Five years before Taiwan legalized same-sex marriage, Joy Lai, 40, and Amy Lu, 40, quietly made a vow to be with each other for the rest of their lives.
There was no proposal, ring exchange, or ceremony. An elaborate wedding would have been meaningless, Lai says, because Lu’s family wouldn’t have attended.
“My wife’s parents had turned into ‘closet parents’ after she came out,” Lai says. “We didn’t want a wedding without their presence.”
But last month, after Taiwan started registering same-sex marriages, the couple made their silent vow official.
Lu’s parents gave their blessing for the wedding, but still decided not to attend.
“It required too much courage from her parents to attend our public wedding,” Lai says. “Perhaps they’re only accepting us because they’ve realized nothing can stop us from getting married now.”
Last month, Taiwan became the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage after decades of advocacy by the LGBTQ community and its supporters.
(Photo essay: Taiwan’s first mass gay wedding)
And while there are still some rights that activists are hoping to secure—such as recognition of transnational marriages and adoption rights—many feel the important work remains in public education.
Within families, particularly conservative households, same-sex couples find that the hardest people to convince are their parents and relatives.
In the five years between Lu coming out to her parents and her getting married, they asked if she had met any male suitors. Whenever she brought home books about LGBTQ awareness, her parents would secretly remove them from the shelf.
To this day, most of Lu’s relatives are unaware of her relationship with Lai, and her parents don’t speak of it unless they’re asked.
Legal, but accepted?
A landmark court ruling in 2017 ordered Taiwan’s legislature to legalize same-sex marriage by 2019.
But for many in the LGBTQ community, a referendum last November served as evidence that Taiwan might not have been culturally ready for same-sex marriage.
During the referendum, an overwhelming majority of Taiwanese voted against incorporating same-sex marriage into the existing marriage code, effectively making same-sex marriage “separate but equal.”
“It was like being nailed to a cross.”
“It was like being nailed to a cross,” Joy Lai says. “I would walk down a street full of people and wonder if any of them voted against me, if they were the ones that hammered the nail. The loss of trust has continued to haunt me even until now.”
Lai says she still feels the judgement, especially in online chat groups, where she’ll often encounter comments about lesbians being possessed by evil spirits.
“They don’t think of us as human beings,” she says.
For same-sex couples, legal recognition of their marriage means having access to a host of benefits that many married couples take for granted, such as visiting a partner in the hospital, co-signing insurance policies, and obtaining a death certificate if one passes away.
“We will finally be able to collect each other’s dead bodies,” Lai says.
Same-sex marriage is still more accepted in large cities than in rural areas, says Areal Liu, a New Taipei City resident who was among the first to get married when the law went into effect.
She worries that Taiwan’s more conservative Kuomintang party will use the issue to galvanize conservative voters in next year’s presidential election.
There are fears that the party might reverse some of the progress made on same-sex marriage. Some politicians have expressed frustration with the law, with one legislator even vowing to undo it if voters support the Kuomintang in the upcoming presidential election.
But Liu remains confident that the culture will catch up with the law.
“The new marriage law might be too forward for parts of Taiwan,” she says, “but it will help lift our societal standard.”
Convincing the family
Before the referendum, conservative groups in Taiwan ran an aggressive anti-LGBTQ campaign, pouring millions into advertisements on social media, television, and newspapers.
In response, the LGBTQ community urged people to have open conversations with their family and friends about same-sex marriage.
For some, it meant coming out of the closet for the first time.
Wave Gao, 25, had kept her sexual orientation a secret from her father until hours before the referendum.
Her hometown, Changhua, is considered a conservative city, and she found that her father was reluctant to have a constructive dialogue.
“It was within my expectation that my father would not vote in favor of same-sex marriage, but he didn’t even allow room for conversation,” Gao says. “He thought for sure that homosexuality was a kind of illness, a flaw.”
Although she is proud of Taiwan’s legalization of same-sex marriage, Gao has yet to reconcile with her father about her own sexuality. To this day, it remains an unspeakable topic, she says.
Areal Liu, 41, and Kira Hsu, 40, were the first same-sex couple to register in their district on May 24, when the law legalizing same-sex marriage went into effect.
Hsu’s family, also from Changhua, only supported their marriage after years of persuasion.
She would bring Liu home every Sunday night for dinner with her family. Gradually, they warmed up to her.
“I would keep mentioning small details in our lives, so my parents knew that she was dependable,” Hsu says. “Eventually, they just wanted to see their daughter happy.”