Proud to be LGBT in Laos – Southeast Asia Dispatches

VIENTIANE – Anan Bouapha is the founder of Proud to be us Laos, the country’s first LGBT group. He uses his persuasive soft power to establish an advocacy network on behalf of gay, bisexual and transgender Laotians at the Lao Women’s and Youth Unions – two state-run organizations.

Laos is a communist country that views human rights as a western import. This means Bouapha must use cultural relativism to educate Laotians on LGBT rights issues.

This story aired Monday, January 14, 2019 on Southeast Asia Dispatches.

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Vietnam’s Mother Mushroom: ‘If I don’t speak about the future, who will?’

HO CHI MINH CITY (SAIGON) – Vietnam’s most famous dissident blogger – Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, known by her pen name Mother Mushroom, spent her first new year in exile barred from ever returning to her home in Nha Trang.

Vietnamese authorities released her from prison last October, after serving two years of a 10-year sentence. She was forced to leave Vietnam with her mother and two children on an airplane bound for the U.S.

Quynh, 39, and her family are all Vietnamese citizens. None had ever been to the U.S. But the mother of two was given the option to remain in prison – away from her kids – or leave the country.

She chose the latter and is now living in Houston, Texas with her family. In 2016, Quynh was convicted of writing “anti-state propaganda” on her personal blog and Facebook account – a charge that leads to lengthy prison sentences in Vietnam.

The government monitors the online activities of known dissidents. Its 2019 cyber law attempts to extend this activity to popular social media sites where criticism of Vietnam’s Communist Party policies is rife. Over 60 million Vietnamese use Facebook.

Vietnamese journalists now living in Europe complain Facebook is censoring posts critical of Vietnam’s government.

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A Free Mother Mushroom campaign cartoon poster.

While in prison, Quynh was awarded the 2017 International Women of Courage award. This hardened her resolve to continue her human rights work.

The 88 Project for Freedom of Expression in Vietnam states there are currently 210 political prisoners with 19 in pre-trial detention waiting for a court hearing. Nine high profile Vietnamese activists have received sentences ranging from 12 to 20 years – some of the harshest punishment handed down in recent years.

Quynh said the conditions inside prison were inhuman. She began writing about injustice like this in her blog hoping never to have to face it herself. Her very first post was a letter to her young daughter, nicknamed Mushroom (hence the pen name Mother Mushroom).

Quynh’s work literally ‘mushroomed’ into activism as she joined calls for a transparent investigation into a toxic spill and marine life disaster in Central Vietnam caused by Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, a Taiwanese company.

Vietnam’s government viewed Quynh’s role in the anti-Formosa protests as a threat to its authoritarian rule. So, it tried to silence her by forcing her into prison then into exile.

But international human rights groups say this has backfired and Vietnam’s reputation was damaged and credibility eroded.

Now Quynh continues her writing and activism online with freedom from fear in the U.S. Many Vietnamese are inspired by Quynh’s story and how she refused to be silenced in the face of repression.

Vietnam’s state-run, and private, media couldn’t report fairly on the case against Mother Mushroom or her legal proceedings.

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A campaign poster that reads: “Like mushrooms after rain, they never die.”

“The [Vietnamese] media didn’t mention her being expelled to the U.S. They only covered her arrest and trial,” said Long Trinh, a journalist and co-director of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam.

“Media organizations are run by the communist party, the army and the police. They report propaganda pieces of news that portrayed her as a traitor, and as a very bad woman.”

Vietnamese human rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh knows about the smear campaigns used against dissidents. He faced the same during his trial and imprisonment.

The government requested Le Cong Dinh to leave the country, but he refused and lost his license to practice law.

“Mother Mushroom inspired many people. Most Vietnamese women stay at home to take care of their children,” Le Cong Dinh said. “But she raised her voice and helped the victims of Formosa.”

Quynh said she wants to continue to write from exile and raise awareness about human rights in Vietnam. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, awarded Mother Mushroom with its 2018 International Press Freedom Award.

But Quynh’s most lasting impact is on the future leaders of Vietnam. Kim Tien, 27, is a close friend she trained on how to document and write about human rights violations.

