reason for the Middle East’s institutionalized homophobia, Jordanian Queer Muslima pushes hard against this argument. She argues that before Victorian-era colonization, “Islamic discourse spoke to communities that were gendered and sexually fluid,” citing examples of Caliphates with openly gay children, poems written about bisexual men by female writers, and Islamic jurisprudence handling issues related to their queer children. “Today Islamic scholars, jurists, leaders, and members of communities are working in many ways to legally, academically, and socially carve a space for LGBTQIA+ peoples. We speak against the dominant discourse that says ‘Islam is heterosexual’ through work in grassroots organizations, social organizing, academia, public protest and living.”

Could international solidarity help LGBTQ communities in the Middle East? Peyghambarzadeh seems to think so. “Iranians have more cultural exchanges with majority Muslim countries especially the Middle Eastern ones, and their LGBT friendly media products can reduce LGBTQphobia amongst Iranians.” Jordanian Queer Muslima, however, is more cautious. “Direct and open solidarity now may be counterproductive. Openly LGBTQIA+ people are targeted by community and state alike, but simultaneously our country is homoerotic from some buried identity that has persisted since physical presence of the colonialists.” She brings up Jordanians’ affectionate gestures, such as holding hands and kissing cheeks, which are common between straight-identifying men and women that are “very very comfortable with the same sex but will never allow space for openly homosexual peoples.”

Acknowledging the work of Jordanian LGBTQ people in securing their rights, Jordanian Queer Muslima states: “What we need is the international community to support us in whichever way we deem fit. We know our immediate needs and it might now necessarily be marriage equality and that’s OK.” However, she thinks that solidarity and cooperation should be virtual, never physical, out of concerns for dangers and safety. For her, being able to find community through Tumblr helped her find her community, sparked her interest in Islamic liberatory theologies, and helped her understand that she wasn’t alone. However, she also notes that for others, the needs might be greater: “The realities of a refugee woman, a street child and a Bedouin village girl can never be the same and will not have the same needs.”

Next: South Asia and Southeast Asia


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Creatrix Tiara's philosophy is to sign up for anything that look interesting, which gets her into some fun adventures. She's passionate about liminality, inclusivity, and intersectionality, especially in arts, media, tech, games, fandom, education, and activism. She is currently looking for jobs, opportunities, and things to sign up to in Australia and beyond.

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41 Comments

    • One of my main goals as a newly minted Staff Writer is to bring in more international perspectives and I’m really glad Autostraddle is giving me the space to do so! And yes, my contacts are amazing. Some were hella chatty, some were more reserved, but they were all really generous.

  1. I haven’t been back to Vietnam in so long, but according to my friends there, it sounds like people are more okay with LGBT. Doesn’t mean smooth sailing though. The mentality of most people there is live and let live, people still talk behind your back and all; violence is mostly against those that appear vulnerable and easily preyed on (thugs mentality, like anywhere).
    The prevalent norm is one is expected to get married, and have kids. So the concept of same sex relationship and marriage is not quite accepted there (yet). SS relationships are almost always met with the “but you have to get marry and have kids” argument.
    But as more people are openly LGBT, the topic is more tolerated, and hopefully one day it’ll be just another norm.

    • Yeah it seems that culturally it’s relatively more open to LGBTQ people than their neighbours, but it still has quite a ways to go. The idea of “but kids!” came up a fair bit with people I interviewed in that region – one of the Indonesians talked about how the ruling could help women especially deal with societal norms around gender and marriage.

  2. Thank you for this article and including Central Asia. Did your research on Central Asia also includes the Middle East/West Asia, or is the record in that area, minus one country(maybe) pretty bad there?

    I find it very odd that a lot of anti-lgbtq people say it’s western world that introduced us to them, when in fact in places like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh it was the British Christians who introduced homophobia and criminalized their culture. The Hijra specifically, which I am told also may have existed in neighboring countries to the west of it, after the Persian Empire and before Soviet rule.

  3. Thank you so much for this article.
    I was hoping to read more on Thailand though, especially since there has been a push for same-sex couples to be legally recognised in the last few years.

    By the way, I find it puzzling that an article from the Taiwan Daily News would be in Japanese??

      • Ah, that’s too bad. I did find it interesting that Malaysian Chinese found encouragement in the Taiwan’s ruling. As a third generation Chinese in Thailand, that didn’t occur to me. I was happy for Taiwan and cautiously hopeful that this would lead to changes in other countries in the region as well. Bangkok is holding our first Pride parade in 11 years so that’s something! Hopefully this will pave the way for Thailand having actual laws that recognise and protect LGBTQ people instead of just having an LGBTQ-friendly image.

