For those watching from across the Taiwan strait in China, where gay couples do not have that right, the moment was heartening but also profoundly sad. Matthew, 27, an LGBT activist in Chengdu, spent the day following the proceedings online on his own. A few days later he flew to Taiwan to watch two male friends register their marriage after 14 years together.
While he was happy for his friends, the moment only highlighted how far away his own country was from doing the same. “Definitely there is a sense of disappointment,” he said. “If we want to make what happened in Taiwan happen in China in the same way, it’s impossible.”
The legalisation of same-sex marriage just 100 miles from the mainland has heightened the contrast between China and Taiwan, where civil society groups and democratically elected officials pushed through the initiative. Beijing insists Taiwan, where a rival government was established in 1949 and has since functioned entirely separately from China, is still part of the mainland.
Now, making that claim has become more awkward. “For some people, they say: ‘Our government says Taiwan belongs to China. So if Taiwan can allow same-sex marriage, why can’t it happen here?’” said Ah Qiang, a founder of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays of China (PFLAG).
In China, public acceptance of homosexuality and access to related information and services have improved dramatically over the last decade, but authorities have not kept pace, and in some cases have moved in the opposite direction. Restrictions on LGBT content have increased, with authorities pledging to filter out “unhealthy” scenes from the film Bohemian Rhapsody.
LGBT netizens use phrases such as NTXL, the pinyin transliteration for the Chinese term for nü (female) or nan (male) tongxinglian (gay), to get around blocked terms. Those who violate the content rules are punished. Last year, an author of gay erotica was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Conversion therapy is still common. Homosexuality was still listed as a mental disorder until 2001 and textbooks often still describe it as an illness that needs curing. Transgender is still classified as a disorder. A 2016 survey from the Beijing LGBT Center found only 5% of those who identified as LGBT had come out to everyone in their lives.
“The reason people don’t come out is because they don’t feel safe enough,” said Xin Ying, the director of the Beijing LGBT Center, who said the biggest obstacle for many was their own families.
‘We feel like our existence is being erased’
In larger Chinese cities, life can be easier for those who have come out. Tommie Xiao, 37, and Maxine Huang, 33, a lesbian couple living in Beijing, hold hands in a cafe, feeding each other bites of food. They are comfortable being affectionate in public. Few people in the restaurant seem to notice them.
The couple, who met more than a decade ago on a gaming forum, are open about their relationship with their families, co-workers and bosses. Still, if given the opportunity to marry and live in Taiwan, they would.
Because Xiao is from Beijing and Huang is from Hsinchu in Taiwan they cannot take advantage of the new law in Taiwan, which only allows Taiwanese couples, or Taiwan citizens and foreigners from countries where same-sex marriage is recognised, to marry.
Though they live a comfortable life in Beijing, they feel the intrusion of the law on their lives, mainly the censorship of LGBT-related content. Huang ran a shop selling trinkets with rainbows on them but was forced to stop in spring. They have noticed that public Wechat accounts that posted LGBT news have been closed down.
“It’s getting worse every year and we feel like we are not allowed to talk, like our existence is being erased completely,” Huang said. “Policy-wise, China is going backwards.”
Dilletta and Wanwan, a lesbian couple living in Hangzhou, are in a similar situation. Dilletta is from Hangzhou while Wanwan is from Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan. They feel comfortable in their circle of friends, family, and workplaces, but avoid holding hands at places such as the gym.
“We’re not hiding it from anyone. We just don’t want any trouble,” said Dilletta, who asked not to give her last name. Still, she feels the situation is improving.
People of her generation are more willing to come out or accept those who have and she believes it will get even better as those younger than her grow up. A few years ago, Dilletta’s little brother, 12 at the time, asked if she was gay. Dilletta, who had to search hard for information online about being gay when she was a teenager, was surprised.
“It’s improving. Our generation is more willing to make our voices heard, to talk to friends. We don’t mind telling people about our sexuality,” she said. Still, she added: “It will take at least 15 years, when we are older, and things might change.”
Down to up
Advocates say there are reasons to be optimistic in the long run. In addition to growing acceptance in society, LGBT organisations are some of the few independent civil society organisations that are allowed to operate in an increasingly restrictive environment for activism.
“Maybe LGBT rights in China is down to up, not up to down. If we can change society and general opinion then maybe the government will do something,” said Ah Qiang, co-founder of PFLAG.
He says there are about 10 larger LGBT organisations that operate in China, who are careful to frame their work in terms government authorities are likely to approve. PFLAG for instance focuses on helping families and creating a “harmonious society”, a priority the government often mentions.
Taiwan’s example has also rebutted the idea that homosexuality is a western concept that has no place in Chinese society. Xin, the director of the Beijing LGBT Center, said: “It breaks a long-held belief that LGBT rights are a western concept. It’s been said for a long time that the reason we can’t have same-sex marriage is because of traditional Chinese culture.”
And activists in China have been shown that the road to progress is long. Groups have been campaigning for the change for years and many see the Taiwanese law as still incomplete – gay couples are restricted from adopting children aside from those related to one partner.
Organisations such as the Beijing LGBT Center have held workshops on “Taiwan’s path to same sex marriage” and many activists travel to the island to learn from civil society groups there.
Although the situation in China is completely different, they can still emulate some things such as the engagement with young people and finding allies within the government, Xin and Ah Qiang say.
“If we can change society and general opinion then maybe the government will do something,” said Ah Qiang.
• Additional reporting by Lillian Yang