49345047_1011982318986548_8212452961486372864_n“I want to continue Mother Mushroom’s work and activism. When she was in prison I visited her family regularly. I wrote about her situation. I raised funds to help her family,” said Kim, a mother of one.

Diep Ngoc, 25, is a human rights activist. She said the online mushroom cartoons drawn by artists to raise awareness about Mother Mushroom’s imprisonment were “cute” and got her involved.

“To be honest her story is very inspiring because she is a single mom with two kids writing about inequality and injustice,” said Diep. “She’s a strong woman who really cares about her children and the future generation.”

*A documentary film about Mother Mushroom called “When Mother’s Away” can be viewed here.

Published @Medium

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Mai Khoi vs. Vietnam’s Cyber Law – CBC The World This Weekend

HANOI – Mai Khoi is a Vietnamese dissident artist, activist and musician. She’s been called Vietnam’s Lady Gaga for her pop star persona. But recently her music and art has become more like Pussy Riot, the Russian punk protest band.

Mai Khoi is protesting against Vietnam’s new cybersecurity law that would allow authorities to monitor what’s said about it online, giving them the ability to track and arrest dissidents posting their political opinions to social media. She’s even met with Facebook and Google to present evidence of how Vietnam is trying to silence activists online.

This story aired on CBC The World this Weekend Saturday, January 5, 2019.

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The singer raising her voice against Vietnam’s new cyber law

Do Nguyen Mai Khoi is among activists opposing a controversial law the government says will protect against cyber threats.

Mai Khoi protest in Hanoi

Singer-songwriter Do Nguyen Mai Khoi protesting in Hanoi [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

Hanoi, Vietnam – Dressed in the traditional Vietnamese long gown known as “ao dai”, dissident artist Do Nguyen Mai Khoi holds up a banner in a silent protest amidst the roar of traffic in the capital’s Old Quarter.

The signs reads “undemocratic regime” but features the images of Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, of Facebook, and Eric Schmidt, of Google – rather than of those leading Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party.

“I don’t criticise people in the government. I only criticise the system,” Mai Khoi said.

The 35-year-old singer-songwriter said she does not want to be accused of spreading “anti-state propaganda” and handed a lengthy prison sentence like others who have criticised Vietnam’s leaders in the streets or online.

After police signalled to her to end the demonstration or face arrest, Mai Khoi folded up her banner and moved it to Hanoi’s Long Bien Bridge. There, in a comment to media, she accused Facebook and Google of acting as dictatorships for cooperating with Vietnam’s government in removing critical content.

“We are losing the only space where we can express ourselves freely,” Mai Khoi said last week, days before Vietnam’s new cybersecurity law takes effect on Tuesday. “They now want to criminalise our activities on Facebook.”

Controversial cybersecurity law

Vietnam is a one-party state controlled by the communist party since it was reunified in 1975.

Home to some 95 million people, the country has more than 60 million Facebook users. Political activists and dissidents use the platform to discuss and share materials on issues such as human rights and democracy – risking being arrested and charged with spreading anti-state propaganda.

Under the new cybersecurity law, which was approved by legislators in June, the Vietnamese government has ordered US tech giants Facebook and Google – among others – to store its user data at offices inside the country. Vietnam has given the tech companies until 2020 to comply.

Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the Vietnamese prime minister, has stated that his government’s policies are promoting innovation and connectivity.

Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) has reportedly said the law’s enactment is “essential” as it will protect the country from increasing large-scale cyber attacks that result in serious economic losses and threaten its security and social order.

In a statement in November, the ministry said “the draft decree guiding the enforcement of some articles of the Law on Cyber Security does not run against the international agreements and conventions that Vietnam is member to”, citing comments by Major General Luong Tam Quang, director of the office of the MPS, during a press conference.

But the Asia Internet Coalition, the industry body representing both Facebook and Google, has said the new law “raises serious privacy and civil liberty concerns for the people of Vietnam and stands to significantly damage the country’s economic growth prospects” by resulting “in severe limitations on Vietnam’s digital economy”.

