One in 10. That's the number often cited as the percentage of gays and lesbians in society; in any group of people -- employees of a company, passengers on a bus or even politicians elected to office -- one-tenth are likely to be homosexual. While several surveys conducted in the last decade have estimated the figure to be lower, it has nonetheless served as a rallying point for activists who demand to know why the law can deny such a significant percentage of society the rights and benefits accorded by marriage. Increasingly, their point is being heard.
Some 14 years ago, Denmark became the first country to create a parallel marital status for same-sex couples. Two years ago that separate status was removed to allow homosexuals to lawfully wed. Belgium also has a similar marriage law and, most recently, Canada. Last month, Ontario enacted a law that allows for gays and lesbians to wed and on Tuesday of this past week, British Columbia followed suit, with two men tying the knot on the courthouse steps immediately afterward. Even in the comparatively puritanical US, Vermont provided a legal status for gay unions.
The changes in the Canadian laws might have a particularly far-reaching impact and could well challenge the marriage and immigration laws of other countries. Whereas Denmark has a lengthy residency requirement and Belgium will only marry foreigners from countries with similar laws, a gay couple from, say, Taiwan can now get married while vacationing in Vancouver.
Of course the next question is if the hypothetical honeymooners will still be married when they return home to Taiwan. The unsurprising answer is that the Taiwanese government does not recognize same-sex marriages, either of its own citizens or of foreign nationals in the country, despite the efforts of local rights groups.
Among the most prominent of these groups is the Gender/Sexuality Rights Association Taiwan (GSRAT, 台灣性別人權協會) and its secretary general, Wang Ping (王蘋). Wang was last year made an Honorary Taipei Citizen for her activism on sexuality and gender issues and was an attendee to President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) Human Rights Tea Party. GSRAT has been lobbying the government, if not for recognition of same-sex marriages, then for the same kind of legal rights Denmark initially accorded same-sex unions, including inheritance rights, the ability to jointly buy property and insurance policies, the ability to adopt, etc. Wang is buoyed by the strides GSRAT has made since its founding in 1999 and is cautiously optimistic about what progress can be made in the future. "The government is far away from recognizing same-sex marriages," she said.
Changing the law is one thing, changing people's minds is another. The greatest obstacle Wang faces in her battle is the members of a reticent gay and lesbian community who would like equal rights under the law, but wish to keep their secret from friends and family.
"One of our main objectives is to provide a community for gays and lesbians in Taiwan," she said. "You don't see gay couples walking down the street. If you do, it's not something you talk about. Getting people to talk about it is necessary before getting the support of the government." It's hard to gain recognition without first revealing your identity.
That few of the people interviewed for this article were willing to have their full name printed is an indicator of the muzzle Confucian society places on homosexuality. Webster Chen (陳文彥) was one exception. He's the owner of The Source, a restaurant and bar popular among Taiwan's gay community, and was a candidate for the legislature in 2000, running on a gay-rights platform.