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  • Isabela Avalos

LGBT rights in Asia: new boom or a premature hope?

Dancing in the rain, umbrellas aloft and rainbow flags waving, thousands of gay rights activists and allies took to the streets of Taipei on 24 May 2019. Outside the Legislative Yuan Building – Taiwan’s parliament – they celebrated the final stage in the legalisation of same-sex marriage, making it the first country in the region to do so.

It took years of activism, followed by two years for the constitutional ruling and legislation to catch up for this dream of the Taiwanese LGBT community to be achieved. The hope now is for this monumental win for gay rights in Taiwan to spread across the continent, bringing with it a paradigm shift in LGBT tolerance and acceptance in a traditionally conservative region. With legal cases being brought to the highest judicial and legislative bodies in Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, that hope appears to be in the process of realisation.

However, the same was expected of Argentina’s legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2010. It was hoped that the win for the Argentinian LGBT community would drive change across the rest of South and Central America. Without diminishing the fight and success of Latin American gay activists, in the decade that followed only five of eighteen other countries in the region have followed suit. Even amongst gay activists in Asia like Hong Kong LGBT artist Wong Ya Ying, there is hesitation that this result in Taiwan will do more than bring awareness to LGBT issues. Wong doubts any such impact will be so easily felt in the “more conservative” Hong Kong and mainland China.

As recently as October 2019 Hong Kong’s Court of the First Instance ruled against legalising civil partnerships for same-sex couples. They based this on the grounds that Hong Kong’s ‘mini’ constitution defines marriage as a heterosexual act and they are not required to provide a legal alternative for same-sex couples. Legalisation would require a constitutional change. In Japan a survey of people sixty and under by Dentsu Diversity Lab found that eighty percent of those surveyed support same-sex marriage. However, the same survey found that more than fifty percent of LGBT people are afraid of coming out for fear of loss of work, family relations, and friendships and sixty-five percent of LGBT respondents were still ‘in the closet.’ What’s more in South Korea, homosexuality is still often considered a mental illness or disability and no laws on LGBT anti-discrimination exist. This hasn’t changed for the younger generations as 45 percent of LGBT South Koreans under 18 have attempted suicide and even more have tried to self-harm.

Nonetheless, all hope is not lost. Taiwan’s legalisation of same-sex marriage, while possibly a stand-alone result for a while, is not an anomaly in the bigger, more general, picture of acceptance. There has been a continuous competition between Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc. to lead democracy in the region that may see more successful marriage equality litigation. But other factors play an important role in the process. Media representation of homosexuality seen in; “Ossan’s Love”, “What Did You Eat Yesterday?”, and the new Japanese episodes of “Queer Eye”, to name a few, have “improved people’s impressions of gay couples” in Japan according to sociology professor Kazuya Kawaguchi of Hiroshima Shudo University. Foreign pressure has kept Brunei’s death penalty for homosexuality in abeyance. India, one of the last countries to do so, legalised same-sex sexual activity in 2018. When you look at transgender issues in the region, different cultural norms produce wider acceptance and definitive laws on anti-discrimination. South Korea’s Roman Catholic President Moon Jae-in told a gathering of Christian and Buddhist leaders in October that LGBT-discrimination is not to be tolerated. This was a massive movement in rhetoric for a politician who has made almost no comment on the matter since his election in 2017.

Public opinion and cultural norms may not be necessary to inspire legislative change, as Taiwan legalised same-sex marriage despite a recent referendum opposing this, but legal rights go a long way to making LBGT people feel accepted in their society. Marginal policy, rhetoric shifts and foreign pressure do not mean constitutional changes will happen tomorrow. However, it proves that the fight for LGBT rights in Asia is working. While Taiwan may have hurtled towards the legalisation of same-sex marriage, it may inspire, and it definitely reflects, the rest of the region’s quieter tiptoe towards equality.

Image - Unsplash

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