Taiwan’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage in May 2017 commanded international attention, particularly due to its being one of the first Asian countries to do so. As a queer South Asian person who was born and raised in a very homophobic South East Asian country, I had grown up with the constant rhetoric of “LGBTQ is a Western colonial invention” and still have to contend with comments from the leaders of my country claiming that LGBTQ rights are antithetical to Asian cultural norms, and even fear for my livelihood as fellow LGBTQ activists and community members are oppressed, harmed, or even killed.
Taiwan’s ruling made me curious about how the news was being received by LGBTQ people across Asia. Did they too face cultural and institutional oppression against their gender and sexuality, or were their countries more accepting? Would the ruling have any impact on their livelihoods? Is Taiwan an inspiration for their leaders to consider marriage equality or LGBTQ rights overall, or will it not matter as much?
I made a list of countries in the Asian continent and researched and reached out to at least one LGBTQ activist, organization, or community member in each, including posting on region or country-specific social media groups and direct contact. Out of the countries on my list (excluding the Pacific Islands of Oceania and counting Taiwan, Macau, and Hong Kong as distinct countries), I was able to find at least one contact for 42 of them, and (at the time of writing) received 27 responses from 18 countries, as well as a couple from regional organisations. While there were significant efforts to prioritize female and non-binary interviewees, a considerable number of respondents were male, often owing to the stronger presence of out gay male activists in their local LGBTQ community. Responses came from cis and trans women, cis and trans men, and non-binary people. Some respondents are anonymous or pseudonymous by request.
The responses, while varied and distinct, often carried similar themes. While my respondents were generally supportive and happy about Taiwan’s decision, most did not think that the ruling would be as impactful on their local community as some might guess — citing insularity, lack of media attention, and/or lack of cultural similarity between Taiwan and their home countries. Some respondents felt that the ruling could be used as leverage for their local activism, while others felt that focusing on marriage equality could actually backfire in their efforts to earn the rights of LGBTQ people to exist without fear of persecution or harm. There weren’t necessarily any clear correlations between the legal status of LGBTQ people in their country and the perception of such communities in society: some of the countries with the highest rates of violence against LGBTQ people were countries that decriminalized homosexuality or never had laws against homosexuality in the first place. To be clear, affirmations of a country’s LGBTQ-inclusive legislation in this piece isn’t a referendum on or analysis of the experiences of LGBTQ people as a whole there, or the country’s stance on human rights issues in general. Marriage equality is only one piece of a complex and ever-shifting social and legal reality for LGBTQ people worldwide; to full explore more than that would take much more than one article, and even any discussion of the experiences of LGBTQ people here is necessarily only one portion of a much larger picture.