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Taiwan’s LGBTQ Progress Under Lai Ching-te: From Rhetoric to Action

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Taiwan’s LGBTQ Progress Under Lai Ching-te: From Rhetoric to Action

With the DPP’s legacy on marriage equality as a springboard, President Lai should advance LGBTQ rights in Taiwan through a two-pronged strategy.

Taiwan’s LGBTQ Progress Under Lai Ching-te: From Rhetoric to Action

Then-Vice President Lai Ching-te (center) raises a fist while marching in the 2023 Taiwan Pride parade in Taipei, Taiwan, Oct. 28, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/ 賴清德

During her eight years in office, Taiwan’s outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen endorsed marriage equality and aspired to build a Taiwan where individuals can freely express themselves and marry their loved ones, irrespective of their gender identity or sexual orientation. The legalization of same-sex marriage in 2019 highlighted her administration’s support for gender equality and LGBTQ activism, helping to bolster Taiwan’s standing as a staunch advocate of LGBTQ rights.

Many Taiwanese, particularly the younger generation, see being pro-LGBTQ as a new identity marker of the democratic island. Distinctive and progressive values help Taiwan distinguish itself from the Chinese government, which has intensified crackdowns on queer people.

In October 2023, then-Vice President Lai Ching-te of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) sported a rainbow-patterned scarf and participated in Taipei’s annual pride parade – East Asia’s largest gay pride event. In doing so, Lai became the most prominent Taiwanese official to attend the parade since its launch in 2003.

At the event, Lai said, “Equal marriage is not the end – it’s the starting point for diversity,” and vowed to “stand steadfast on this path,” sending an unequivocal message to Taiwan’s LGBTQ community about the government’s acceptance.

Lai, who assumed the presidency on May 20, should build upon Tsai’s legacy to realize his promise of enhancing social diversity and gender equality in Taiwan. Lai should embrace a two-pronged strategy: forging a LGBTQ-friendly society at home and boosting Taiwan’s profile abroad through the utilization of “queer diplomacy.”

Promoting Gender Equality at Home

There has been a surge of support for LGBTQ rights in Taiwan. The most recent survey conducted by the Executive Yuan’s Department of Gender Equality found that 69.1 percent of respondents endorsed same-sex marriage. That reflects a marked increase from just 37.4 percent support in 2018, the year prior to Taiwan’s legalization of same-sex unions. This shift demonstrates the importance of government policies in changing public perceptions of the LGBTQ community and accelerating the visibility of LGBTQ individuals in Taiwanese society.

The historic win of Huang Jie, Taiwan’s first openly gay legislator, in the 2024 election, will help invigorate the domestic LGBTQ rights movement. LGBTQ rights will likely be better protected in legislation and regulations when more openly gay persons are visible in political arenas.

Although the LGBTQ movement made great strides during Tsai’s two terms in power, Taiwan’s gay community faces obstacles ranging from hurdles in accessing assisted reproduction and surrogacy services, to restrictions on same-sex marriages between Taiwanese and Chinese citizens. Additionally, LGBTQ members of Indigenous communities, who endure double prejudice because of their sexual orientation and their Indigenous status, are overlooked and marginalized in mainstream debates about LGBTQ inclusion.

Likewise, despite some progress in transgender rights, transgender people continue to encounter discrimination and misapprehension in daily life, at work, and in medical settings. If a transgender person wishes to change their legal gender on official documents, they are required by law to submit proof of undergoing gender-affirming surgery. The financial burden of this medical procedure for transgender individuals is substantial. Since this hurdle prevents about 90 percent of Taiwanese transgender persons from obtaining national identification cards that match their gender identity, the elimination of the aforementioned surgical requirement is a requisite. Abolishing the need for costly and time-consuming processes will help transgender people be free from prejudice, enjoy full access to healthcare rights, and perhaps most importantly, live and express their true selves.

However, Lai’s goals for a more inclusive and equitable Taiwan would have a tough time getting off the ground as the ruling DPP lost its majority in the Legislative Yuan in the 2024 polls. Many saw the installation of Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang (KMT) as the president (speaker) of the Legislative Yuan, as a major setback for the LGBTQ rights movement. Due to his controversial stance on same-sex marriage, Han would likely use his power to halt or impede the passage of legislation that support the rights of the LGBTQ community. Some legislators of the KMT, the DPP’s main opposition party, even threatened to repeal the same-sex marriage law if their party were to win a majority in the Legislative Yuan.