Critics also say the new law would allow the government to better monitor what is being said about it online, and arrest dissidents sharing “anti-state” material.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera that Vietnam’s cybersecurity law is a “disaster” for freedom of expression. He went on to say that the country is seeking to extend its control of what’s being said about it on traditional media to social media.

Thirteen Vietnamese civil society groups meanwhile have signed a petition called Save Net asking the Vietnamese government to repeal or revise this law.

“Facebook doesn’t show what it’s doing to protect freedom of expression. It has recently locked activists out of their accounts and deleted their posts,” Mai Khoi said. “YouTube has even removed my song, We Want, and now it can’t be viewed inside Vietnam,” she added, referring to the video-sharing website owned by Google.

The lyrics in this song reflect Mai Khoi’s political activism: “We just want to be free … Want the right to be human, living free from tyranny. We want to stop our fear of authoritarianism.”

Mai Khoi at Phu Sa Lab studio in Hanoi

Mai Khoi: ‘We are losing the only space where we can express ourselves freely’ [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

Mai Khoi’s political activism

The musician’s fight for freedom of expression in Vietnam began 10 years ago when she became a celebrated pop star – her hit song, Vietnam, won her many accolades.

But she went on to use her newfound fame to push for creative freedom and started writing music about the issues close to her heart, namely the growing use of social media and concerns over human rights.

Mai Khoi stopped submitting her lyrics to censors and her performances were effectively banned as police made it known she had been blacklisted.

“The police intervened in Mai Khoi’s concerts many times. They make it very hard for her to live and to make a living in Vietnam,” said Long Trinh, co-director of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam, a magazine focussing on the country’s political and legal issues. “The government is very worried about her activities.”

In 2016, Mai Khoi joined street protests against an environmental disaster caused by Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation, a Taiwanese company operating in central Vietnam.

Vietnamese police have often been accused of cracking down harshly on protesters, and Mai Khoi says that the violence she witnessed being used by the authorities in that demonstration affected her deeply. She even wrote a song about it.

“Every time I sing that song, I always cry because the scenes of that protest come back to me,” she said. “I hope that in the future Vietnam can have the laws to protect the rights of people to express themselves.”

That same year, Mai Khoi nominated herself as an independent candidate for Vietnam’s national assembly. This raised her profile with Vietnamese Facebook users as she campaigned primarily on the platform.

“That’s how I came to learn about her politics,” said Long Trinh. “She had a very good life as a pop star but she cares about others who suffer from injustice, who suffer from human rights violations. I think that says a lot about her.”

‘Dissidents seen as enemies of the state’

Faced with difficulties in performing inside Vietnam, Mai Khoi travels frequently abroad. Many believe it’s only allowed because of her high profile and to stop her from doing so would reflect poorly on Vietnam.

In 2018, Mai Khoi returned from a tour in the United States where she shared her story at the Oslo Freedom Forum in New York City.

Many Vietnamese dissidents are either in prison or placed under a travel ban by the government. According to the 88 Project for Freedom of Expression in Vietnam, there are currently 210 political prisoners with another 19 in pre-trial detention.

“I have no chance to go abroad or to attend any international meeting, so I’m happy if Mai Khoi can raise her voice outside of Vietnam for someone like me,” said Vietnamese human rights activist Chi Tuyen Nguyen.

Mai Khoi’s new album is titled Dissent. She named her band The Dissidents but they soon realised that this would cause them more problems with the authorities and changed it when the album was released in 2018.

“We decided to change because their families didn’t want them performing under that name. In Vietnam, dissidents are talked about on the news like they’re enemies of the state,” she said.

Inside Hanoi’s Phu Sa Lab theatre in upscale West Lake, Mai Khoi has started to perform weekly with her band. This is the only venue in Vietnam where the owner is willing to stand up to the strong-arm tactics of police.

The group’s show, Bamboo Talk, blends theatrical performance with experimental jazz music.

But the highlight of the show is Mai Khoi’s vocal range along with her traditional instrument and white ao dai outfit as she’s the only woman in the all-male cast.

“It’s the only space in Vietnam where I can express myself freely,” she said. “On Facebook, I’m not so sure anymore.”

