Post submitted by Saurav Jung Thapa, former Associate Director, HRC Global   

HRC Global was present as the sixth International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Organization of Asia (ILGA Asia) conference kicked off in the vibrant city of Taipei, Taiwan on October 28, with a colorful opening ceremony that featured a dance sequence and speeches.  Titled "Independent Souls and Bodies," ILGA Asia is attended by hundreds of LGBT rights activists from across the world’s largest and fastest growing continent to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing LGBT communities in a diverse array of countries.

The first plenary session, "Marriage equality – what is possible in Asia?", featured activists in China, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. A common thread running throughout the presentations was that Asia has made huge strides in LGBT acceptance. Marriage equality movements face challenges such as deep seated traditional and cultural practices. They are nevertheless gaining strength and have been buoyed by increased public acceptance and understanding.

Marriage in South Korea is defined as a union between one man and one woman. Activists have been pushing to amend this clause to define marriage in gender neutral terms. The route they have chosen has been engaging in litigation along with high profile pride parades and celebrity same-sex marriages. A case is pending in the Constitutional Court to legalize marriage equality.

In Taiwan, activists have engaged in litigation since 1986 to advance LGBT rights and marriage equality. While the ruling KMT party is opposed to marriage equality, prominent members of the main opposition DPP party and its presidential candidate – who are expected to win general elections in January 2016 – support some kind of recognition of same-sex relationships, possibly including marriage. Polling indicates that over half of Taiwanese support marriage equality.

A common thread of opposition to marriage equality in South Korea and Taiwan is the growing influence of Christian fundamentalists who, like in the United States, are opposed to LGBT human rights. In part due to this opposition, South Korean society has a long way to go on achieving marriage equality as 67 percent of society is opposed with only 25 percent in support.

Thailand is a society that is seemingly open and accepting of LGBT people. However, LGBT people have few rights and same-sex relations are made invisible due to a lack of formal recognition. A draft civil partnership registration bill that was recently being discussed by parliament was shelved following a military coup in May 2014 and the imposition of military rule.

The ruling Communist Party of Vietnam which has a monopoly in power does not perceive LGBT activism to be a threat to its power. The Party tolerates the movement as it sees LGBT rights as a social and cultural issue. Same-sex sexual relations have never been criminalized in Vietnam and the country’s new constitution in 2013 provided for an option to eventually legalize marriage equality. The National Assembly considered marriage equality in its 2014 session but put off a decision for five years.

A presenter from China described the “silent change” that has occurred in much of Mainland China and in Hong Kong as courts have allowed transgender people who have completed gender reassignment surgery to enter into different-sex marriages. This progress has come about despite the absence of heated public debate, a landmark verdict or a high profile court case. However, the conditions to receive certification for completing gender reassignment surgery are strict. The Chinese government has no stated official position in favor or opposed to marriage equality.

Other sessions on the opening day of the sixth ILGA Asia conference dealt with issues such as gender recognition laws, how UN resolutions and reports assist or create a maze for activists, mental health issues, and LGBT organizing and challenges in Muslim and Christian societies. The conference will conclude on October 30. 

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