Taiwan's highest court paved the way Wednesday for Asia's first law allowing same-sex marriage, a reflection of widespread support for LGBTQ causes that has sprung from three decades of democracy.
The Constitutional Court ruled that it is illegal to ban marriages between two people of the same sex and ordered parliament to change the civil code within two years to bring it in line with the constitution, a court official said. Today's conditions are "in violation of both the people's freedom of marriage … and the people's right to equality," the judiciary's secretary-general, Lu Tai-lang, said.
About 200 jubilant supporters of same-sex marriage gathered outside parliament as the announcement was broadcast live from a news conference.
"It is a milestone for the LGBT movement in Taiwan," the Taipei-based gay rights advocacy group Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Assn. said in a statement.
Wednesday's decision reflected Taiwan outlier status in Asia for tolerance on LGBTQ issues, but seems unlikely to inspire similar moves in the region anytime soon.
A large percentage of the public in Taiwan has accepted the idea of same-sex marriage because leaders have elevated liberal social causes to show the island's democratic credentials in the face of China, a political rival that restricts free speech and association.
China regards Taiwan as a renegade province. The island has been independently administered since the communists took control in Beijing in 1949.
"I think Taiwan's freedom of speech gives it the best environment," said Tsao Cheng-yi, a senior project manager with the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Assn. "Japan is conservative. South Korea has rightists and Christians. I think Taiwan has a chance to be the first place in Asia with a same-sex marriage law."
While Japan and South Korea are also democracies, Japan has less of a sense of multiculturalism and South Korea is strongly influenced by Christian conservatives, creating impediments to same-sex marriage, said Jens Damm, associate professor in the Graduate Institute of Taiwan Studies at Chang Jung University in Taiwan.
Indonesia and Malaysia, because of the prevalence of Islam, would find little backing compared to Taiwan despite their democratic governments. Countries under authoritarian rule limit social activism, a common prerequisite for government attention to LGBTQ causes. Taiwan lifted martial law in the 1980s after decades of authoritarian rule.
Vietnam technically allowed same-sex marriage in 2015 but did not follow up with codes.
"Around the world, including in Asia, we see that the main impediments to marriage equality or LGBTQ rights more broadly are conservative religious doctrines and social mores, repressive political regimes that limit civil society organizing, and opportunistic politicians who stir up homophobia and transphobia as political tools," said Jean Freedberg, deputy director of the American civil rights advocacy group HRC Global.
Gay and lesbian rights in Taiwan got their first boost in the 1990s, Damm said, when Taipei Mayor Chen Shui-bian spoke out for LGBTQ causes to help Taiwan stand out in Asia as an open society. Chen later pushed a socially liberal agenda as president from 2000 to 2008.
About two thirds of Taiwanese are Buddhists, and their religion does not prescribe rules on sexual orientation. About 5% are Christian.
Gay pride parades in Taipei every year draw thousands, with 80,000 people showing for the most recent one in another sign of acceptance. Many in their ranks have pushed for the same-sex marriage legislation. President Tsai Ing-wen, the first woman to lead Taiwan, endorses the legislation as well.
"In Taiwan, people are nice to gays, so we feel safe here," said Jovi Wu, 36, a Taipei saleswoman who added that she would like to marry to share custody of her 4-year-old. "We don't fear family and companies. There's pressure, but nothing like political repression or from schools."
Today, LGBTQ characters appear in films, on television and online. On the Internet, younger people especially are "proudly being themselves," said Jay Lin, Taipei-based director of the Taiwan International Queer Film Festival.
That said, support for same-sex marriage is far from universal.
Opposition has become more evident since parliament took up the legislation in November. In December about 30,000 people showed for a demonstration in central Taipei opposing same-sex marriage.
Christian churches joined activists supporting traditional Chinese family values favoring households headed by one man and one woman. Some argued that the death of a same-sex spouse would leave the survivor dependent on government support because many same-sex couples would not have children to support them in old age, a common phenomenon in Chinese societies such as Taiwan.
Children in same-sex marriages would find it hard to form relations with the gender not represented by their parents, opponents have also argued.
The ruling Wednesday was sought by the city of Taipei, which asked the court for clarification on whether it could legally register same-sex couples. It will let legislators amend the civil code — or pass a whole new law — to make those unions legal throughout the island of 23 million people. Lawmakers gave initial approval in November, but had held off on a final vote until the justices made a decision.
Taiwan would join 20 countries around the world in allowing same-sex marriage, HRC said.
Jennings is a special correspondent.
11:55 a.m.: Updates throughout with staff reporting.
3:45 a.m.: This article was updated with background information on the court decision.