Newspaper article International New York Times

Taiwan Shines as a Beacon for Gays in Asia ; Tolerance Is Widespread, and Support for Same-Sex Marriage Appears Strong

Newspaper article International New York Times

Taiwan Shines as a Beacon for Gays in Asia ; Tolerance Is Widespread, and Support for Same-Sex Marriage Appears Strong

Article excerpt

At a time when gay rights advocates across Asia are still struggling to secure basic protections, tolerance of gays is widespread in Taiwan and many seem to support same-sex marriage.

Waving rainbow flags and banners demanding same-sex marriage, the revelers set off from Taiwan's presidential palace, drawing cheers and thumbs-ups 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 up 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.

"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 gay 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 sharia laws that criminalize gay relationships, conservative legislators in the Indonesian province of Aceh last month passed an ordinance 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 Parliament, although it still faces strong opposition from Christian activists and their allies in the governing Kuomintang party.

"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.

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.

"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. …

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