TAIPEI, Taiwan — Waving rainbow flags and banners demanding same-sex marriage, the revelers set off from Taiwan’s presidential palace, drawing cheers and thumbs-up from spectators along the way.
For the 13th year in a row, the gay pride march took over the streets of the capital on Saturday in a boisterous, freewheeling demonstration of how far Taiwan has come in the two decades since multiparty democracy replaced martial law and authoritarian rule.
But the loudest applause rose when a Malaysian flag or a troupe of Japanese dancers in traditional folk outfits, envoys from more restrictive locales, were spotted amid the throng. Carrying a handmade placard from Beijing’s gay and lesbian community center above his head, James Yang could barely advance along the parade route because so many strangers wanted to be photographed by his side.
A protest organized by the Lobby Alliance for LGBT Human Rights in Taipei featured paper tombstones bearing the names of people driven to suicide by harassment over their sexuality.Sinosphere Blog: Taiwan Activists Push for Same-Sex Marriage BillMAY 22, 2014
“I’ve been to gay pride marches in New York, San Diego and Los Angeles, but this is so emotional for me,” said Mr. Yang, 39, the center’s director of development. “It’s really exciting, but at the same time, the outpouring of support reminds me of how far behind we are in China.”
At a time when laws legalizing same-sex marriage are sweeping the United States, Latin America and Europe, gay rights advocates across Asia are still struggling to secure basic protections.
Brunei has instituted strict Shariah laws that criminalize gay relationships, conservative legislators in the Indonesian province of Aceh passed an ordinance last month punishing gay sex with 100 lashes, and on Wednesday the highest court in Singapore upheld a law that carries a two-year jail term for men who engage in any act of “gross indecency,” in public or private. In one Malaysian state, effeminate boys are shipped off to boot camp in an effort to reshape their behavior.When it comes to gay rights in Asia, Taiwan is a world apart. Openly gay and lesbian soldiers can serve in the military, and the Ministry of Education requires textbooks to promote tolerance for gays and lesbians. In recent years, legislators here have passed protections for gays, including a law against workplace discrimination.
A bill to legalize same-sex marriage has been introduced in Taiwan’s legislature, although it still faces strong opposition from Christian activists and their allies in the governing Kuomintang.
“Taiwan is an inspiration for much of Asia,” said Grace Poore, director of Asia and Pacific island programs at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. “They are way ahead of their neighbors.”
With its lively news media, panoply of grass-roots organizations and a robust, if sometimes noisy, democracy, this self-governing island has become a beacon for liberal political activism across Asia. Taiwan’s environmental movement has emerged as a formidable electoral force, and in April, opponents of atomic energy succeeded in halting construction of the Lungmen Nuclear Power Plant, although a final decision on the facility may be put to a public referendum.
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Democracy advocates who have occupied the streets of Hong Kong for over a month studied the tactics of the student protesters in Taiwan who earlier this year took over the Legislative Yuan in an effort to halt a trade pact they said would leave Taiwan vulnerable to pressure from mainland China, which considers the island part of its territory.
“We may have a small population, but our influence is bigger than our size,” said Yu Meinu, a legislator from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. “The level of free speech is unlike anywhere else.”
Ms. Yu, who introduced the island’s first marriage equality bill into the legislature two years ago, said one of Taiwan’s greatest assets was its thriving collection of civil society groups. “A lot of the calls for reform come from the bottom up, not from the government,” she said. “And when people here see injustice, they are not afraid to stand up and make their voices heard.”
But the wellspring of opposition to same-sex marriage has highlighted the limits of liberal activism. Last December, at the same spot where gay and lesbian marchers gathered over the weekend, an estimated 150,000 people rallied against the legislation.
Min Daixi, vice president of the Unification Church and a leader in the Taiwan Family Protection Alliance, said same-sex unions were a threat to traditional families. “They are trying to redefine a concept that our society was built upon,” he said.
Victoria Hsu, who heads the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights, acknowledged that the movement for same-sex marriage faced strong opposition.
But she said she was encouraged that the three leading candidates for Taipei mayor — a job on the résumé of every president since 1988 — have all expressed support for same-sex marriage, which to her suggests that the legalization of same-sex unions is simply a matter of time. “It’s not a question of if, but of when,” she said. Several polls over the past year have found that more than 50 percent of people in Taiwan support same-sex marriage.
Religious life here, for the most part, is dominated by Buddhism and Taoism, faiths with little doctrinal resistance to homosexuality. Although they make up less than 5 percent of Taiwan’s 23 million people, Christians have formed the bulwark of the opposition. “Taiwanese are really tolerant,” said Ms. Poore of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. “It’s not the kind of place where gays and lesbians have to worry about violence if they are affectionate in public.”
In addition to scores of bars, clubs and gay bookstores, one well-trod tourist attraction is a Taoist shrine dedicated to a rabbit deity — based on an 18th-century Qing dynasty official who was said to be gay — who has become something of a patron saint to gay worshipers seeking good fortune.
Still, in many respects, Taiwan remains a traditional society bound by a sense of Confucian filial duty that emphasizes family and the production of heirs. Edgar Chang, 34, a chemical engineer who was wearing a rhinestone-encrusted tiara and feather boa on Saturday, said he is out to his friends but has not summoned the courage to tell his parents he has had a boyfriend for the past three years. “I don’t think they would disown me, but at the same time, I think it might kill them because they really want a grandchild,” he said.
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The gay pride march has come a long way since 2003, when some participants wore masks to conceal their identities. Albert Yang, 37, one of the parade organizers, recalled his trepidation that year as the march set off with just a handful of participants. “A lot of people didn’t dare join, but they slowly worked their way into the crowd, and by the time we finished, there were 600 or 700 people,” he said.
This year, more than 65,000 people joined the march, according to organizers. They included contingents of Filipinos, Malaysians, Singaporeans, and a much smaller number of mainland Chinese, most of whom are restricted from traveling to Taiwan on their own by strict visa requirements imposed by both governments.
Although the Chinese Communist Party takes a mostly hands-off approach to homosexual activity, there are no legal protections for gays in China, and the authorities have become less tolerant of AIDS organizations and gay rights advocates as part of a wider campaign against nongovernmental organizations.
Waving a large rainbow flag over the crowd, Hiro, a 48-year-old television station employee from Tokyo, said it was his eighth time at the parade. “For gay Japanese, this is the event of the year,” he said, declining to give his full name out of concern it could cause problems at work. “I only wish we were as brave as the Taiwanese and could do something like this in Japan.”
Surveying the march from the sidelines, Jay Lin, 46, said he thought Taiwan could do more to promote its live-and-let-live ethos at a time when the island’s economy is slowing. “We have become a beacon for human rights issues across Asia,” said Mr. Lin, who this year started Taiwan’s first gay and lesbian film festival. “This is a strong selling point, and if the government was smart, they would recognize that this is our soft power and market it to the rest of the world.”