Victory at last for Taiwan's veteran gay rights champion Chi Chia-wei

Chi Chia-wei, 59, a gay rights activist, one of the petitioners who has brought the case to the constitutional court, poses after an interview in Taipei. PHOTO: REUTERS

TAIPEI (AFP) - Draped with rainbow flags and waving a huge rainbow banner, celebrated activist Chi Chia-wei stood triumphant in front of cheering crowds after Taiwan's top court ruled in favour of gay marriage.

"Today's victory is for everybody!" he declared to the emotional rally Wednesday (May 24) night after a historic ruling that marked the culmination of 30 years of campaigning for 59-year-old Chi.

After multiple failed attempts to get same-sex unions recognised, Chi petitioned Taiwan's highest court which ruled current laws defining marriage as between a man and a woman violate the freedom and equality guaranteed by the constitution.

Chi had been optimistic but philosophical before the decision - that soon turned to elation.

"I'm leaping with joy like a bird," Chi told AFP after the ruling.

Angry conservative and religious groups protested against the decision, saying same-sex unions would destroy family values.

In response, Chi told reporters: "I hope we will forgive and communicate with those who oppose gay marriages. I thank God as he's on our side." The court ruled that Taiwan's government must make the change within two years.

If it does not meet that deadline, same-sex couples can register to marry regardless, based on the court's interpretation.

"I hope parliament will prioritise the bill instead of dragging it on for another two years," Chi told AFP.

It has been a long road for Chi, who says he was the first Taiwanese person ever to publicly come out as gay in 1986.

As a fledgling activist championing rights for HIV and AIDs sufferers, he called a press conference to make his declaration.

In the same year, when Taiwan was still under martial law, Chi says he was imprisoned for five months after submitting his first petition asking for gay marriage to be recognised.

The charges linked him with a robbery and were entirely fabricated, he says.

That heralded decades of campaigning in the face of staunch opposition.

"I wasn't discouraged by the setbacks. That's how I have been able to carry on for so long," says Chi.

"My belief is that if you can do one right thing in this life, it's all worth it." .

'Not alone'

Over the past 30 years, momentum has grown behind the push for gay marriage.

Chi says he started as a one-man force - now, he has hundreds of thousands of supporters.

"I am not alone in doing what is right," Chi said.

Raised by liberal-minded parents supportive of his sexual orientation, they encouraged him to fight for his beliefs.

He came out to friends at high school and says he was surprised by how accepting they were.

Chi became a full-time advocate for gay rights after meeting his partner 29 years ago - though he has never revealed his lover's identity.

When asked Wednesday how his partner felt about the gay marriage ruling, Chi said simply: "He told me to get home earlier!"

Chi's appeals for a change in the marriage law had previously been rejected by government agencies and courts, including a failed petition to the constitutional court in 2001.

A lack of support in parliament also meant the gay marriage debate stalled.

However, campaigners were given new hope when Tsai Ing-wen won the presidency last year and openly supported marriage equality.

With her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the majority, parliament passed the first draft of a bill to legalise gay marriage in December, but it has yet to progress further.

The court pointed out that attempts in parliament to legalise gay marriage have stalled for more than a decade, affecting people's fundamental rights.

While there is more support than ever for gay marriage in Taiwan, recent debate has also exposed deep divisions in society, with hundreds of thousands rallying against gay marriage.

Chi says those who are against him accuse him of "spreading heresy" and attention-seeking. They belittle his relationship with his partner, comparing it to children playing house, he says.

"I am not doing this for my own interests," Chi said.

"My partner and I are an old couple now and getting married is not a priority for us. But other gay couples need legal protection."

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