On the 24th of May, the Taiwanese Constitutional Court invalided marriage law defining unions between a man and a woman. The court ordered the parliament to amend the law within two years, otherwise, same-gender couples will be allowed to marry under the current law.
Two days later, a popular lesbian dating app in Mainland China, Rela (热拉) was mysteriously shut down; following the earlier removal of another dating app, ZANK. This ties in with the government’s intolerance towards the LGBTIQA community, as it last year issued a ban on the portrayal of “abnormal” sexual relationships within Chinese media, lumping LGBTIQA relationships along with incest and sexual assault.
Despite their similar culture and heritage, both society’s attitudes are undeniably separate. Taiwan is home to a vibrant LGBTIQA community and there is a majority support for same-sex marriage within Taiwanese society. Mainland China, on the other hand, has only removed homosexuality off its official lists of mental disorders since 2001, let only only having legalised homosexuality in 1997. Homosexuality in China is still viewed as abnormal and conversion therapy clinics remain open within the country.
Why do Taiwan and China view same-gender relationships so differently?
Following the fall of Taiwan’s authoritarian government, there was a commitment to push forward with democratisation with a strong rule of law and constitution. This promoted the growth of a progressive and active civil society with strong freedom of speech and assembly. In turn, LGBTIQA activism was encouraged to protest and argue lawfully for equal rights.
The Taiwanese government’s passage of the Gender Equity Education Act in 2004 has also assisted in promoting progressive values among Taiwanese society, as the act instructs schools to teach students the importance of gender equity and diversity.
Mainland China, sadly, lacks Taiwan’s strong rule of law and civil freedoms which make LGBTIQA activism possible. Not being allowed to properly inform the public and push for better LGBTIQA rights, these activists suffer under the threat of arrest or harassment.
This is not the only reason why Mainland Chinese attitudes towards the LGBTIQA community differ. Within China, there is a strong emphasis on continuing the families bloodline and reputation — especially considering after-effect pressures of the former one-child policy. Many gay Chinese men feel forced to marry into sham marriages to satisfy their families. In 2012, these cases ignited public debate after a professor committed suicide after finding out her husband was gay.
In 2016, Peking University published a survey, Being LGBTI in China, looking at social attitudes towards the LGBTI community. It which found “[f]amilies have the lowest degree of acceptance for [sexual] minorities.” The survey also found 35% of Chinese born before the 1960s “cannot accept my children as any [sexual] minority”. Looking at these results, it is no surprise many feel compelled to be pushed into these marriages rather than risk being disowned by their family.
But there is hope for change.
Many Chinese millennials are far more open towards same-sex relationships. Social media that they use has helped LGBTIQA activists fight for equal rights online. Many millennials are also willing to fight back, as was felt in a landmark win for the Chinese trans community as a transman won a wrongful dismissal case earlier this year.
Sociologist and prominent LGBTIQA activist Li Yinhe (李银河) argues that because of the lack of religious pressure within the country, the only resistance towards same-sex marriage is current culture. In a New York Times interview, Li further argues “real change will only come once this generation of leaders dies out”. Li’s argument may have merit, as the Peking University survey finds many Chinese under 35 support gay marriage. At the same time, The Economist finds the average age of China’s legislators to be 49.
Overall, there is hope for many LGBTIQA-identifying individuals in China — and the recent decision by the Taiwanese Constitutional Court is advancing its cause. In another interview, Li states that critics of gay marriage have always claimed that it is a ‘western’ culture incompatible with Chinese culture. Taiwan’s ruling however, shows how a similar society has independently decided in favour of gay marriage. She concludes saying, “if Taiwan can, we can.”
Kai Clark is a first year undergraduate student studying a Bachelors of Asian Studies and a Bachelors of Law at the Australian National University.