Published @AlJazeera

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Putting the ‘I’ in LGBTIQ: Taiwan’s Intersex Awareness Advocate

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Hiker Chiu, 52, in Kaohsiung, Taiwan

TAIPEI – Hiker Chiu receives a message on Facebook. It’s a desperate plea from a mother in Hong Kong. The mother found Chiu through the OII-Chinese Facebook page – the sole Chinese language group-of-one representing Organization Intersex International.

Chiu messaged back and forth with the mother until s/he found out the child was born with an enlarged clitoris and the doctor wanted to remove it.

The doctor told the mother if not removed surgically the child may suffer from psychological harm in the future – a common medical diagnosis.

“I told her to wait and see if the doctor changes perspective,” Chiu said.

Chiu, 52, receives messages like this every day from Chinese speaking parents and intersex people seeking psychosocial support from Malaysia, Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan, where OII-Chinese is based.

Intersex are those born atypical with both male and female sexual organs–formerly known as hermaphrodite.

“I was born with so-called ‘ambiguous genitals.’ I had my surgery when I was six without consent because I was so little. The doctor removed my enlarged clitoris. I was raised as a girl,” Chiu said.

“But when I hit puberty I didn’t develop into a woman because I didn’t have breast development, or menstruation, and I had an Adam’s apple.”

In November, Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare released a directive requesting doctors halt gender “normalization” surgery. This is where they assign a gender to children born with both sexual organs.

“It’s a paradigm change,” said Dr. Liu Yueh-ping, medical specialist at Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare.

Being assigned a gender doesn’t guarantee that a child will grow into an adult that identifies as such. One in ten children born receiving this surgery will grow up to identify as the opposite sex.

“It’s the first step. We’re thinking about providing more comprehensive care for [all] patients. Everyone is unique. That’s why we need to respect everyone’s decision,” said Dr. Liu.

Chiu lauds the efforts of Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare. But s/he argues the government hasn’t done enough to recognize intersex as many don’t even know enough about it.

This is where OII-Chinese steps in. Chiu shares the story of intersex with medical professionals and anybody in government wanting to learn more.

“Most intersex people had surgery when they were little. They had no idea they are intersex and nobody will tell them. The doctors fix us because they want to assign a gender. They want to remove the social stigma,” s/he said.

In Asia, Taiwan is known as the most progressive place for human rights. But because of the One China policy, many countries refuse to recognize Taiwan as anything but a part of China, where human rights aren’t recognized.

With a battle over marriage equality for LGBTIQ raging in Taiwan, it’s easy to miss this constantly evolving acronym. The ‘I’ in it refers to intersex, considered a newcomer to the gay rights movement.

“The [medical profession has] reached consensus that intersex babies shouldn’t be fixed right away. They should have time and space to think about it. They can wait for them to become older or adults to decide,” said Wang Hsiu-yun, associate professor at Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University.

Taiwan’s medical profession fosters a learning culture. Many doctors are open-minded and view sexuality as a fluid concept, rather than as only traditional male or female.

“The doctor is not obliged to do any sex change if there is an ambiguous genitalia. The situation will be when they grow up and have a mature concept of the issue. It’s up to [the patient],” said Dr. Chiang Sheng, obstetrician and gynecologist at Mackay Memorial Hospital in the capital Taipei.

Chiu had a long struggle with identity. It was only 10 years ago – after breaking up with her girlfriend – that s/he truly understood her sexuality.

“I was confused like everybody else. I identified as an intersex by reading others’ stories. This is the way that you can share your story so others can identify if they are intersex or not,” s/he said.

Taipei’s annual Gay Pride event celebrated its 16th anniversary earlier this year. A record number of people attended. This is the eighth year in a row Chiu has attended as a leader in Taiwan’s intersex community.

S/he puts the ‘I’ into LGBTIQ in Taiwan.

“I raised my intersex banner and wore a tee shirt,” Chiu said. “I got so many hugs. People were smiling and supportive. This is why Taiwan is so important. You have the rights to express yourself. This is why I can safely come out [here].”

To learn more about intersex, please view this UN Fact Sheet.

