WHEN TAIWAN became the first country in Asia to legalise gay marriage on May 17th, it was not only the tens of thousands of rainbow flag-waving demonstrators outside the legislature who cheered. Advocates of equal rights across Asia declared Taiwan a beacon of inspiration. Jerome Yau of HK Marriage Equality, which is calling for same-sex marriage in Hong Kong, says Taiwan’s achievement “sends a strong signal that same-sex marriage can happen elsewhere in Asia”.
It surely can. Yet circumstances in Taiwan were uniquely favourable and, even then, progress did not come easily. The gay pride parade in Taipei, the capital, is far and away the region’s biggest. Taiwan has a vibrant democracy and civil society. Tsai Ing-wen, the president, when campaigning for the job in 2015, declared herself a firm supporter of same-sex marriage. And in 2017 the constitutional court ruled that barring same-sex couples from marrying violated their right to be treated equally. It ordered parliament to pass legislation permitting same-sex marriage within two years. The deadline was May 24th.
Yet Ms Tsai had not reckoned on a fierce and organised backlash from conservative Christians in particular. Protesters converged on the offices of lawmakers perceived to be supporters of gay marriage, while others stormed the gates of parliament before kneeling, praying and singing hymns.
Ms Tsai was already on the defensive having begun pushing for other controversial reforms. Fearing a pummelling in municipal elections in November, she dumped same-sex marriage. The ballot also featured referendums on three questions drafted by anti-LGBT groups. One sought to overturn the mandatory inclusion of homosexuality in sex education; another sought to define marriage as between a man and a woman only.
Ms Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was pummelled anyway, and voters approved the referendums, leaving marriage equality’s prospects uncertain again. It took the court’s impending deadline to banish Ms Tsai’s vacillation. The government put forward a bill as the courts had demanded, but conservative opponents did not give up, proposing alternatives that did not even mention marriage, speaking instead of “same sex family relationships” or “same sex unions”. Ms Tsai’s bill passed, but it does not afford wholly equal rights for same-sex spouses. It bars them from adopting children to whom they are not related and permits marriages with foreigners only from countries that allow gay marriage.
Reactionary forces are much stronger elsewhere in Asia. Think of Brunei, which recently instituted death by stoning for gay sex. Taiwan does offer inspiration to Japan, which is socially tolerant but has a limp civil society. In February, 13 gay and lesbian couples there filed lawsuits against the government, claiming that the constitution required it to recognise same-sex marriage. The suits were brought simultaneously in district courts in Nagoya, Osaka, Sapporo and Tokyo on Valentine’s Day. “They are following Taiwan’s strategy,” says Victoria Hsu, a leader in Taiwan’s gay-marriage campaign.
In Hong Kong Mr Yau says Taiwan’s experience underscores the importance of winning hearts and minds. Equal-rights proponents are adamant that the basic rights of minorities should not be subject to a vote by the majority. But, says Mr Yau, there is a need to engage with the most vocal critics. It helps that homosexuality is no longer a taboo among the young. Public opinion is moving in favour of same-sex marriage. The courts have helped, by recognising the marriages of foreign gay couples for residency purposes. The territory’s overly cautious politicians might warm to the cause, says Fern Ngai of Community Business, a group that aims to make the private sector more inclusive, if they see it as necessary to maintain Hong Kong’s status as a hub of global business. Some 60 of Hong Kong’s biggest companies, with 110,000 employees between them, have signed up to Community Business’s tenets on LGBT inclusion.
Back in Taiwan, conservatives vow to roll back gay marriage. Yet in other jurisdictions, that has proved harder than getting it legalised in the first place. Societies tend to get used to the change quickly. In India critics still huff and puff about last year’s legalisation of homosexuality. But the Times of India—a staid bastion that still publishes lots of match-making classifieds—this week launched an Out & Proud advertising section.