TAIPEI - Taiwanese legislators are scheduled to decide Friday on legalizing same-sex marriage, marking a potential first in Asia.
Lawmakers pressured over the past two years by LGBT groups as well as church organizations opposed to same-sex marriage will choose between bills that broadly legalize the unions and give couples many of the tax, insurance and child custody benefits available to male-female married couples.
If the legal changes are approved, Taiwan would become the first place in Asia with a comprehensive law supporting same-sex marriage.
Taiwan's Constitutional Court in May 2017 said the constitution allows same-sex marriages and gave parliament two years to adjust laws accordingly.
The court order mobilized LGBT advocacy groups pushing for fair treatment, as well as opponents among church groups and advocates of traditional Chinese family values.
"It's a breakthrough, I have to say so. I could not imagine that could happen in just a few years,'' said Shiau Hong-chi, professor of gender studies and communications management at Shih-Hsin University in Taiwan.
Religion, conservative family values and political systems that discourage LGBT activism have stopped momentum in Asian countries from China through much of Southeast Asia into the Middle East. Thailand, however, is exploring the legalization of same-sex civil partnerships.
Taiwan's acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships began in the 1990s when leaders in today's ruling Democratic Progressive Party championed the cause to help Taiwan stand out in Asia as an open society. Although claimed by China as its own territory, Taiwan is a self-governing democracy with a vibrant civil society.
Opponents have raised fears of incest, insurance benefit scams and children confused by having two mothers or two fathers. Both sides of the issue have held colorful street demonstrations and lobbied lawmakers.
In November 2018, a majority of Taiwan voters rejected same-sex marriage in an advisory referendum.
Bills on the table Friday include one authored by the government. Another version plays to both sides of the debate by allowing marriages but with conditions such as calling them "unions'' and imposing restrictions on adopting children.
"If it doesn't go through, that would be disappointing,'' said Hsu Pei-chieh, 30, a Taipei office worker hoping to marry her female partner and raise at least one child. "If we're married it would be easier for the outside world to understand us.''
Opinion surveys in 2012 and 2015 found that slight majorities of Taiwanese backed legalizing same-sex marriage.
A defeat for the bill in the legislature on Friday would allow the Constitutional Court order to proceed, effective May 24. Same-sex couples could register their marriages then with local governments, but without guarantees of the legal benefits given to male-female couples.