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Taiwan may be close to becoming the first Asian country to recognize the freedom to marry, despite the island nation’s November referendum that many saw as a setback for the movement. In a region that has a mixed record on the treatment of LGBTQ people, where some countries are dangerous for queer citizens and others are in the process of embracing equality, Taiwan is a much-needed bright spot.
The situation in Taiwan is particularly sensitive right now. In May of 2017, a high court ruled the nation had to recognize marriage equality, and imposed a two-year timeline for legal reforms to recognize that right.
That seemed straightforward enough, but anti-gay activists — supported by international interlopers — funded a referendum on LGBTQ equality in 2018, hoping to prevent queer people from marrying. Although voters indicated that they were indeed opposed to any changes to the law, experts appear to agree that the referendum was non-binding and the country is still bound by the earlier court ruling. Now legislators have vowed to introduce marriage legislation by March of 2019.
It’s also possible that Thailand could beat Taiwan to the punch as the first Asian country with same-sex unions. The Thai government is currently considering a new bill that would guarantee gay couples rights similar to those citizens in traditional marriages, like taking a spouse’s surname and property rights. The civil partnership bill could go before a legislative assembly as early as this year.
But there are many Asian countries with an urgent need for legal reform. In neighboring China, for example, marriage between people of the same gender is illegal, and the country has no nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ citizens. Japan offers few options for relationship recognition; only a handful of towns provide limited domestic partnerships, but in the last month a slew of lawsuits have been filed to challenge the limitations of that law.
Things are far more dire in South Asia, where homosexuality is often criminalized. Bangladesh imposes a lifetime jail sentence on gay men — but also extends certain limited legal protections for a group known as “Hijra,” who in the West might be understood to be transgender, nonbinary or gender-fluid.
Bhutan also criminalizes homosexuality, as do the Maldives and Pakistan. Though the penalties are not regularly enforced, their mere existence constitutes a threat that makes it difficult for queer people to exist in public, and also leaves many vulnerable to blackmail.
Similar prohibitions exist in Southeast Asia, but the legal climate there is also quite mixed, with protections and penalties varying wildly from country to country. Cambodia and Vietnam have vague laws regarding marriage equality, not exactly forbidding it but also not providing any specific protections. Marriage equality is banned in Indonesia; and Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore all criminalize homosexuality.
Queer people also face a hodge-podge of laws in the Pacific Islands. Homosexuality is illegal in Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Tuvalu. But in Palau, not only is marriage equality legal but there are extensive nondiscrimination protections, along with in Fiji and Samoa.
Needless to say, marriage rights are still a long way off for countries that still imprison people for being gay. In many of those countries, criminalization is a legacy of colonial occupation by British invaders. Though Western occupation has largely ended, in many countries the legal and cultural damage lingers many decades later.