2019 / September
Esther Tseng /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Brandon Yen
Taiwan made history in May 2019 when it became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. Governments and media around the world praised Taiwan for its pioneering role in defending human rights, freedom and democracy.
During our interview, the gray-haired Dayway Chief (Chi Chia-wei) is wearing a rainbow necktie, rainbow wristbands and a rainbow watch, and a V-shaped rainbow badge is pinned to each of the collar points on his shirt. There is no mistaking the message he wants to convey: “I support LGBT rights.”
Battling against prejudices
The first comment Dayway Chief makes is startling: “Not only is Taiwan the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage, but it was also the first country in the world to debate marriage equality in its parliament.”
Chief explains that way back in 1986 he went to the notary public office of the Taipei District Court to register his marriage with a man. When he was rejected, he lodged a petition with the Legislative Yuan. The Judiciary and Organic Laws and Statutes Committee of the legislature asked Lu Yu-wen (deputy secretary-general of the Judicial Yuan) to issue an explanation of the court’s decision. This led to an official rejection, but the incident nevertheless marked the beginning of Taiwan’s parliamentary debates about marriage equality.
Taiwan was still under martial law, and conservatism reigned in society. This was the Judicial Yuan’s reply: “Homosexuality as a sexual minority is a form of deviation. Marriage is different from mere sexual gratification... this departs from social norms and morals.” In this way, they rejected Dayway Chief’s petition. Because of his petition, Chief was investigated by the Taiwan Garrison Command and was imprisoned for 162 days.
During the three years from 1992, Chief approached every central government agency in Taiwan except for the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission, from the Government Information Office to the Ministry of Finance. Through complaints, petitions, appeals and administrative litigation, he sought to draw the government’s attention to same-sex rights. He was invited by the Teacher Chang Foundation and Taiwan Lifeline International to give talks, and he volunteered to serve on an LGBT switchboard, answering telephone queries from innumerable gay and lesbian individuals and from parents of gay children. He even received queries from as far away as Hong Kong.
Keeping AIDS at bay
Back in March 1986, Dayway Chief held a press conference at a McDonald’s restaurant. He came out of the closet and vowed to promote AIDS prevention and to fight for same-sex marriage. He was featured in news stories by foreign agencies such as the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters. This press conference, with its international profile, is regarded as the first crucial moment for the LGBT rights movement in Taiwan.
In the 1980s, AIDS—which today is no longer a death sentence—was a newly discovered sexually transmitted disease, and there was no treatment for it. Homosexuality was stigmatized and often equated with AIDS.
With an eye to AIDS prevention, Dayway Chief volunteered to work as a go-between for the gay community and the disease prevention team at the Department of Health. Homosexuality was still a taboo at that time, but he was not deterred by hostility and criticism. He dressed up as a flower fairy or as a mummy; tall and thin, he even stripped down to his briefs, with condoms hung all over himself, to promote safe sex and to raise funds at night markets. Many people were so scandalized that they stayed well away from him.
In collaboration with the Nanchang Medical Laboratory, he helped to arrange anonymous HIV testing, assist sex workers in getting free blood tests, and distribute free condoms, to fend off the threat of AIDS. He went deep into debt as a result.
Petitioning for a constitutional interpretation
In 2000, Dayway Chief submitted his first petition for a constitutional interpretation to the Justices of the Constitutional Court. He did not believe in defeat or frustration. From 1986 to 2019, LGBT organizations and elected representatives, including the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights, legislator Hsiao Bi-khi and lawyer Yu Mei-nu, submitted 26 marriage equality bills to the government, 13 of which were initiated by Chief. Far from bringing him down, every disappointment only served to reinforce his determination.
On August 20, 2015 (Qixi Festival), Dayway Chief’s latest application to register his marriage was rejected. Once again, he filed a petition for a constitutional interpretation. He smiles as he adds that the marriage would not have been regarded as bigamous, as his earlier application in 1986 had been rejected.
On February 20, 2017, the Judicial Yuan announced that it would consider the petition. On May 24 of that year the Justices of the Constitutional Court issued Judicial Yuan Interpretation No. 748, declaring that the Family Law section of the Civil Code had failed to protect same-sex rights, and that this contravened both Article 22 of the Constitution, which protects the people’s freedom to marry, and Article 7, which protects the people’s right to equal treatment.
The results of referendums held on November 24, 2018 came as a blow to supporters of same-sex marriage, because as many as 72% of voters thought that marriage, as defined in the Civil Code, should only mean the union of one man and one woman. Sixty-one percent were in favor of making a special law to legalize same-sex marriage, rather than amending the Civil Code. But in order to comply with the constitutional interpretation, the Legislative Yuan passed the Enforcement Act of Judicial Yuan Interpretation No. 748 on May 17, 2019, amid protests and clamor. Article 4 of this act provides that “same-sex couples may register their marriages at household registration offices.” When the act was passed, the supporters of same-sex marriage who had gathered outside the Legislative Yuan gave a big round of applause, and many of the couples hugged each other in tears. Taiwan thus became the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage.
Marriage equality on the global stage
To celebrate the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 2018, the European Union and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights announced a series of films on human rights defenders. As a tribute to his promotion of gender rights, Dayway Chief was among the 17 human rights defenders chosen from across the world.
In 2017, Chief also won the “Social Reform” category of the Ninth Taiwan Presidential Cultural Awards. He donated his award—worth NT$1 million—to those athletes who could not afford to attend the Gay Games in Paris.
Kevin Yang, president of the Taiwan Gay Sports and Taiwan Gay Development Movement Association, says that China exerted pressure to ban the Taiwanese team from entering the site with national flags. But thanks to the support of the organizers, the team were not only allowed to display Taiwanese flags, but the athletes from France, the US and the Philippines also expressed solidarity by waving small Taiwanese flags upon their entrance. The Taiwanese team won ten gold, five silver and three bronze medals and were invited to see France’s minister for Europe and foreign affairs.
Dayway Chief, honorary team leader at the Gay Games in Paris, has always stood alone on the high ground, waving the rainbow flag, at the forefront of LGBT rights.
Chief says that people who are truly capable are not afraid of the trials and challenges of time. Fighting on his own all along, he vows to carry on battling for the rights of those whose same-sex spouses are foreign nationals, for the adoption rights of same-sex couples, and much more. Alluding to one of Sun Yat-sen’s maxims, he says: “The equal rights movement has not yet succeeded; LGBT people still have to work hard.”