FEATURE -Abused as 'dirty', same-sex newlyweds in Taiwan fear backlash

By Beh Lih Yi and Shanshan Chen, Thomson Reuters Foundation

By Beh Lih Yi and Shanshan Chen

ZHONGLI, Taiwan, June 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A lthough Jovi Wu and Mindy Chiu made history last month as one of the first lesbian couples in Asia to marry legally, they are fearful that conservatives may reverse Taiwan's landmark law.

The businesswomen and their six-year-old daughter, Allison, were verbally abused when they demonstrated in support of same-sex marriage last year, ahead of a referendum that came after the top court set a two-year deadline for legalisation.

One woman took a leaflet from Allison, looked at it, threw it on the ground and then called their family "sickening and dirty", 36-year-old Chiu said from her home in a suburb of Zhongli district, an hour's drive from Taiwan's capital, Taipei.

"(I asked her) do you have to say this in front of a child - that we are sickening, we are dirty? What we are trying to say is that we're just the same, like you," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Hundreds of same-sex couples married on May 24 after President Tsai Ing-wen signed into law a bill endorsing same-sex marriage - a controversial move which has divided the self-ruled island, seen as a beacon of liberalism in Asia.

Although two-thirds of Taiwanese voters - some 7 million people - rejected the proposed reform in the November referendum, parliament passed a law legalising gay marriage to beat the constitutional court deadline of May 24.

Far from signalling a shift towards broader acceptance of homosexuality, the couple fear the legal victory will spark a backlash from conservatives who believe marriage should remain between a man and a woman.

"It will be messy at the start," said 38-year-old Wu, who gave birth through in vitro fertilisation (IVF) in Thailand - using an egg from her former partner and a sperm donor - as Taiwan does not allow surrogacy.

"Anti-homosexual groups will continue to argue how can we enjoy the same rights? How can we change Taiwan's traditions and values? They will intensify their smear campaign and continue to hurt us."

FAMILY VALUES

Wu's concerns highlight how socially conservative attitudes prevail across much of Asia, five decades after the Stonewall riots in the United States that are widely regarded as the birth of the LGBT+ rights movement.

The Coalition for the Happiness of Our Next Generation, one group seeking to overturn Taiwan's gay marriage law, said the public will "strike back" as it mobilised support to vote against Tsai in January elections, when she seeks a second term.

"If we can oust these legislators who supported same-sex marriage, there is a likelihood for change after 2020," said the group's president Tseng Hsien-ying.

"The only type of marriage people in Taiwan can accept is between a man and a woman. This (same-sex union) is destroying the institution of marriage and distorting our family values."

Growing up in an abusive family in Taiwan's rural west, repeatedly beaten up by her father, Wu wanted to give her own daughter the best she could.

Wu remembered her classmates called her a "tomboy", and her father pledged to "break her legs" and disown her when she started liking girls.

Estranged from her parents, Wu left her hometown for university in Taipei, where she joined lesbian clubs and eventually came out as gay.

When searching for a school for her daughter, Wu said many were simply not ready to accept same-sex parents – until the couple found one which had already hired gay teachers.

Still, Wu said, her daughter had to deal with questions at school about why she has two mothers, and called on the government to prioritise anti-discrimination legislation and overhaul its education system to champion LGBT+ rights.

"If the education ministry is not prepared, when these children go to school they will face intense pressure," she said. "How can they be treated equally and not be bullied?"

The lobby group Taiwan LGBT Family Rights Advocacy estimates about 300 same-sex families with children live on the self-ruled island, which China considers as its wayward province.

"It won't be an overnight change," said the group's spokeswoman Reese Li, adding that conservative groups are ramping up their smear campaign, including linking same-sex marriage to a potential rise in HIV cases.

"It will take time but once they see same-sex couples and families are no different than the others, they will accept it."

Two years ago, Wu and Chiu started a book club for children in their neighbourhood in an effort to spur discussions on equal rights for gay people and women, through story telling.

"People think we (same-sex families) don't exist, they accuse us of stealing our child from somewhere else," said Chiu, adding that her parents are still reluctant to accept her relationship with Wu, who she has lived with for four years.

"We never grew up with a lot of information about LGBT+ so we always felt we were different because other people are heterosexual."

Wu said she hoped their book club would go a small way in fighting the social stigma toward same-sex families.

"What I am trying to do through the book club is to let children know every family is equal," she said. (Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)