Amid deep divisions, Taiwan‘s parliament has begun debating measures to legalise same-sex marriage before a landmark vote that could make the self-ruled island the first in Asia to adopt such legislation.
Hundreds of gay rights supporters on Friday gathered despite heavy rain near the parliament building in the capital, Taipei, as legislators were set to vote on a series of bills that could offer same-sex couples similar legal protections for marriage as heterosexuals.
Taiwan’s top court has ruled that not allowing same-sex couples to marry violates the constitution. Judges gave the government until May 24 this year to make the changes or see marriage equality enacted automatically. But they gave no guidance on how to do that.
With that deadline fast approaching, three bills have been tabled for the vote on Friday, which also happens to be the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.
The most progressive is the government’s bill, the only one to use the word “marriage” and to offer limited adoption rights.
It is supported – begrudgingly – by gay rights groups who see it as the closest thing to full equality with heterosexual couples, despite its limitations.
Opponents have tabled two other versions which avoid the word marriage, offering something closer to same-sex unions with no adoption rights. Gay rights groups have described the two proposals as unfair.
Conservative and religious groups have been buoyed by a series of referendum wins in November, in which voters comprehensively rejected defining marriage as anything other than a union between a man and a woman.
In a Facebook post, President Tsai Ing-wen said she recognised the issue had divided “families, generations and even inside religious groups”.
But she said the government’s bill was the only one that respects both the court judgement and the referendum.
“Today, we have a chance to make history and show the world that progressive values can take root in an East Asian society,” she added in a Twitter post.
Tsai’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) holds the majority in parliament, occupying 68 out of 113 seats.
But there is no guarantee her own legislators will vote for the more progressive bill, especially as many fear being punished by conservative voters at the ballot box in January.
One of the rival bills was proposed by a DPP politician. And a last-minute amended version of the government’s bill has been tabled by fellow legislators in the party, dropping the phrase “same-sex marriage”.
However, it still lets same-sex couples join an “exclusive permanent union” and apply for a “marriage registration” with government agencies.
Taiwan’s LGBT community has been left in limbo the last two years, with many couples planning weddings before the May 24 deadline but unsure of what marriage equality would look like.
“The world is watching to see if Taiwan’s parliament will write a new page in gender equality or deal another blow to Taiwan’s hard-fought democracy, human rights and the rule of law,” said Jennifer Lu, a spokeswoman for Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan.
“For the gay communities what matters the most is whether we can legally get married on May 24 and be listed as the spouse in ID cards, to be treated and respected as the ‘spouse’ in the whole legal system … and whether same-sex families can obtain legal parental rights for their children.”
Cindy Su was one of the thousands of gay marriage supporters gathered outside parliament on Friday in the run-up to the debate.
“We are just a group of people who want to live well on this land and who love each other,” she told the crowd.
But opponents warn that “forcefully” passing a gay marriage law will intensify tensions.
“The cabinet’s bill ignores the referendum results and that is unacceptable,” said Lai Shyh-bao of the opposition Kuomintang party, who proposed one of the bills backed by conservatives.
Al Jazeera and news agencies