Labour of love: One man's fight for gay marriage in Taiwan

Taipei (AFP) - For Chi Chia-wei the imminent court decision that could make Taiwan the first place in Asia to recognise gay marriage is his greatest shot at justice after decades of tireless campaigning.

"It's been so long, my hair has gone grey!" says 59-year-old Chia, who often appears in public draped in rainbow flags.

The celebrated activist, who has led the island's gay rights movement for nearly 30 years, will know on May 24 whether his battle for marriage equality has been won when Taiwan's constitutional court rules on his latest petition.

At the centre of the case is a clause in Taiwan's Civil Code which says an agreement to marry should be made between a man and a woman.

Chi wants the court to rule on whether that part of the Civil Code contravenes elements in Taiwan's constitution which guarantee equality and freedom of marriage.

The decision is binding, so a ruling in his favour would pave the way for same-sex unions to be legalised.

Chi says he is optimistic, but his excitement is tempered by the length of time it has taken to get this far.

"This should have happened long ago. It's belated justice," he told AFP.

Chi is one of two petitioners bringing the case.

The other is the Taipei City government which is seeking clarification as authorities in Taiwan have been rejecting applications for same-sex marriages based on the Civil Code clause.

Chi says this time there is much more public momentum for change -- in December, a pro-gay marriage rally drew 250,000 people according to organisers.

"It was just a one-man campaign when I started -- now I have 250,000 people beside me. I am not alone in doing what is right," Chi said.

- 'One right thing' -

Raised by liberal-minded parents supportive of his sexual orientation, they encouraged him to fight for his beliefs.

He came out to friends at high school and says he was surprised by how accepting they were.

After starting out as a rights activist for HIV and AIDS sufferers, Chi became a full-time advocate for gay rights after meeting his partner 29 years ago.

But while he may have had support from his family and peers, outspoken Chi has had numerous run-ins with authorities.

In 1986, when Taiwan was still under martial law, Chi says he was imprisoned for five months after submitting his first petition asking for gay marriage to be recognised.

The charges linked him with a robbery and were entirely fabricated, he says.

Since then his appeals for a change in the marriage law have been rejected by government agencies and courts, including a failed petition to the constitutional court in 2001.

"I wasn't discouraged by the setbacks. That's how I have been able to carry on for so long," says Chi.

"My belief is that if you can do one right thing in this life, it's all worth it."

A lack of support in parliament has also previously meant the gay marriage debate stalled.

However, campaigners were given new hope when Tsai Ing-wen won the presidency last year and openly supported marriage equality.

With her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the majority, parliament passed the first draft of a bill to legalise gay marriage in December and it is due for a second reading later this year.

But while there is more support than ever for gay marriage in Taiwan, recent debate has also exposed deep divisions in society.

Conservative groups say allowing same-sex unions would destroy family values and opponents have staged mass rallies in recent months, including a protest outside the constitutional court hearing in March.

Chi says those who are against him accuse him of "spreading heresy" and attention-seeking. They belittle his relationship with his partner, comparing it to children playing house, he says.

"I am not doing this for my own interests," Chi said.

"My partner and I are an old couple now and getting married is not a priority for us. But other gay couples need legal protection."

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