        Ahh, that explains it, thank you lol. Also explains why I could read the words and had a very hard time understanding them.

  4. I think one small correction about Iran, gender transition is legally recognized if you are straight trans person. If you are bi, queer, or into another gender, then they usually deny you. Plus, the awful fact of if you L or G they will give you the option of transition and be straight, denounce being l or g or die. The religious leaders like to claim they don’t have gay people because of this. I saws this nearly a decade ago on a youtube video. The video also said we are number 2 behind Thailand in the world when it comes to people transition getting transition surgery(because of forcing cis people to transition to become straight). I had a friend tell me Iran has a contracts or something of the sort with Thailand, where many trans women/amab trans people get bottom surgery done; and one with South Korea for adams apple surgery if one wants. It seems like Thailand & S.Korea are were all the surgery places are for trans women are as I’ve meet a few who been to on or either country for such reasons. On the other hand Iran is(at least in 2015) number one in the world when it comes to nose jobs(and all of people I know who had one was due to medical reasons not cosmetic).

  5. This is such a great article.
    Thank you for putting so much work into this Tiara- this is such underreported information, and I’m so glad to have you reporting on AS. This is exactly the kind of content I was hoping for more of. It’s fantastic to finally be getting a wider perspective beyond just N. America.
    Thank you thank you thank you!!!

  6. Hello!

    Thanks for this. It gave me a much wider understanding of the area.

    Interesting that:
    a. The Asians think they are all so very different and yet, marriage and raising family is a very huge concern for most of them. I mean, I am pretty sure, Indians would never consider that they have anything in common with South East Asia; and we are pretty racist about them (and about Africans, and at times, whites too); and yet, the basics of culture is much the same.
    b. Some do not want to be considered Asian at all.
    c. A lot of folks think that homosexuality is a colonial or western invention while the truth is that it is colonialism that brought homophobia to this land (well, mostly). Homosexuality was not criminal in India until the Brits came in and now, we are stuck with that law.

    By the way, while PM Modi’s party (BJP) is following a very troubling Hindu Nationalist Agenda–or ignoring anti-women, Anti-Dalit and anti-Muslim violence–the section 377 was reinstated in the reign of Congress and the attorney for reinstating was government’s. And to consider Congress any more liberal than BJP when they had issued very troubling legislation in the past is not right. Most parties in India behave the same way–they oppose the same laws as opposition that they promoted while in government. Many BJP legislation were first introduced by Congress when they were in power. Nobody seems to have any specific party platform except to attack the opposition. But, BJP has a history of promoting islamophobic and anti-west (cherry-picked) propaganda although, it was not that propaganda that won the election for it. It was sidelining or not speaking about that propaganda.

    However, both the RSS leader (mainstay/grass roots part that feeds BJP) and our Finance Minister have come out saying that homosexuality is not a crime and shouldn’t be criminalised. Of course, nobody has done anything to actually decriminalise homosexuality; but I still consider these public announcements heartening.

    One of our earlier ministers of state (from Congress) tried to introduce legislation (individual member bill) decriminalising homosexuality but barely anybody was there in parliament, so the bill was not passed. Though of course people said later that they are not really against homosexuality. I find their reluctance to actually come out against homosexuality completely, when a few years back they were against it, heartening.

    With respect to Trans rights. I think it is moving along faster. People/Courts are discussing protection against discrimination. We have transgender college principals (principals are like deans, I think) and transgender municipal members (politicians).

    Also: MNCs in India are for LGBT equality. At least, my company is; we had a pride day and bring your whole self to work and such things. And our country chair has been regularly holding townhalls about the cause. I had asked in one of these about doing something in the public arena–because my company was among the 70 or so companies that had filed amicus brief in favour of same-sex marriage with US SC in the Obergefell case. The country chair said that while any action in political/public sphere is not an option right now, they are applying pressure in business forums on other more traditional businesses to follow suit. I was very happy to hear that.

    Most of mainstream media (English) has been consistently in support of the LGBTQ community.

    I read about Taiwan and was happy for it; but I don’t think Taiwan will have an effect on our rights. Only internal activism will help. It might help if Pakistan allowed it though. 🙂

    • Hi and thanks for the additional context on Indian politics! It’s greatly appreciated.

      Point (a) was a significant part of the initial inspiration for this piece (“hmm I wonder how this squares with Asian cultural norms”) and it’s been really interesting to see what’s similar, what’s not similar, and what is actually similar without people wanting to recognise it. A lot of these countries think they have nothing to do with each other but really they have a lot they can relate to! And yet also a lot of uniqueness that doesn’t get highlighted anywhere else (hardly anybody else talks about Central Asia, for instance).

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