Supporters of same-sex marriage celebrate outside the parliament in Taipei on Friday. Photo: AFP

Taiwan’s first wedding ceremony for gay couples took place in Taipei on Saturday after lawmakers voted 66-27 to pass a bill granting same-sex couples the right to marry. Prior to the ruling, tens of thousands of Taiwanese braved pouring rain and rallied in front of the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, to await the verdict.

The landmark decision supporting Taiwan’s LGBT community has since resonated around the world, with international news outlets such as the British Broadcasting Corporation, CNN and DW picking up the historic decision by legislators for Taiwan to become the first jurisdiction in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage.

The new law follows a ruling by the Constitutional Court in May 2017 declaring the prohibition of same-sex marriage unconstitutional. That ruling also mandated that legislation be passed within two years to guarantee same-sex couples the right to marriage. The new legislation now permits two people of the same gender, aged 18 or older, to register a marriage, and allows for the adoption of a child born of either parent.

The law did not pass without controversy, however, after a referendum in November that asked voters: “Do you agree that the Civil Code should define marriage as the union between a man and a woman?” Some 7.6 million Taiwanese agreed, while 2.9 million disagreed with the definition.

Hon Hai Precision Industry Company chairman Terry Gou, a presidential hopeful, said it was “a pity that the resulting amendment did not comply with the substance of the referendum,” claiming the ruling disregarded “true public opinion” as reflected by the referendum. The Happiness of the Next Generation Alliance similarly felt the act “trampled on” the referendum results.

Given such divided opinion, gay-rights activists did not get everything they asked for, such as the right of Taiwanese nationals to marry someone from a country where gay marriage is not legal and the right to adopt children born outside of the biological parents.

Meanwhile across the Taiwan Strait, the leadership in Beijing can hardly be happy with the ruling, as legalizing gay marriage is an act of sovereignty and another example of Taiwan’s ability to legislate its own affairs under its own legislative and judicial systems – despite a tweet by the largest newspaper group in China claiming “local leaders” passed the legislation.

Further, it demonstrates that Taiwan can effect progressive solutions to the repression of minority rights, in sharp contrast to China’s harsh treatment of the ethnic minority Uighurs in Xinjiang. And in the months leading up to the Taiwan decision, freedom of assembly and speech reigned, something illiberal China’s leadership has long struggled to suppress.

Finally, the decision to legalize same-sex marriage in Taiwan may help empower the LGBT community in China, where they face widespread discrimination. The 2017 ruling calling prohibition of same-sex marriage “unconstitutional” prompted one Chinese academic to urge Taiwanese parents to move to the mainland to protect their children from AIDS.

Taiwan’s ruling last week has moved the island ideologically further away from China and amplifies just how vastly different and intractable the two remain.

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