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    Rainbows Over Taiwan

    By John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney–

    The rain poured down from the sky on Taiwan’s national legislature building on the morning of May 17, 2019, as lawmakers inside debated whether to enact legislation to make Taiwan the first country in Asia with marriage equality. The past two years had been filled with enormous hope and joy, as well as great frustration and challenge for Taiwan’s LGBTIQ community. Tens of thousands of queer activists stood tall outside the legislature under the deluge that morning.

    Nearly two years ago to the day, the LGBTIQ community led by attorney Victoria Hsu of the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights (TAPCPR) won a stunning and sweeping victory at Taiwan’s Constitutional Court with a landmark decision mandating nationwide marriage equality and rendering anti-gay discrimination presumptively unconstitutional. The decision catapulted Taiwan ahead of the U.S. when it came to our constitutional rights. The LGBTIQ community was euphoric, and Taipei Pride 2017, which we were honored to attend as guests, was the largest gathering of LGBTIQ people in Asia ever. It was truly inspiring.

    But there was a catch. The Court gave the national legislature two years to enact legislation to implement the decision. If the government did not act, LGBTIQ couples could begin marrying in late May 2019 under existing law.

    Unfortunately, sympathetic legislators and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, a marriage equality supporter, seemed frozen with fear and uncertainty as to how to respond to the Court’s powerful ruling. They equivocated and failed to act. Their delay enabled opponents to organize.

    With massive support from notorious American anti-LGBTIQ groups, such as the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), opponents placed anti-marriage equality and anti-LGBTIQ referenda on the November 2018 national election ballot and ran a negative campaign that employed smear tactics and false and degrading messages akin to those of California’s Proposition 8 and many other anti-gay campaigns.

    And they were successful. Seventy-two percent of the Taiwanese electorate voted to forbid the legislature from amending the Civil Code to permit same-sex couples to marry, although 61 percent supported same-sex couples’ rights being protected in some way other than amending the Civil Code.

    The election results emboldened opponents, who used them to claim mass popular disapproval of marriage equality. The challenges facing the devastated LGBTIQ community and its supporters suddenly became much greater. But unlike Prop 8, the Taiwanese referenda did not reverse the Constitutional Court decision. That decision mandated the right to marry, not just some form of legal recognition. The community did not give up. TAPCR’s Hsu told us for the San Francisco Bay Times, “We won’t compromise on equal rights.”

    After six more months of legislative wrangling and attempts to water down equality, such as considering civil unions for same-sex couples, the national legislature on the rainy morning of May 17 finally had to decide what it was going to do.

    A friend of ours from the Weiming Taoist temple in Taipei, a temple dedicated to the centuries-old Taoist God Tu‘er Shen who protects LGBTIQ people, emailed us what happened next: The rain slowed, “the sun” began to “show,” and then “rainbows flooded in.” We “basked [in] the outcome of glory.” The legislature voted in favor of marriage equality, and on May 24, Taiwan would become the first country in Asia with marriage equality.

    Longtime LGBTIQ activist leader Jay Lin described it as “a cliff-hanger thriller-drama down to the last vote.”

    The legislation was not perfect. For example, some limits on adoption rights for same-sex couples remain. Some binational couples may face challenges, and pursuant to the referendum, same-sex marriage is in a separate legislative code, not the Civil Code. Hsu, in words echoed by other leaders, told us that they would not relent until “true marriage equality” was achieved.

    But it is hard to overstate the significance of the marriage equality victory in Taiwan, years in the making. Our friend from the temple shared with us his “thrills” and “happiness.” Lin called it a “miraculous day” and now looks forward to marrying his long-term partner, with whom he is raising two children.

    Upon the vote, President Tsai tweeted: “#LoveWon,” and, “We took a big step towards true equality, and made Taiwan a better country.” TAPCR described the victory as a “new page in history” not just for Taiwan, but also for Asia, and expressed its gratitude for the vote. The victory creates new momentum in Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand and other places in Asia for the freedom to marry and LGBTIQ rights.

    It is traditional at a Taoist temple to write your wishes and aspirations on special paper to submit to the god to whom the temple is dedicated. We had completely forgotten that 18 months ago we had written something at the gay Taoist temple. But our friend had not, and he reminded us of our words: “LGBT FREEDOM LOVE EQUALITY RESPECT.”

    As in the U.S., the path to complete LGBTIQ equality and dignity in Taiwan continues to unfold and the struggle is ongoing. But Taiwan has taken a huge step toward fulfilling this goal. The hope and inspiration that the victory engenders will propel us forward. Tu‘er Shen is smiling and there are rainbows in the sky above Taiwan.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.