Many saw it coming, and it finally arrived—today (May 24), the self-governing island of Taiwan became the first place in Asia to recognize a constitutional right to same-sex marriage for all its people.
At 4pm local time Taiwan’s Council of Grand Justices, its top judicial body, ruled (.pdf) that an existing law that forbids two individuals of the same-sex from forming a union is unconstitutional. Its decision now will force Taiwan’s legislators to reform its civil code, and make way for new laws allowing for same-sex marriage within two years.
Legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan has been anticipated for some time. Since the removal of martial law in 1987, the island has steadily pushed democratic reforms (leading to its first national election in 1996), bolstered civil society, and emerged as a vocal proponent of human rights—all while facing ongoing diplomatic isolation over its status in relation to China.
Developments in recent years have made same-sex marriage a particularly salient issue.
Youth activism has surged in Taiwan, and young voters have taken up gay rights as a social cause. Meanwhile, president Tsai Ing-wen herself expressed support for same-sex marriage in her 2015 campaign (Tsai herself is rumored to be gay but does not discuss her private life in public). Taiwan is also home to the largest gay pride parade in Asia, and a modest-sized gay bar street operates largely without interference in the Ximending shopping area in Taipei.
Despite these societal changes, a favorable ruling was never guaranteed. The court oversaw the decision in the first place because Taiwan’s legislative body had dragged its feet on reform–likely due to a sizeable opposition towards legalizing gay marriage among the population, particularly among Christian groups.
Through today’s ruling, Taiwan has beat out a number of regional contenders for legalizing same-sex marriage by a wide margin. In Japan, the city of Sapporo recently became the first major city to recognize same-sex unions, but the issue has yet to become a part of the national agenda. And while Nepal’s constitution provides explicit protections for members of the LGBT community, it has yet to allow them to marry one another legally. Public acceptance towards homosexuality has progressed in China and Korea, but a negative stigma remains among large portions of the population in both countries. And nor has Australia been able to achieve marriage equality.