Legal recognition of same-sex partnerships: A comparative study of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan

By Denise Tse-Shang Tang, Diana Khor and Yi-Chien Chen.

“The wedding is meant to be a spectacle….It is going to be very traditional. A full-on wedding banquet!  …Parents have to be present, and we need to have red tablecloth for the family table. I have already decided who I should invite and how many tables there will be. I have also thought about which childhood photos, which theme and the background music!”

(Tim, a gay man in his mid-30s in Hong Kong)

“We are not activists, so we are not intending to make political statements through the [partnership] certificate but it is true that I want to make other LGBT people’s lives better in some way. If no one takes advantage of the certificate, it would be bad, people would think, ‘oh, no one needs this certificate’.”

(Chikako, who recently registered her partnership at a municipal office in Tokyo)

In May, 2019, Taiwan legalized marriage for same-sex couples, with President Tsai proudly declaring it to be the first nation in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. Social media exploded with news articles and first-person accounts of the historic moment. If marital rights were “fundamental citizenship rights”, as many have argued, then there is much to celebrate about this change.  At the same time, isn’t this legalization reinforcing the idea that one is only “half a person”, as is commonly referred to in Japan, if one were not married? Is it not imposing couplehood as a standard for all adults, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity? Are we becoming freer and happier, or less free and less happy? 

Feminist and queer studies scholars have debated the implications of same-sex marriage for the institution of (heterosexual) marriage, the gendered role division and expectations on which it is based, and the standards of “respectable” relations thus created (Clarke & Finlay, 2004; Peel & Harding, 2008). But what do couples themselves think? Further, are debates on same-sex marriage generated in Euro-American contexts relevant to the legal, cultural and social contexts of Asia? Our research in Hong Kong, Japan, and Taiwan shows that same sex couples are reflective and complex in their thinking and decisions regarding partnership and marriage, which are importantly grounded in kin and community relations.

We conducted in-depth interviews with 31 participants in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan from 2015 to 2017.  Our sample included gay and lesbian couples, most of whom were in their 20s to 40s. These couples were in a range of relationship statuses: some had already registered their partnership at the municipal office – not legally binding but nonetheless giving formal recognition to the relationship – or married, some intended to do so, and some others did not intend to do so. In addition, we also interviewed lesbian and gay activists in each research site. Interview questions focused on participants’ views on civil unions and same-sex marriages and their understanding of marriage and family, and the legal and social obstacles they faced in forming their relationships.  We identified three themes from the interviews: kinship ties and social recognition; the “fateful moment”; and transformative politics from personal to public.

Kinship ties and social recognition emerged as a dominant theme in the discussions on same-sex marriage. None of our participants saw marriage as solely about the commitment or love between two persons. In the two Chinese sites, marriage was connected to establishing a family—as a passage to adulthood— and developing alternative kinship ties, and ultimately fulfilling family obligations as a filial son or daughter. For example, Sam, a 27-year-old participant in Taiwan, said, ‘Marriage is a way for me to be responsible to my [extended] family, the elderly generation, because I am the eldest grandchild, they often ask me when will you get married so that we can worship the God of Heaven.’ Social recognition was in the mind of Chie in Japan, who has lived with her partner for 10 years. She registered her partnership because registration makes everyday life easier, less complicated.  The ring that she wears after registering her partnership would  stop her neighbors from wondering about her marital status and lead them to assume that she is married.

On the face of it, our participants’ narratives might suggest their assimilation into heterosexual marriage and family norms. However, an alternative interpretation is also possible: there is no mistake that the preservation of family and community relationships is significant in these participants’ consideration of marriage. Rather than an unquestioning embrace of heterosexual marriage — some of them were indeed explicitly critical about the marriage institution — they are striving to protect and extend social and kinship ties rather than severing them through marriage.

Commitment ceremonies and the act of partnership registration are significant moments for our participants. This is so partly because of the hardship they have gone through to actually organize a commitment ceremony in a society geared towards heterosexuals. Jessica and Whitley, for example, encountered difficulties in each step of the wedding preparation, from the booking of the venue, to the wedding photo shoot, and the parents’ attendance at the ceremony. Organizing a proper wedding is a mark of competent adulthood.  Tim’s aforementioned narrative about planning a spectacular wedding in Hong Kong that we quoted at the beginning speaks to an imagined fear of being looked down upon for failing to do so. Japanese participants considered the moment of registering their partnership significant.

Chie contrasted same-sex partnership to heterosexual marriage; the former requires a notarized document proving that the couple is in a genuine relationship of love and trust while the latter requires only filling out a simple form. Chie  explained, ‘I was married to a man before. The marriage was just about filling out a paper, and with that the contract was sealed. Unlike this time, it’s like we’re committing ourselves to [the partnership]. It just made me feel good, it kind of shaped me up, so to speak.’  Emi, in her late thirties, referred to her registration as a marriage, even though it is not legally binding within the municipality where she resides and not meaningful at all outside of it. Even though the rituals might ostensibly appear the same as heterosexual marriage and weddings, the thoughts that went into them were complex and reflective.

Activists or not, our participants also showed an awareness of the larger implications of same-sex partnership for queer politics and sexual equality, both in the global and regional contexts.  In talking about same-sex marriage, participants in Hong Kong were closely watching developments in Taiwan, and some even consider moving to Taiwan.  Taiwan has become a reference point, as much as or even more than “the West” has been. In Japan, they reflected on a broader sense of diversity that includes the rights of single people, the disabled and so on, who are disadvantaged by social policies and institutions predicated on heteronormative assumptions. They see same-sex partners as similar to these social minorities, hoping that same-sex partnership or marriage would be the first step towards a more tolerant society where the currently excluded can lead equally fulfilling lives.

In conclusion, our participants showed us that they did not choose between assimilating to heterosexual marriage and totally rejecting it. Instead, they grounded their partnership in their immediate familial or social contexts, and sought to connect rather than sever ties that were genuinely important to them. In our sample, not many directly invoked rights to marriage when discussing same-sex partnership; they apparently considered same-sex marriage as compatible or even significant in meeting familial and kin expectations. The value of conducting the research in three research sites in Asia lies not in showing that “Asia is different” or simply that current concepts and frameworks are parochially Euro-American. Rather, the findings prompt us to go beyond the binary thinking that individuals entering into same-sex unions either assimilate into or challenge the heterosexual marriage institution, to allow for complexity in how individuals negotiate marriage and partnership in the context of kin and community relations.

Denise Tse-Shang Tang is Assistant Professor in Cultural Studies, Lingnan University, Hong Kong. Tang specialises in gender and sexualities in an inter-Asian context. Denise tweets @deni5050

Diana Khor is currently chairing the Faculty of Global and Interdisciplinary Studies, Hosei University, Tokyo. Her current research focuses on same-sex partnerships and kin relations in Japan and Hong Kong. Diana tweets @GialloKK

Yi-Chien Chen studied Law at Heidelberg University and Cornell Law School, now teaches Feminist Jurisprudence, Love, Sex and the Law and LGBTIQ rights seminar in the Graduate Institute of Gender Studies in Shih Hsin University in Taiwan. Yi-Chien tweets @yclovesberlin

You can read more about this research in Denise, Diana and Yi-Chien’s article for The Sociological Review journal here.

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