The fragmented and divided parliament poses a burden on Lai’s shoulders in many policy areas, including the pursuit of equal rights for Taiwan’s LGBTQ community.

But Lai has initiatives in mind to support LGBTQ rights. Through the “National Project of Hope” policy plan announced in his inaugural address, Lai pledged to promote gender equality, build a more equitable society in which everyone can “comfortably express their true identity,” and establish gender education programs that support LGBTQ families’ equality and liberty. Lai’s grand vision of a Taiwan built on equality, justice, and inclusivity deserves credit, but ultimately, actions speak louder than words.

Lai would do well to provide space for social activists and civil society leaders, who have been at the forefront of the LGBTQ movement, to further LGBTQ rights. He should encourage more meaningful coverage of activist groups’ endeavors for upholding LGBTQ rights and Taiwanese influential LGBTQ individuals on social media and local news. Their candor and unique personalities provide real-life experiences and richer narratives on the intertwined relations between Taiwan’s status as a vibrant democracy and society’s acceptance of gender and sexual rights.

But in the long run, the success of Lai’s efforts to promote LGBTQ rights will likely hinge on his adeptness to harmonize interests and concerns with opposition parties and work together toward social and political reform.

Promote Taiwan’s “Queer Diplomacy”

Taiwan holds a peculiar status in international politics: It meets all the requirements for statehood but has failed to secure robust diplomatic recognition due to mounting pressure from the behemoth next door, China, which claims full sovereignty over the island. Tsai’s “steadfast diplomacy” has helped elevate Taiwan’s international profile, win like-minded democracies’ support and sympathy, and safeguard Taiwan’s sovereignty against Beijing’s intensive pressure.

By pledging to steer the self-governed island through “values-based diplomacy,” Lai is expected to frame Taiwan’s democratic feats as both a model and inspiration for countries grappling with democratic regression. In his inaugural address, Lai touted democracy as one of the “four pillars plan for peace,” vowing that Taiwan would foster collaboration with other democracies “to form a democratic community, and share our experiences across a range of fields.” Despite the absence of formal diplomatic relations, Taiwan has never been more affiliated with Western democracies than it is now.

Here is where tongzhi (LGBTQ) diplomacy, also known as “queer diplomacy,” slots in nicely.

Given Taiwan’s progressive policies on human rights – it was the first in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage – Lai should utilize LGBTQ rights diplomacy to leverage Taiwan’s international standing as a thriving democracy where all citizens enjoy equal rights. The Western democratic world, particularly the European Union, now views human rights as the most pressing issue. Hence, Lai should team up with those nations to form a democratic cohort that commits to supporting LGBTQ rights.

The Program for EU-Taiwan Gender Equality Cooperation and Training Framework (EU-Taiwan GECTF), launched in 2019 to exchange experiences in LGBTQ rights credentials, is one avenue that Lai may use to deepen collaboration with European democracies. This would allow Taiwan to expand its global footprint while also strengthening ties with like-minded partners.

To counter Beijing’s persistent attempts to squeeze Taipei’s maneuvering space, democratic Taiwan should engage in niche diplomacy by promoting its LGBTQ rights achievements. Promoting Taiwan’s image as an unwavering advocate for human rights and equality could be a strategic move, considering the striking contrast between China’s conservative policies and Taiwan’s thriving LGBTQ community. In the quest for a unique identity, Taiwan might utilize “queer diplomacy” to set itself apart from China, particularly when Taiwan has garnered global attention for its efforts to defend LGBTQ rights.

Tsai Ing-wen made history in her last days in office when she invited Nymphia Wind, a Taiwanese-American drag queen, to perform the first-ever drag show at the Presidential Office, showcasing her steadfast support for the LGBTQ community – and her hope that Lai, her successor, would follow in her footsteps to advance gender equality in Taiwan. Lai’s remarks at the 2023 pride march should be taken as serious promises toward backing LGBTQ rights in Taiwan, much like Tsai’s 2016 presidential campaign pledge to support marriage equality, which she eventually delivered on.

To uphold Tsai’s legacy, Lai should elevate LGBTQ rights domestically while utilizing the island democracy’s progressive modernity to enhance collaboration with like-minded democracies.