Chi Chia-wei in front of the Taipei 101 tower.
As Taiwan prepared to vote on same-sex marriage in November, Chi Chia-wei sat in a glass office above a Burger King drinking a cup of water. The office belonged to Portico Media, the LGBTQ company behind the popular queer websites GagaTai and LalaTai, which had arranged for an interview with the famed Taiwanese activist. With voters headed to the polls in just two days’ time, Chi was in high demand.
Dressed in an oversized blue hooded sweatshirt and a plain khaki hat, Chi exuded an astonishing air of quietude on the eve of history. But as the 60-year-old said, he had been here many times before. He was jailed for five months in 1986 on a fabricated charge of robbery after campaigning the Taiwanese government—then ruled by martial law—to marry his partner. Even after a wave of democratic reforms paved the way for Taiwan’s first direct presidential election in 1996, Chi filed a marriage equality petition with the Council of Grand Justices in 2001 and was denied.
After fighting for equality for over 30 years, Chi has a favorite maxim that keeps him going through the fight. “I wake up every day and I tell myself, Today I’m not going to have success, but I’ll have it tomorrow,’ so that every day I have hope,” he tells NewNowNext.
However, the long-promised tomorrow would be delayed, at least for six more months. On November 20, 72% of Taiwanese voters elected to restrict the definition of marriage in its civil code to “one man and one woman,” making the self-governing island the first municipality in Asia both to vote on same-sex marriage and to vote against it. But as the result was nonbinding, the Legislative Yuan was faced with a choice: heed the electorate or go its own way.
Taiwanese lawmakers answered by passing a same-sex marriage bill on May 17, but their hands were effectively tied. A 2017 decision from the Constitutional Court gave the Legislative Yuan two years to enact same-sex marriage legislation, in a ruling that claiming the denial of equal marriage rights to same-sex couples is unconstitutional. The deadline from the bench was set to expire in just seven days.
Couples began to marry on May 24, exactly two years after the historic court verdict. The first of these couples, Shane Lin and Yuan Shan-Ming, wore matching pink suits as they signed their marriage certificate in the capital of Taipei. Chi presided over the ceremony, smiling in a rainbow headband. He signed the couple’s marriage certificates with a pen gifted to him by President Tsai Ing-wen, the same pen she used to sign the marriage bill into law. The present was accompanied by a note which read: “May love unite everyone on this land.”
That Chi would be at the center of these ceremonies was a foregone conclusion: He is often said to be the first Taiwanese person to publicly come out as gay. It was big enough news in 1986 that Chi held a press conference to discuss his sexual orientation. After he was imprisoned just months later for lobbying Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan for marriage equality, he never gave up his fight. He was the lead plaintiff in the same-sex marriage case before the Constitutional Court.
A champion athlete and former soldier, Chi has been out since he was a teenager. When he met new people, he would tell them, “I like you and I want to be your friend, but you have to know one thing about me—I’m gay. Are you okay with that?” Most of the time they would respond: “Of course, what’s the big deal?”
“In Korea, people would get beaten with bats,” Chi recalls. “In the United States, you had Harvey Milk who was assassinated, but here people just didn’t care.”
Despite the government persecuting and imprisoning Chi for advocating for LGBTQ rights, he claimed that his sexuality was rarely an issue for those around him. He served a two-year stint in Taiwan’s armed forces—as military service is mandatory in Taiwan—without once being harassed or bullied. Chi recalled an incident years after in which an anonymous caller telephoned his work to inform his manager that he’s gay, hoping to get him fired. Upon receiving the call, his manager shouted into the phone, “You’re the last one in the world to know!” and slammed down the receiver.
“Everyone the office asked, ‘What was that? Who was that?’” Chi remembers. “My manager said that someone called to say that I was gay. Everyone laughed because they already knew.”
But even as he characterized the Taiwanese people as historically tolerant—and maybe a little bit indifferent—toward LGBTQ people, Chi said he has witnessed a radical transformation in the 33 years he’s been fighting for same-sex marriage. In the 1980s, he was the only visibly LGBTQ person on the island; no one else would talk about it. By the ’90s, he said there were “hundreds” of organizations working for equal rights, including associations for LGBTQ doctors and LGBTQ teachers. A 2018 concert held in favor of marriage equality brought hundreds of thousands to Taipei, a crowd that would have been unthinkable at the time of his coming out.
“Slowly over time, there’s been this gradual acceptance,” he says. “Today compared to yesterday, you don’t see any big difference. Today compared to five years ago, compared to 10 years ago, that’s where you start to see the cultural change taking place.”
Public opinion has largely followed this shift in visibility. In contrast to last November’s overwhelming rejection of marriage equality, a 2013 poll from the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights showed that 53% of Taiwanese citizens support same-sex marriage rights for all. The largest share of opposition came from the island’s sizable Chinese population, a vocal minority which played a major part in the failure of marriage equality at the ballot box.
The influence of powerful conservative groups like the Alliance for the Happiness of the Next Generation was evident in the marriage bill passed by the Legislative Yuan last month. The legislation didn’t use the word “marriage” to describe partnerships between same-sex couples, instead describing them as “exclusive permanent unions.” In addition, the compromise bill denied adoption rights to same-sex families, unless the child is biologically related to one member of the couple. Foreigners who marry a Taiwanese citizen will not be granted citizenship if the individual is not from a country that recognizes same-sex unions.
According to Chi, the legislation also does not address many of the other issues LGBTQ people face on the island. Although the Taiwanese government discussed a proposal to allow transgender people to apply for a legal gender change without first undergoing surgery, it has yet to follow through on that pledge. Meanwhile, there are no protections in housing for LGBTQ people and men who have sex with men (MSM) remain banned from donating blood.
As LGBTQ activists continue pushing for full equality under the law, Chi claimed that right-wing lobbyists—which are funded by U.S.-based hate groups like the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) and Mass Resistance—would fight them every step of the way. Sun Chi-Cheng, chairman of the marriage equality opposition group Stability of Power Alliance, claimed that the marriage of 500 same-sex couples on May 24 represented the “the darkest day in Taiwan’s judiciary history.” Conservatives have already vowed to unseat President Tsai—who campaigned on the passage of marriage equality—in the next elections.
“The anti-gay marriage groups aren’t going to give up and aren’t going to admit any sort of loss,” Chi claims. “They’ll keep thinking of other ways to try to stop LGBTQ rights.”
Chi, however, claimed that LGBTQ rights would prevail. Often responding to questions with seemingly unrelated parables, he described an encounter in which a gangster confronted him at a night market for being gay. In gangster culture, Chi explained, it’s commonplace for wives and girlfriends to walk behind their male partners. He described it as “very misogynistic” and “disrespectful to women.” Instead of backing down from the challenge, Chi decided to use the gangster’s misogyny against him.
“Aren’t women supposed to be inferior to you?” Chi asked. “I have sex with men, and men are the superior one. So really, who’s the more impressive one here?”
Suddenly the gangster turned pale and said, “I never thought of it that way.”
“I used their bad logic to fight their ignorance,” Chi claims. “You have to learn to use their logic, their arguments, and their way of thinking to engage with them on issues like this. You can’t just come in and say, ‘We deserve equality because X, Y, and Z.’ You have to engage with their way of doing things.”
Tomorrow will come, he predicts. Chi just hopes this time it doesn’t take another 30 years to get there.