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Will Gay Marriage Ever be Legalized in Asia?

by Aun Koh
May 26, 2012, 4:31 AM

Two weeks ago, the happiest place on earth got a whole lot happier. Tokyo Disneyland, in a move that surprised and delighted thousands across Asia, announced their support of gay marriages. While gay marriage is not currently legal in Japan, nor anywhere else in Asia, Mickey and his friends will, from now on, allow any gay couple to host their marriage ceremony on the grounds of the theme park and its resort.

While this decision may seem, to some, like a huge step forward for gay rights in Asia, for others, it's just another example of how far they have to go for legitimation. For the latter group, the reminder that they cannot enjoy the same legal rights as hetero couples might be even more sharply felt by the fact that one of the few places in which they can even hold a ceremony is a children's park built around a notion of make-believe.

With US President Barack Obama's open support for gay marriages in the United States, homosexuals and liberals across Asia have begun to hope this might lead to their own leaders rethinking their countries' stances on the issues. But the reality is that Asia is still far more conservative than America. In many nations, the main issue is not whether gay couples can be legally married but whether they can live their lives without fear of official persecution.

In some of Asia's Muslim countries, being gay is not just illegal but punishable. In Malaysia, homosexuality is punishable by law through caning and up to 20 years in prison. In Indonesia, fifty two regions have enacted sharia law from the Koran which criminalizes homosexuality--these laws, fortunately for some, only apply to Muslim residents.

Even in modern Singapore, homosexuality--specifically among men--is illegal. While arrest and punishment for this law is hardly ever enforced, attempts to repeal the ammendment to Penal Code that criminalizes what the code calls "gross indecency" between men continue to fail. Ironically, Singapore has a thriving and quite visible gay scene, with many prominant gay and lesbian citizens. The attitude of the ruling party here appears to be one in which residents can do whatever they want, but they should be grateful for the freedoms given to them and should never demand any kind of legal rights if they live even slightly outside the norm.

In some Asian countries, such as Japan and China, homosexuality is legal (or in some cases not illegal) but nowhere in the region is same-sex marriage legal. That hasn't stopped politicians or the public from raising the issue though. In the very Catholic Philippines, of all places, legislation suporting same-sex marriage has been proposed several times to the Philippines legislature. Of course, none have ever been passed.

In India, gay marriage is still not legal; however, last year, a Gurguon judge officially recognized the marriage between a lesbian couple. In Hong Kong, while gay marriage is also not legal, gay couples have been protected by Hong Kong's domestic violence laws since 2009. While at the present, this does not, according to then Minister for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-ching, "affect the Government’s policy stance of not recognising same sex marriage, civil partnership or any same sex relationship as a matter of legal status", it is a bold first step that could eventually lead to proper recognition.

One interesting approach to gay marriage in Asia is being considered in Japan. In March 2009, the Justice Ministry suggested plans--which seem to still be under evaluation 3 years later--to allow Japanese nationals to marry same-sex partners in countries where same-sex marriage is legal. While the marriage would still not be legally recognized in Japan, by allowing its citizens to be legally married overseas, the Japanese government would be taking a huge step towards acknowledging the rights of the gay community. Optimists even think this will lead to legislation towards eventually making Japan the first country in Asia in which gay marriage becomes legal.

In the meantime, gay and lesbian Asians will have to settle for the Magic Kingdom. Or, like the couple in the below video, go somewhere where gay marriage actually is legal in order to tie the knot officially--not that their union would be recognized where they're from.

Photo credit: Takayuki/Shutterstock


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