Special Briefing: Is Asia Becoming Gay-Friendly?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because big changes often start small.
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What happened? Taiwan made history today as lawmakers there voted in favor of legalizing gay marriage, the first such move by an Asian state. The most progressive and LGBTQ-friendly of three draft bills submitted for review, the government-sponsored measure was passed 66-27 just a week shy of a Constitutional Court deadline to comply with its earlier ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. The new law, which also offers some adoption rights, kicks in next Friday — when the self-ruled island will join the 26 other countries that already allow same-sex unions.
Why does it matter? The landmark ruling suggests that tolerance of same-sex relationships may be growing in parts of Asia. Last year, for instance, India’s top court struck down a colonial-era law that criminalized adult consensual homosexual relationships. And a recent poll showed most young Singaporeans support same-sex marriages — currently not allowed in the city-state. But elsewhere, an opposite trend is occurring: Brunei horrified observers last month after enacting a law punishing gay sex with death, and although same-sex relationships are legal in Indonesia, anti-LGBTQ sentiment there is on the rise. It also points to something of an anomaly in Asia: Seen elsewhere through a conservative-liberal prism, the discussion over gay rights is taking place within mostly conservative societies. Call it a clash of Asian visions.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
A long time coming. Friday’s vote wasn’t exactly a surprise — but it didn’t come about easily, either. Taiwan has long been home to Asia’s largest annual gay pride parade. The Supreme Court itself paved the way in 2017 by ruling that defining marriage as the union between a man and a woman was unconstitutional. But a majority of its citizens voted against same-sex marriage rights in a public referendum last November, while the legislature’s decision to wait until the eleventh hour to adhere to the court’s order demonstrates that unease by appearing at odds with broader Taiwanese sentiment. Still, the Taiwanese Parliament’s decision on Friday ensures a level of freedom the LGBTQ community doesn’t enjoy elsewhere in Asia. That’s probably why gay couples across the island state had begun planning their weddings even before their legislative win. Though Taiwan may be overlooked globally, one 31-year-old gay man told AFP, “the things we have done are visionary and with purpose.”
Is South Asia next? For decades, countries in the world’s most densely populated region have followed British-era laws that discriminate against the LGBTQ community. But in recent years, they’ve begun to break with that legacy — even as they remain largely conservative societies otherwise. Last October, India legalized same-sex relationships. Pakistan now has a law that punishes discrimination against transgender people. Nepal legalized homosexual relations in 2007. And in 2016, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court recognized that “consensual sex between people of the same sex should not be policed by the state nor should it be grounds for criminalization.” For LGBTQ rights activists in South Asia, same-sex marriages are the next step, and Taiwan’s move will only strengthen their campaign.
Not in their backyard. Analysts are asking whether Brunei’s draconian new punishment will influence other Southeast Asian states that are far less welcoming than those mentioned above. Even before that decision — slightly dialed back this week after Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah extended a moratorium on the death penalty — Malaysia’s tourism minister claimed there were no gay people in his country, where gay sex remains illegal. In Indonesia, meanwhile, Human Rights Watch says that “a government-driven moral panic” is fueling denunciations of the LGBT community there, with some localities even proposing to out allegedly gay men to the authorities. In the latter two countries, conservative Islam is imparting greater influence on the local political landscapes.
Thumbing a nose at Big Brother? China’s growing economic clout and recent technological advances have helped it wean away Taiwan’s former diplomatic allies, and instead emerge as the envy of much of Asia — and beyond. But Friday’s legislative decision serves to underscore how Taiwan, itself once an economic success story, stands in shining contrast to its cross-strait brother when it comes to respect for individual choices. Homosexuality has been legal in China since 1997, but same-sex marriages remain barred. As the gay rights movement there grows — in one high-profile act, a couple sued local authorities in 2015 for failing to accept their application to marry — activists might find inspiration in a system they’ve otherwise been taught to see as inferior to that of the communist mainland.
WHAT TO READ
Gay Couples to ‘Live More Freely’ With Thai Civil Unions, by Rina Chandran in Reuters
“Thailand has built a reputation as a place with a relaxed attitude towards gender and sexual diversity since homosexuality was decriminalised in 1956 …Yet LGBT+ people face discrimination and stigma in schools, the workplace and health facilities.”
‘There Are Few Gay People in India’: Stigma Lingers Despite Legal Victory, by Michael Safi and Aarti Singh in The Guardian
“The lingering fear reflects the fact that Indian society does a better job of policing its gay members than law enforcement ever did.”
Why Iran Is a Hub for Sex-Reassignment Surgery, in The Economist
“Gay Iranians face pressure to change their sex regardless of whether they want to, say activists and psychologists in Iran.”
WHAT TO WATCH
Celebrations as Taiwan Becomes First in Asia to Legalize Same-Sex Marriage
Watch on The Guardian on YouTube:
Outcast: Being Gay in Indonesia
“You’re just nothing in this country. But you’re still alive, so you have to deal with that.”
Watch on South China Morning Post on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
Good for business. Even before Taiwan’s historic vote, major multinational companies were lining up in support of same-sex marriage. Global giants like Airbnb, Deutsche Bank, Google and Microsoft all publicly agreed the island’s economy would be far better off, buoyed by what economists say would be increased productivity and lower levels of workplace stress, among other factors.