After Taiwan’s highest court issued a landmark ruling on Wednesday (May 24) recognizing the rights of same-sex couples across the island to marry, the only place to do so in Asia, many people in China were quick to hail it as a major step forward—for China.
On the Chinese microblogging site Weibo, dozens of accounts have posted comments cheering Taiwan for becoming the first “Chinese province” to support gay marriage. Taiwan is a self-governing island but is kept at arm’s length by most countries thanks to Beijing’s long-time insistence that it is a breakaway region that is nevertheless part of the communist Chinese republic established in 1949.
“A Chinese province has legalized same-sex marriage” read a page description (link in Chinese) on Weibo. The page, which also uses the hashtag “Taiwan legalized same-sex marriage,” has been viewed more than 20 million times since it was set up yesterday, soon after Taiwan made the announcement. Thousands of comments, mostly hailing Taiwan’s progress are posted on the page.
“Taiwan has become the first one that allows same-sex marriage, does that mean China has become the first Asian country that allows same-sex marriage?” wrote ( link in Chinese) one person on Weibo, while another commented (link in Chinese), “[We] congratulate that Taiwan Province has become the first of its kind to legalize same-sex [marriage].” (The Taiwan ruling doesn’t exactly allow same-sex marriages to take place right away—instead the government must amend the laws to make it possible within two years.)
Claiming Taiwan’s progress on gay rights as its own would certainly make China look better on this issue. While homosexuality is not illegal and public acceptance towards homosexuality has progressed in China in recent years, the topic is still stigmatized among the authorities, partly due to a lack of understanding of homosexuality, says gay feminist activist Li Maizi.
The day of the ruling, lesbian dating app Rela was blocked on the mainland, according to (link in Chinese) China-based Weibo user Chen Yushan. Quartz has reached out to Rela’s developers and Chen for more details, but they didn’t immediately reply. Earlier this month, police dispersed parents who tried to join in a weekly Shanghai matchmaking event to find partners for their gay sons and daughters in a bid to raise awareness. And shows that depict gay relationships are barred from television, while movies with gay themes rarely make it to cinemas.
China’s propaganda departments, from the highest levels, such as the State Council Information Office, which oversees government communications, to local bureaus, were told to classify the topic of “Taiwan becoming a legal area for same-sex marriage” as a politically sensitive topic, according to China Digital Times, which tracks censorship information. Government authorities were asked to use quotation marks around words like constitution, Judicial Yuan (Taiwan’s top court), Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s Parliament), and president, and not to present Taiwan as a separate political entity. The State Council Information Office did not immediately reply to requests for comment from Quartz.
Some obstructive forces from the government are still “trying to prevent same-sex marriage from becoming a mainstream topic,” says Li. But she added, regardless of its political identity, Taiwan’s cultural similarities and geographical proximity will motivate gay people on the mainland to strive for their rights.