Taiwanese people join Taipei’s annual gay rights parade. Photo: AFP

New | Taiwan pins same-sex marriage hopes on political change

Taiwan’s presidential elections next month are expected to usher in a new political era, and many hope it will also see the island become the first Asian power to legalise same-sex marriage.

Taiwan –the host of Asia’s biggest gay pride parade – is already one of the region’s most forward-thinking societies when it comes to gay rights, and this year, three of the island’s biggest cities began allowing gay couples to register as one household.

But a move towards marriage equality has remained stagnant in parliament for more than two years and some activists say they need to look beyond the island’s two dominant political parties if they are to achieve their goal.

Staunch resistance from the ruling Kuomintang has meant a same-sex marriage bill has stalled since it was proposed in 2013 by a legislator for the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party.

READ MORE: Taiwan gay couple ‘lose faith’ and drop marriage case

With the KMT widely expected to lose January’s presidential elections to the DPP, and possibly lose control of parliament for the first time, many are hoping the new government will resurrect the legislation.

“Looking at the global trend for marriage equality, the momentum has never been as good as this in recent years,” said Yu Mei-nu, a DPP lawmaker and proponent of the bill.

“If the DPP has the majority of seats, then there are greater chances for the bill to be listed into the agenda,” she said.

The bill passed a first reading in 2013 but failed to garner enough support from lawmakers to push it further. A new bill will have to be introduced in the next parliament.

DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen, who is well ahead in the polls and will become Taiwan’s first female leader if elected, openly expressed her support for same-sex marriage in a video posted on her Facebook page in October, saying: “Everyone is equal before love.”

Tsai herself faced questions over her sexual orientation during her last presidential bid in 2012, but refused to respond, saying it would make her “an accomplice of sexual suppression”.

Some activists are concerned that the DPP may temper their support for gay marriage because it risks alienating the party’s more conservative supporters.

To push their case, they are fielding their own candidates in the legislative elections – which take place at the same time as the presidential vote.

“We need to have political figures who make it their priority in parliament to force the two parties to move forward,” said one of the five, Victoria Hsu, 43, who also leads campaign group Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights.

“We see the KMT’s power gradually evaporating, but we also see the DPP becoming more and more like the KMT,” she said.

“They won’t dare to take a clear stance on controversial topics,” Hsu added, saying some DPP lawmakers were opposed to the bill.

“We feel our issue is very marginalised, so we have to do it ourselves if we don’t want to be discounted,” said Hsu.

Of the more than 500 legislative candidates across the parties, so far 84 have committed to supporting a marriage equality bill in the new term if they are elected, Hsu’s campaign group said.

Opposition to same-sex marriage comes mostly from Christian groups, who wield significant political influence especially within the KMT.

But within the general public, support stands at 59 per cent, according to an online survey by the Ministry of Justice earlier this year.

Activist Qi Jia-wei has been fighting for the right to wed his long-term partner for 17 years.

Qi, 57, first sent his case to the Justices of the Constitutional Court – a branch of the judicial system charged with interpreting the constitution – in 1998, but was rejected.

Now he is trying the judicial route again in what could become a landmark case.

“Back then, across Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, it was only me discussing this issue,” Qi said.

“Now 30 years later, look at how many groups are advocating same-sex marriage. The atmosphere is completely different.”