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Waving the Rainbow Flag in Taiwan

SNA (Taipei) — For a time, Chi Chia-wei says many people thought he was the only gay person in Taiwan. He was the first Taiwanese to come out publicly on television, and for many the only gay person they could see.

“Their parents, brothers, and sisters could be gay or lesbian, but no one would say anything,” he says in Waving the Rainbow Flag, a documentary about his activism that premieres this weekend. “They would hide. They would live their lives behind a mask.”

His battle for marriage equality began in 1986, and culminated in Taiwan last year becoming the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. But his fight goes on because the law doesn’t permit Taiwanese to marry foreigners who are from countries that prohibit gay marriage. “Only Taiwan has this rule that both countries have to allow same-sex marriage,” said Chi. “It’s like we are the whole world’s shared colony. It’s a big joke.”

Although Taiwan was late in legalizing same-sex marriage compared to many Western countries, Chi believes he helped it clock up some global firsts. He first tried to apply for a marriage license in 1986, when Taiwan was still under martial law. When he was refused, the then 28-year-old petitioned Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan. They issued a harshly worded statement accusing homosexuals of being “perverted minorities that seek to disrupt social morals for their own sexual desires.”

Despite this chilling response, Taiwan’s parliament had become the first in the world to debate the issue of whether or not to legalize same-sex marriage. This was fifteen years before Holland became the first country to actually do so in 2001.

“Europe had gay rights campaigns, but they didn’t touch on marriage,” said Chi, now 62. “Their demands were centered on human dignity in daily life: to be treated equally in relation to work, accommodation, study. They didn’t broach the issue of marriage, because most western countries were Christian and Catholic. So in Taiwan in 1986, I was the first to get a national parliament to discuss this.”

Waving the Rainbow Flag premieres at the Taiwan International Queer Film Festival in Taichung and Taipei on Saturday and Sunday. The title references Chi’s signature move: during marches, he waves a rainbow flag from the highest point he can reach: from the tops of buildings, bridges, or poles.

“When a person raises his head to look up, in his subconscious mind is respect, admiration, and esteem,” he explains in the film. “It’s all positive … so during parades I look for high grounds to let all the people in cars or in the streets see the rainbow up top. Only then will they take the LGBT community seriously.”

Of the almost 200 countries in the world, 29 allow same-sex marriage. Taiwan became the 28th last year, and since then only Costa Rica has joined the list.

The activist tells the Shingetsu News Agency that he believes Thailand and Vietnam will be the next Asian countries to legalize same-sex marriage.

In July, Thailand’s military-backed government approved a draft bill that recognizes same-sex partnerships, although not marriage. It would give same-sex couples the rights to adopt children, inherit from their partner and jointly manage property for the first time.

Chi sees Vietnam becoming Asia’s third nation, and the world’s first communist country to have marriage equality–an accolade that will come with positive global publicity, which he believes will drive Vietnam’s government.

Vietnam has taken small steps toward legalizing same-sex marriage. Since 2015, it has allowed same-sex weddings, but doesn’t recognize such couples. “Vietnam’s culture is influenced by” its former French colonial power, Chi said. “France has already passed (same-sex marriage), so Vietnam thinks this is okay. They also aren’t under the influence of Christianity, and Vietnamese culture is open and tolerant.”

In the 1980s, Chi decided to publicly advocate for gay rights, as he felt that only when gay people became visible could they bring about change. “After I held a press conference, everyone thought that in this world and in Taiwan there was one single gay person and his name was Chi Chia-wei, because they couldn’t see any other gay person,” he says in the documentary.

He had worked as an after-school maths and physics teacher and a building manager, but soon became a full-time activist, supported by his partner. He campaigned for gay rights and challenged the HIV/AIDS taboo. He took blood samples from people who wanted to remain anonymous to hospitals for HIV testing. Dressed in a rainbow flag, rainbow bandana, and sometimes a rainbow tie, he collected money on the streets and chanted “I am natural” at marches.

He said Taiwan’s then-authoritarian government persecuted him, and he was accused of robbery and jailed for five months in 1986. His cell was opposite that of Chen Shui-bian, a political dissident who later became president of a democratic Taiwan.

Chi launched various court challenges over the years for the right of gay couples to marry. He says he was also the first in the world to ask a constitutional court to give a ruling on same-sex marriage–in 2000. “The Taiwan court didn’t dare give a judgment, because at the time same-sex marriage wasn’t legal anywhere in the world,” Chi said.

Finally, one of his lawsuits ended with a ruling in 2017 that declared the ban on same-sex marriages as unconstitutional. The court gave the government a two-year deadline to change the law.

The government dragged its feet, and held an advisory referendum in 2018 which showed that more people were against same-sex marriage than in favor. Chi blames the result on adverts pushing “fake information” financed by religious groups and their supporters.

To get around the referendum result, the government chose not to change the existing legal definition of marriage as between a man and a woman, and instead brought out a new law recognizing same-sex marriage in May last year. Since then, more than 4,000 single-sex couples have married in Taiwan.

Chi is still campaigning and petitioning a court to give all same-sex couples the right to marry in Taiwan. Currently, the law allows gay marriage between Taiwanese, and, as noted, between a Taiwanese and foreigner only if it is also legal in the foreigner’s country. Activists say this affects hundreds of couples, and even more so in the Covid-19 era, with border closures meaning some foreign partners are stuck outside Taiwan.

Despite his thirty-year battle for the right to marry, Chi says he personally doesn’t need marriage and plans to stay legally single. He compares himself to a doctor faced with a patient with a rare disease. “The doctor himself doesn’t have this rare illness, and he has to find a way to cure it,” said Chi. “I am like that doctor, I will try very hard and strive to solve the problem. I myself wouldn’t like to be married, but other people have a need” so that they can, for example, inherit or so they can give their agreement for their partner to be treated in a medical emergency.

“There are lots of things that if you don’t have marriage, this guarantee system, you don’t have these rights,” he said.

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