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Deep divisions in Taiwan over gay marriage reform

Tuesday, December 20, 2016 - 13:54

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Watching her boisterous twin toddlers romp around the living room, Hope Chen worries what would happen to them if she ever fell seriously ill or had an accident.

[TAIPEI] Watching her boisterous twin toddlers romp around the living room, Hope Chen worries what would happen to them if she ever fell seriously ill or had an accident.

In a worst case scenario, it should be her partner of seven years who would look after them, Ms Chen says. But Taiwan does not recognise them both as legal guardians because they are gay and cannot marry.

Ms Chen, 37, gave birth using eggs from her partner Zoro Wen. She had to travel to Thailand for IVF, which is only allowed in Taiwan for legally married couples.

"I'm the mother who gave birth so I'm the only legal parent," Ms Chen, 37, told AFP from the family's Taoyuan apartment in the north of Taiwan, where a floor-to-ceiling bookcase includes the title "Why do you have two moms?".

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"For her, even though they have blood relations, she has no parental rights," says Ms Chen.

Men in an unmarried heterosexual relationship can still gain guardianship of their children through adoption - an option which is also not available to Ms Chen and Ms Wen.

The couple hopes things will soon change as parliament debates amendments to the civil law that would make the island the first place in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage.

But while support for marriage equality has gained momentum since pro-gay rights President Tsai Ing-wen came to power in May, so too have resisting voices, revealing a divided society deeply rooted in traditional family values.

Both sides have staged large-scale rallies in the past month, attracting tens of thousands, ahead of a critical second review of three draft bills for marriage equality on December 26.

The first review in November held by a parliamentary vetting committee - to decide on one version to put forward to the legislature - ended without consensus as thousands of protesters criticised the lack of public participation in drafting the bills.

"There is now such a high expectation for the dream to be realised. You can't bring it crashing down, can you?" Yu Mei-nu, a lawmaker who proposed one of the bills on behalf of Tsai's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), said in an interview referring to opponents of reform.

Taiwan is one of the region's most forward-thinking societies when it comes to gay rights, hosting a gay pride parade which draws tens of thousands every year.

Still, past attempts to legalise same-sex marriage stalled under the then ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party, which dominated politics for decades before being unseated by the DPP in this year's elections.

A recent poll by think tank Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation shows the public is evenly split on the issue.

Mother-of-three Becky Wu, who is the head of a parents' union of Taipei elementary schools, says she is concerned that changes to the civil law will impact what she sees as fundamentals in Taiwanese society.

"Our basic morals and concepts, ancestry, grandmother, grandfather, mother, father - all those will disappear," she said.

"It becomes the rights of the minority over the rights of the majority," said Wu.

"In the past, kids were taught men and women have sex because they love each other and marry," she said.

"Now they're told love is not a prerequisite and they're free to experiment, whether with men or women."

Religious groups remain the staunchest critics of gay marriage, with an alliance of Buddhist, Taoist and Christian organisations issuing a statement last month warning of the destruction to social ethics and traditional family values.

Some opponents suggest a separate new law should be made covering same-sex unions, rather than changing the current law to become gender neutral, as is proposed.

But gay marriage advocates say that would lead to segregation, and would not support the rest of the LGBT community.

The civil law should be made completely gender neutral to cover bisexual and transgender people as well, according to Victoria Hsu, a lawyer who leads campaign group Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights.

"Everyone is a citizen, so why can't we use the civil law to marry?" Ms Hsu said.

For Ms Chen, the lack of legal recognition meant her partner was not allowed into the operation room when she was about to undergo a difficult Caesarean section.

It was also a complicated process to list their children as insurance policy beneficiaries to Ms Wen, a doctor who is the main breadwinner in the family, said Ms Chen.

But to the twins, there is nothing questionable about the difference in their family. They call Ms Chen "ma-mi" and Ms Wen "ah-bi," - a family name they conjured.

"They're very clear that other families are 'ba-ba' and 'ma-ma,' while we are 'ma-mi' and 'ah-bi,'" Ms Chen said.

"They've naturally accepted that's the way our family is."

AFP

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