Victoria Hsu (許秀雯) is an unassuming, 46-year-old openly lesbian lawyer with a small practice in Taipei. Possessing an incisive mind with a penchant for detailed legalese, she has dedicated the past decade to fighting for marriage equality in Taiwan.
New York University legal scholar Jerome Cohen took to Twitter on Friday last week declaring: “From a depressing island run by a dictatorship that operated the world’s longest martial regime to today’s vibrant constitutional democracy actively engaging universal human rights values, Taiwan is a testament to the resilience and accomplishment of the Taiwanese people.”
The landmark decision by the Legislative Yuan on Friday last week to enact a same-sex marriage law, albeit a separate and imperfect “marriage registration,” was the first of its kind in Asia. Moments like these do not come often.
Rebuffed by Beijing as a “renegade province” and barred from participating in the UN, Taiwan deserves to bask in this moment of global media praise.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) seized this opportunity to distinguish Taiwan’s role in “writing a new chapter in Asia” from the “growing suppression of human rights and religious freedom in authoritarian China.”
With the rise of authoritarianism around the world, Taiwan offers a liberal, Asian alternative. Undoubtedly to the chagrin of Beijing and its obsession with dictating the global narrative about Taiwan, countless news outlets around the world used the word “nation” or “country” in their coverage of Friday’s milestone.
Narratives matter. It is high time that Taiwan be given a fair hearing in the marketplace of geopolitics; if you care about liberal democracy and freedom, Taiwan matters.
While a legal battle for same-sex marriage rights brews in Japan’s courts and Thailand’s military junta traffics in pink-washed, elusive promises of same-sex partnership rights, no other Asian country has come even close to achieving what Taiwan has.
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), despite initially dragging their feet on marriage equality and allowing an anti-gay referendum in November last year, finally followed through with their campaign promise to legalize same-sex marriage.
Nevertheless, while various social groups like the Marriage Equality Coalition and current and former legislators such as Minister of Culture Cheng Li-chun (鄭麗君) and DPP Legislator Yu Mei-nu (尤美女) mobilized important aspects of the movement, the largely muted heroes in this landmark decision are Hsu; plaintiff and long-time gay rights activist Chi Chia-wei (祁家威); and the indefatigable legal team at the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights (TAPCPR).
In 1990, after decades of martial law, the Wild Lily Student Movement erupted with cries for greater democratization and direct election of Taiwan’s president. Similar social movements quickly bubbled to the surface of Taiwanese society: arguably Asia’s most vibrant civil society was born.
At the age of 18, Hsu started law school in Taipei and joined the student movement, hoping to forge a path for more female student involvement in Taiwan’s largely male-dominated social movements. She began practicing international corporate and administrative law in 2000, and soon discovered pro bono work through the Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association while working at the Winkler Partners law firm in Taipei.
Hsu’s work on the indigenous Truku community’s ongoing land dispute case against Asia Cement Corp was instrumental in convincing her that legal-based reform was possible in Taiwan’s young democratic system.
After years of involvement in women’s rights activism, she later became disillusioned with the latent homophobia and lack of concern for the rights of lesbian women she perceived among many in Taiwan’s women’s movement.
Hsu moved to France in 2005 where she pursued a graduate degree in law.
Upon returning to Taiwan, Hsu and her partner, Chien Chih-chieh (簡至潔), met through the women’s movement and later broke away to set up TAPCPR in 2009.
Apart from Chi’s several isolated and unsuccessful attempts to sue the government for marriage rights, no legal organization dedicated to fighting for same-sex marriage in Taiwan existed prior to TAPCPR.
The legal groundwork would carefully be laid over the next decade.
TAPCPR proposed a draft bill for same-sex marriage that passed a first reading in the Legislative Yuan in October 2013 and then, after facing growing objection from religious groups that organized a large protest against this bill on Nov. 30, 2013, it was later rejected by the legislature. This bill, however, broke Taiwan’s social silence around the issue of same-sex marriage.
In December 2014, the civic participation group Watchout Taiwan broadcast live the Legislative Yuan’s debate on TAPCPR’s marriage equality bill, which attracted at the time the largest number of viewers ever on their site.
Clearly TAPCPR’s legislative actions in 2013 and 2014 were the real beginning of public attention in Taiwan on this issue, not the death of retired National Taiwan University French professor Jacques Picoux in October 2016, as Jennifer Lu claimed in her Washington Post opinion piece on Monday.
TAPCPR’s quest for equality would not easily be undone. In 2014, it initiated multiple administrative lawsuits for marriage equality and finally in August 2015, Hsu agreed to represent Chi in suing the government to demand a constitutional interpretation on the definition of marriage from the Council of Grand Justices.
Fast forward to May 24, 2017, and the long-awaited ruling on TAPCPR’s case was concluded: Prohibiting same sex couples from marriage was deemed unconstitutional in Taiwan.
Yet, unlike the US, marriage equality did not immediately materialize; the ruling gave the legislature two years to work out the legal framework.
Homophobic groups quickly galvanized in an attempt to derail this ruling with an anti-same-sex marriage plebiscite in November last year.
Yet, Taiwan’s lawmakers on Friday last week proved the strength of its democratic system: The rule of law and the protection of minorities from the tyranny of the majority ultimately prevailed.
Although not a straight white man like Ted Olson, the unseemly candidate who boldly defended same-sex marriage in the US, Hsu is the first lawyer to successfully argue its legal merits in an Asian court of law. She is the indisputable legal mind and workhorse who forged the necessary legal framework for the May 2017 ruling by the Council of Grand Justices. Yet, rarely are non-Western — much less lesbian — human rights defenders who change the course of history widely celebrated.
Highlighting Taiwan’s existential precariousness amid a rising authoritarian China, Hong Kong dissident and historian Jeffrey C.H. Ngo (敖卓軒) recently said that: “Its capability and readiness to tackle the greatest challenges of our time, from terrorism to climate change, make it a well-deserved member of the international community.”
On the eve of next month’s anniversary marking 30 years since the Chinese People’s Liberation Army mowed down students in Tiananmen Square, Taiwan’s progressive turn serves as both a cautionary tale to coddling Beijing’s dictators, yet also a testament that Sinophone democracy is not as elusive as the People’s Republic of China wants us to believe.
Hsu and the TAPCPR team have shown us what the rule of law and Taiwan’s democracy can achieve. And that, I believe, is worthy of recognition and greater support from those of us who cherish the values of human rights and egalitarianism.
Adam Dedman is a doctoral student in cultural studies at the University of Melbourne researching Asian LGBT tourism and migration to Taiwan.
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