Published @Medium

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Taiwan’s ‘Formosa Incident’ and International Human Rights Day

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Shih Ming-te holds up a “most wanted” poster featuring him as a young man on the run from law enforcement in 1979.

TAIPEI – December 10th is celebrated as International Human Rights Day. But in Taiwan the event takes on a more somber tone as the day to commemorate the 1979 Formosa, or Kaohsiung Incident.

This was a defining moment in Taiwan’s history – then under Chinese Nationalist (KMT) rule and its “White Terror” martial law from 1949 to 1987.

Shih Ming-te led Taiwan’s very first human rights day rally on Dec. 10, 1979 in the southern port city of Kaohsiung. He’d just been released from a 15-year prison sentence for intending to overthrow the government.

Shih, 77, is set to release his new book To Be Able To See The Sun Tomorrow at Taipei’s Sheraton Hotel – site of a former military prison – 39 years later to pay homage to his fellow political prisoners who paid the ultimate sacrifice for democracy.

“The reason I chose December 10, [international] human rights day, is to tell the Taiwanese all the freedom you’re enjoying today is because of these men whom you’ve forgotten,” he said.

All members of Shih’s “party without a name” were arrested in Kaohsiung. They were demanding an end to martial law, the ban on political parties, and the “10,000-year” parliamentary rule of the KMT’s Chiang Ching-kuo (son of Chiang Kai-shek).

Shih fled Kaohsiung but was captured and arrested by police not long afterward.

“I knew I would face the death penalty,” he said. “Prison is where you learn how to fight difficulties, to fight an oppressive regime.”

Due to international attention on Shih’s case, he was sentenced but served only 10 years and was released from prison in 1990. In total he spent 25 years of his life behind bars.

At the age of 49, he was already one of Taiwan’s most prolific writers and political activists. He went on to lead A Million Voices Against Corruption in 2006 to oust then-President Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan’s first non-KMT president.

“I’m now relieved and also proud seeing how democracy has come together on this island of Taiwan. I was a kid who was born under dictatorship. I’m proud of what Taiwanese democracy has accomplished,” he said.

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Shih Ming-te’s new book To be Able to See the Sun Tomorrow will be available Dec. 10, 2018

Shih has self-published over a dozens books and memoirs. But his latest is not like the others. This one is a limited edition, dedicated to his brother who died on hunger strike, protesting Shih’s treatment in prison.

“This book is not about me. It’s about the people in jail with me sentenced to death. I’m paying respect to those martyrs. They died unjustly,” he said.

The first chapter is called One Bottle of Prison Wine. The gift box contains the book and a bottle of red wine.

“We should pay honor to these people. This is the highest quality on the market. Every chapter will have artwork to complement the Chinese characters,” he said.

Shih plans to announce Dec. 10, 2018 that he has located a former military execution site in Taipei New City where many political prisoners were killed. He will ask the government for permission to build a human rights memorial wall there for victims of the KMT’s White Terror.

“I’m not asking for money, just the land,” he said. “This is what I should do for my brother who died [defending democracy].”

Published @Medium

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Taiwan activists: Marriage-equality movement setback not the end

Despite ballot-box failure, proponents say it’s only a matter of time before same-sex marriage is written into law.

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Gay rights activist Chi Chia-wei arrives to cast his vote in the referendum on same-sex marriage [Ann Wang/Reuters]

Taipei, Taiwan – “Every defeat is a deeper blow. But we’ll keep on fighting until we are free,” sings American singer-songwriter – and Taiwan transplant – Ellery Prescott in his song Keep on Fighting. He dedicates it to Taiwan’s marriage equality movement.

It may still be the first place in Asia where gay couples can legally marry, even though Taiwanese voters rejected legalising same-sex marriage in a referendum last week.

The referendum results were a setback to the island’s LGBTQ community, but not the end of its fight dating back to 1986 – when civil rights icon Chi Chia-wei began his struggle to have same sex marriage recognised and legalised.

Last year the constitutional court ruled the government must amend the law to allow gay couples the right to wed. It gave them until May 2019 to adopt the practice – more than 30 years since Chi was first rejected for a marriage license at a Taipei court.

