On May 24, 2019, Taiwan made history: it was the first in the Asia-Pacific to legalize same-sex marriage. After decades of grassroots advocacy, the Constitutional Court found that the denial of registered unions to same-sex couples violated the constitutional guarantees of freedom of marriage and right to equality. This decision laid the foundation for the Legislative Yuan’s legalization of same-sex marriage.
At its heart, the story of Taiwan’s progression towards inclusive governance is also the story of its democratization. After almost four decades of martial law, Taiwan transitioned to democracy in the late 1980s. Civic space opened rapidly, creating new opportunities for historically marginalized groups to secure their rights. The mutually reinforcing nature of the relationship between democratic governance and civil society explains why this was the moment when LGBTQI+ advocacy blossomed, after decades of suppression and violence under the previous authoritarian rule. Specifically, scholars mark the origin of Taiwan’s modern LGBTQI+ movements in 1990, shortly after Taiwan became a democracy, with the creation of the first civil society organization (CSO) to address the needs of LGBTQI+ communities on the island. From that point on, drawing on the support of the women’s rights movement, grassroots advocacy for the rights of LGBTQI+ communities grew organically to influence the priorities of political elites. This progression helped enshrine marriage equality—a key element of LGBTQI+ inclusion—into law.
Taiwan’s progress toward creating a more inclusive society speaks to its democratic resilience: the ability of a country’s democratic institutions and processes to respond effectively to external and internal shocks and long-term trends that threaten economic well-being, exacerbate political and societal tensions, and test democratic norms. Here, the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan serves as both a testament to this resilience, and its amplifier. Taiwan’s ability to withstand challenges to its democracy created the conditions in which same-sex marriage could be legalized, while the legalization of same-sex marriage itself further strengthens Taiwan’s democratic norms and institutions. Under its Asia Regional Democratic Unity program, which seeks to increase regional solidarity in upholding democratic norms and values in Asia-Pacific, NDI partnered with the Taiwan NextGen Foundation (TNF), a Taiwan-based non-profit think tank focused on educational policy research and public advocacy, to explore the evolution of LGBTQI+ rights in the context of its democratization.
TNF produced a series of videos, infographics and policy briefs to present research exploring the evolution of LGBTQI+ rights and democratization, including key information interviews with a diverse set of stakeholders. TNF’s work covers three topics: how the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan exemplifies its democratic values while expanding LGBTQI+ rights; the origins of LGBTQI+ movements in Taiwan in parallel with the democratization movement; and the future of LGBTQI+ rights in the face of obstacles to equality.
Though Taiwan has achieved a critical milestone on its path to becoming a more inclusive and democratic nation, more work remains to be done. As TNF explains in its third video, inequalities persist on several fronts: Taiwanese nationals cannot marry someone of the same sex who is the citizen of a country where same-sex marriage is not recognized; same-sex married couples cannot jointly adopt a child, and one spouse cannot adopt their same-sex partner’s biological or adopted child; and Taiwan enforces strict regulations around gender identity changes to legal documents, as well as a restrictive definition of gender that does not recognize non-binary people. Though these challenges remain, TNF’s interviews make clear that LGBTQI+ communities remain committed to their fight for equal protection, equal recognition and equal dignity under the law.
For more information about TNF’s work, please visit their website, or their Facebook, Twitter or Instagram pages.
Author: Christina Socci, Program Officer for Asia, National Democratic Institute
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.