THE UNITED STATES’ cultural shift on same-sex marriage has been so pronounced, it is easy to forget that the centuries of discrimination, decades of activism and years of litigation that led to the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling concluded not so long ago. It is also easy to take for granted that LGBTQ people have achieved a basic level of social acceptance, when there is still more work to be done in this country — and far more abroad. The greatest civil rights fight of this century is not over.
In Asia, the world’s most populous continent, life remains difficult for the LGBTQ community, as national leaders keep its members and other minorities officially marginalized out of concern about maintaining “social harmony” or “Asian values.” That is why Taiwan’s step to legalize same-sex marriage is so significant. Just as the island has for years put lie to the notion that democracy does not work in East Asian societies, it continues to show by example that liberal values and institutions are, in fact, universally applicable.
As is often the case in a liberal democracy, the process was tortuous but bent toward justice. Taiwan’s supreme court in 2017 ordered the country’s government to legalize same-sex marriage within two years. A vote subsequently indicated the idea did not yet command majority support. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party nevertheless ran and won on a platform that included approving same-sex marriage. Taiwan’s legislature considered three bills — two offered by conservatives and one, the most far-reaching, backed by the government. The government’s bill passed May 17, to the cheers of rainbow-flag-waving activists outside.
Some of those activists noted that the bill did not guarantee full equality on matters such as adoption rights. But they were right to celebrate, as were LGBTQ people across Asia who were not directly affected but who took it as a landmark policy change for the continent. It also took a Supreme Court decision in the United States, with its long commitment to liberal values, to legalize same-sex marriage. If anything, Taiwan’s turn toward marriage equality was more democratically legitimate, as the ruling party had promised to make it happen and an elected legislature decided to advance the most progressive of the options it considered.
Taiwan’s move is not the only recent advance for LGBTQ people across the world. Botswana’s high court on Tuesday struck down two colonial-era laws that criminalized gay sex. Last September, India’s Supreme Court quashed a similar law stemming from the same period. There are hopes for progress in places such as Japan and Thailand. We doubt nondemocratic Asian nations will be quick to follow countries where liberal institutions are more entrenched. But as places such as Botswana, India and Taiwan treat their citizens more equitably, it will be only natural for those next door to wonder what can justify continuing discrimination within their own borders.