“We must prevail. Our constitutional court’s victory is historic. It clearly recognises the freedom to marry [for] same sex couples. We must defend that,” said Victoria Hsu, executive director of Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights.

Hsu hopes to marry her fiancé next year, once the government passes its anticipated law to enshrine the rights of same sex couples. But a lack of progress in Taiwan’s legislature led to a conservative backlash.

‘Family Guardians’

“Marriage for us is a union between a man and a woman,” said Father Otfried Chan, spokesperson of the Family Guardian Coalition. “It’s not the duty of the grand justices to make laws for that. It’s the task of the parliament.”

The Family Guardian Coalition consists of several of Taiwan’s Christian denominations. It organised in 2013 to pressure legislators against proposed amendments to the civil code to legalise same sex marriage.

It won that fight, but was dealt a blow with the 2017 constitutional court ruling. The Family Guardian Coalition views itself as defending moral values in Taiwan.

It put forth a referendum this year asking voters if they agreed that Taiwan’s civil code should restrict marriage to heterosexual couples only – exceeding expectations and passing with 69 percent voter support at the ballot box last Saturday.

But Taiwan’s LGBTQ community rejected the result as illegal and unconstitutional. Taiwan is known for its progressive stance on human rights in Asia.

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Taiwan’s Family Guardian Coalition spokesperson Father Otfried Chan [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

‘Doesn’t matter’

LGBTQ groups initiated their own referendum to counter Family Guardian Coalition and other faith-based groups opposing same-sex marriage. In it, they asked voters if they agreed the civil code should be amended to allow same sex marriage.

It failed to pass the threshold last Saturday with only 30 percent voter support.

“It doesn’t matter with the referendum [results] because our constitutional court made a decision [that] if within two years our Legislative Yuan cannot pass the bill, same-sex people can go register [their marriage],” said Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Yu Mei-nu.

Hsu helped introduce both marriage equality and civil partnership bills before parliament. So far, Taiwan doesn’t recognise anything but marriage as defined in the civil code.

But now with the results of the referendum and a resurgent Family Guardian Coalition, legislators are talking about respecting the results by adopting a new separate law.

Hsu called any law other than marriage an inferior act. She is pursuing a lawsuit against Taiwan’s Central Election Commission for allowing what she called an anti-LGBTQ referendum on the ballot.

Court hearings on the matter will be held in December.

Same rights

“The bill might be a same-sex marriage law but not in the civil code, a separate law similar to the civil code which will be better than the civil union but still not full marriage rights,” said Jennifer Lu, spokesperson of the Marriage Equality Coalition.

“We want not only for them to be married but to have the same rights as heterosexual people,” said Legislator Yu.

The other referendum raised by faith-based groups asked voters to reject Taiwan’s 2004 Gender Equality Education Act, which teaches LGBTQ issues to students at primary and junior high schools.

Voters supported this measure too, passing the threshold with 64 percent. But the Ministry of Education has since stated it would continue to promote gender equality in schools but that LGBTQ curricula may be revised.

“The coalition will maintain its stand. We don’t approve of same-sex relationships,” said Father Chan. “If this law remains, you have to implement it, you have to promote it, you have to teach it.”

Last October, 137,000 people attended Taipei’s pride parade – the largest crowd in its 16-year history. Pride participants celebrated the constitutional court’s ruling hoping Taiwan would become the first place in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage.

Regardless of the referendum results, it looks like the LGBTQ community is standing strong. It may have to wait a bit longer than expected for the government to amend the marriage chapter in Taiwan’s civil code, or adopt a new law for same sex marriage.

If parliament is unable to do this by May 24, 2019 – as mandated by the court – then marriage equality campaigners will have to step up pressure on lawmakers to receive the same rights as heterosexual married couples.

Many gay Taiwanese couples have already married despite not having their nuptials recognised by law. Hsu is fighting for them, and her own spouse, to be able to say her vows next year knowing they will share the same rights as other married couples in Taiwan.

“We’re powerful. We’re only gonna grow… Let’s keep fighting, until we are free,” concludes the song by Ellery Prescott.

Published @AlJazeera

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