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Taiwan still has work to do on gay rights

Very soon, gay American soldiers will be able to be asked about their sexual orientation — and will be permitted to tell the truth, without fear of expulsion from the armed services. Last Saturday, the United States Senate voted 65-31 in favor of repealing a 17-year-old policy known as “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” (DADT). Set up during the administration of former U.S. president Bill Clinton, DADT was a compromise that attempted to allow gay people to serve in the military without getting around the military's ban on homosexual soldiers. Despite the degree of freedom allowed under DADT, almost 14,000 gay men and women were kicked out of the U.S. military over the last 17 years.

U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement, “it is time to close this chapter in our history. It is time to recognize that sacrifice, valor and integrity are no more defined by sexual orientation than they are by race, gender, religion or creed.” The world has grown up in the past couple of decades. Many civilians and soldiers alike now realize and accept that what adults do in the privacy of their bedrooms is unrelated to their individual moral character. America is a little late to this realization; at least 25 other countries already allow gays to serve openly in their militaries, including the state of Israel.

Taiwan has a conflicted attitude towards homosexuality. Gay people are not necessarily welcomed in society, and many local homosexuals report hiding their sexuality from their relatives. But there is also almost no organized opposition to “the gay lifestyle” in Taiwan as there is in many nations. The Republic of China (R.O.C.) Armed Forces have also been somewhat ahead of the curve. Taiwan's Defense Ministry discontinued treating homosexuality as a psychiatric illness in 1994. In 2002, Taiwan's military announced that it was ending the only official ban on gays in the R.O.C. military; a policy disallowing homosexual military guards from guarding sensitive military installations or high-level officials.

Speaking on the subject of the 2002 end to the ban on gays serving as military police, Lt. Col. Louis Liu, who served as Assistant Naval Attache in the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Washington was quoted by the California-based think tank Palm Center as saying that the changes were, “a good thing for a democratic society like ours. I don't think this is really a big deal. It just means Taiwanese society is more open and there are different choices now. If you're gay and you can do the job, that's fine.”

For the most part we are happy to note that Taiwanese society — including the military — has a relaxed and tolerant attitude towards gay people. Taiwan is already becoming known as an Asian leader in gay-rights issues. Since it began in 2003, Taipei's annual Gay Pride parade, already the biggest in Asia, draws people from all over the region and the world to experience Taiwan's hospitable culture. But while there is little organized hostility, Taiwan's gay-rights advocates say they feel frustrated by the lack of progress on proposed rights legislation, including the legalization of “gay marriage” or same-sex unions. Taiwan's major political leaders, including President Ma Ying-jeou, have all made statements in support of Taiwan's gay community, but this year, homosexual-rights advocates argued that the government is all talk. With the theme of “Out and Vote” a record 30,000 people took to the streets during the 2010 Taipei Gay Pride parade, which had stronger political overtones than in previous years.

A lack of official anti-gay discrimination is a great place to start, but if Taiwan hopes to continue being an Asian leader in human rights, the country needs to take proactive steps as well. Becoming the first country in East Asia to legalize some form of same-sex unions would send a strong signal that Taiwan is a mature, democratic and open-minded society; and a leader in promoting these values across the region.

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