News Analysis

Same-sex marriage legalised in Taiwan, but there's still work ahead to ensure equal rights

Taiwan’s top court ruled on Wednesday (May 24) that a marriage should not be restricted to a man and woman, making the island the first place in Asia to allow same-sex couples to tie the knot. PHOTO: EPA

TAIPEI - Software engineer Cindy Su and her partner of three years are among many same-sex couples who are celebrating after Taiwan's top court declared on Wednesday (May 24) that same-sex marriage should be legal, a landmark decision that paves the way for Taiwan to become the first in Asia to allow these unions.

Under the island's Civil Code, an agreement to marry can be made only between a man and a woman. But the Constitutional Court has ruled that this definition of marriage violates constitutional guarantees of equal protection.

The court ruled that the laws have to be revised within two years to allow same-sex marriage, but stopped short of suggesting how to go about doing it.

Indeed, while gay marriage has scored its first victory in Asia, there is still much work to be done when it comes to legislation to ensure equal protection for same-sex marriages.

Taiwan's Legislative Yuan will have to decide if it is better to change the civil code, which governs family law, or create a separate new law for gay and lesbian couples.

Gay and rights activists are pushing for the civil code to be revised as enacting a separate law will be deemed discriminatory. But their suggestion is likely to meet fierce resistance.

Even though Taiwan is seen as one of the most gay-friendly places in Asia, the same-sex marriage debate has highlighted deep divisions in society. Conservative and religious groups have argued that allowing same-sex unions would destroy family values.

A 2016 poll by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation think tank found the public evenly split on the issue.

A wrong move may be costly for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the upcoming 2018 mayoral and local elections.

While President Tsai Ing-wen, who leads the DPP, has openly supported marriage equality, many in her party worry about incurring the wrath of their constituents.

In the landmark ruling, the Constitutional Court had ruled that even if Parliament does not make the change within two years, same-sex couples could register to marry nonetheless, based on its interpretation.

However, observers say that even if same-sex couples can register their marriages, it does not mean that the rights of these couples and their children will be protected.

Legislative changes on this issue cannot be taken for granted, given that previous efforts to push for marriage equality, which date back to the 1980s, have progressed in fits and starts.

The latest proposals to amend the Civil Code, for instance, have not progressed further after passing the first of three readings in December 2016.

Ms Su, for one, believes the battle has not been completely won."There will still be a lot to sort out and convince people that this is the right thing to do," she said.

National Tsing Hua University sociology expert Shen Hsiu-hua, who heads The Awakening Foundation, a women's group, said: "It will take a lot of guts and political will to push through a legislative change but it is an important step forward to do right by those who have been marginalised for far too long."

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