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

East Asia

Compared to the rest of the continent, East Asia may be seen to be most accepting legally of LGBTQ people. Every country and administrative region in this subcontinent (China, Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, Mongolia, North and South Korea, and Taiwan) have either decriminalized homosexuality or — in the case of Korea — never criminalized homosexuality in the first place. Gender transition is also recognized in most of the region, with most countries requiring surgery beforehand. However, just like Central Asia, decriminalization does not necessarily mean safety. Anti-discrimination laws are not commonplace, same-sex marriages performed overseas aren’t necessarily recognized, and — similar to South East Asia — cultural norms hold a sometimes larger influence on the treatment of LGBTQ people than the legal system.

“There is no ‘massive cultural stigma’ against sexual minorities (a popular way to term the LGBTQ community in Japanese, sometimes shortened to ‘sekumai’). Rather, there is the general rule of ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down’ which states that anyone who doesn’t ‘fit’ will be pressured or metaphorically beaten into conforming,” says Loretto, President of Stonewall Japan, which connects international LGBTQ people based in Japan.”Queer Japanese people are already taught to keep their personal relationships on the down-low so that isn’t really felt as too much of a pressure.” Their description of Japan’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” model for personal matters mirrors Fajar’s experience of her experience in Indonesia.

As Loretto notes, Japan already “has the ball rolling” when it comes to marriage equality, as a number of municipal jurisdictions have already allowed for “partnership certificates” for same-sex marriages. Even so, the process of getting cities on board with such certification is long and complex. “My city, Sapporo, just recently got the right to apply for partnership certificates but there were months of meetings about the pros, cons, feasibility, and even the desirability of partnership certificates,” explains Loretto, citing concerns such as potential high costs, lack of actual benefits, and divorce.

Tokyo Rainbow Pride 2012 by Lauren Anderson

Tokyo Rainbow Pride 2012 by Lauren Anderson

Anaraa Nyamdorj, Co-Founder of Mongolia’s LGBT Centre, draws some comparisons between South East Asia and East Asia. “I do believe that for a lot of South East Asian countries […] they’re still battling colonial heritage of draconian laws criminalizing same-sex consensual sex. For other Asian countries where our identities are not criminalised, most of us are still battling for full equality, for non-discrimination, and of course, although equal marriage is one of the main equality causes, rampant hate and violence, unemployment [and] poverty are all too real issues for us that need immediate attention.” The Centre faced immense issues in its early years due to concerns over their name “conflicting with Mongolian customs and traditions,” but they were allowed to register in 2009 and hosted their first pride in 2013.

Loretto does not believe the idea of LGBTQ identities being a Western invention is particularly representative of Japan, though interestingly they do note the use of English and Western concepts of gender and sexuality amongst LGBTQ people in Japan as a means of defining identity and educating others. “Most older Japanese terms are misleading or utterly inadequate in describing queer Japanese people’s experiences. I’ve never heard a queer Japanese person ever use a wholly Japanese term to identify themselves. There are certainly instances where we don’t have a word (ex. ‘fujoshi’, BL [‘boy love’]-loving girl), or they adapt an English term (ex. X-gender which is their equivalent of genderqueer/nonbinary/neutrois) but overall it’s been readily welcomed into their lexicon, culture, and identity.”

Taiwan’s marriage equality activists themselves had to battle with cultural norms denying the possibility of LGBTQ rights co-existing in Taiwan. One particularly effective tactic involved diving into local LGBTQ history. Chu-Yuan Teng from Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan shared with Autostraddle a couple of news articles about historical attempts at same-sex marriage in Taiwan, both involving lesbian couples; one from the Taiwan Daily News in 1912 about a couple who ran away and eloped after the encouragement of one partner’s brother, and another from United Daily News in 1958, where another couple wrote to the Taiwan District Court asking for permission to marry, only to be turned down.

Article from Taiwan Daily News, 1912.

Article from Taiwan Daily News, 1912.

Snippet from United Daily News, Dec 19 1958.

“Telling those stories about same-sex couples from [a] long time ago is what I will usually do when facing cultural challenges,” explains Teng. “From these stories, I tried to express that though Taiwan does have [the] Chinese cultur[al] background, our society is also open to multi-families.”

These efforts do have follow-on effects on other culturally similar countries, especially China. “Legalizing same-gender marriage can eliminate the gender norms from the law system of China and it will relieve stress from gender norms for everyone in China,” says Chinese gender and sexuality activist Li Maizi, part of the ‘Feminist Five’ that was arrested in 2015 for ‘provoking trouble’ and currently working as a coordinator for Rainbow Lawyers which works to promote LGBTQ rights in China. Li quotes Chinese Academy of Social Sciences sociologist Li Yinhe, stating: “Taiwan’s ruling proves that same-gender marriage is acceptable in Chinese culture, and is likely for the Chinese mainland to legalize same-gender marriage [within] a decade.” China’s LGBTQ community gained international attention in the last few years for so-called “sham marriages” between gay men and lesbian women, usually held to appease familial pressures while still maintaining their own queer relationships outside the marriage.

2011 TW-KHH 2nd LGBT Pride: Out & out by Shih-Shiuan Kao

Teng hopes that their efforts will be a source of inspiration for the rest of the continent. “Maybe things are more complex in some other Asian countries, due to different racial or religious histories. But just like we’re inspired by the experiences of France or USA, I also think the trend of legalizing same-sex marriage will bring some effect to them.”

In Summary

It’s clear that Asia’s immense cultural diversity and historical context brings with it immensely complex challenges and opportunities for its LGBTQ communities, whether their countries are more accepting legally and/or socially of their identities or are much more severe with their oppression. Taiwan’s ruling can serve as an inspiration for some to continue their efforts, but local needs and contexts will always take precedence.

That said, as Taiwan demonstrated, change is possible. As Nyamdorj stated: “As someone who’s been an LGBTI rights activist for the past 20 years, I can say that any progress anywhere around LGBTI rights has a direct, aspirational and inspirational impact on our community, giving us a push to strive for the same in our local contexts. Just because we’re Asian, it doesn’t mean that we have different ideas of love, commitment or cohabitation: they are [the] same because we’re human beings, and as human beings we want our love to be recognised, we want our relationships to be recognised, for us to have the same rights as straight, cis people.”

Special thanks to Yenni K, Jameel from My.Kali Magazine, Songket Alliance, and all respondents for their help.


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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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43 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).

  7. Thank you so much for putting this together! It’s wonderful to hear about progress spreading so widely, even if our various social barriers get in the way.

    I’m also very happy with the increased international coverage. Are there any “hub” sites (other than AS) you would recommend for more international LGBTQ+ news?

    Now to go plan my international Pride travel… <3

    • Hi! As far as hub sites go – not that I know of, really. A lot of this was found via word of mouth, looking up relevant organisations and reaching out to them, and Facebook groups. Local news sources do report on LGBTQ news on occasion and there are a few country-specific LGBTQ news organisations (a fair few of the people I interviewed are part of orgs that do this kind of thing). But asides from Autostraddle and the LGBTQ verticals of places like Buzzfeed and HuffPo I don’t think there’s really an International LGBTQ News Hub as such.

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