Presbyterian pastor: marriage equality in Taiwan ‘fulfills the wish of human fairness’

Pastor Silas Wong, left, waiting for the vote on marriage equality in Taiwan

Pastor Silas Wong has waited many years for this moment.

On May 17, 2019, Wong stood at the steps of the Taiwanese Legislative Council, in the capital city of Taipei, waiting for a decision on marriage equality. He had worked for years campaigning for marriage equality here, a right that he feels will help his congregation grow closer to their spouses and to God.

“We waited in the rain, the rain did not stop all morning,” he told GayCities. “My body was soaked, but my heart was happy.”

Wong is the “Pastor-in-Charge” at Tong-Kwang Lighthouse Presbyterian Church, an independent church (not affiliated with any other Presbyterian organization) founded in 1996 to serve the LGBTQ community in Taiwan. Wong, who had been a pastor in Hong Kong, moved to Taiwan with his wife to lead Tong-Kwang Lighthouse, which has several hundred active members, because he feels it is his calling to work with this congregation, when so many churches do not.

“Because the anti-gay atmosphere from traditional churches is still so great,” he said, “I chose to come here to serve.”

Pastor Silas Wong and his wife

This issue of same-sex marriage is particularly unusual for Taiwan, the only country in Asia to even discuss marriage equality. The island is governed by a democratically elected government, but has a conservative culture heavily influenced by thousands of years of conservative Chinese culture. In a 2018 referendum, which asked voters if they supported marriage equality, approximately 72% said “no” and chose to define marriage as between one man and one woman. However, they also voted strongly in favor of protecting rights of same-sex couples who live together, although at the time there was no definition of what those protections would entail.

Christianity is not common in Taiwan. Approximately 93% of the island’s population practices Buddhist or Taoist beliefs, while less than 5% identify as Christian.

As is typical in stories about marriage equality around the world, religious conservatives in Taiwan, across all faiths, united to passionately protest marriage equality, pleading with government officials to save society from its imminent demise if same-sex couples were allowed to legally get married.

This is where Pastor Wong found his voice. After years of ministering to his parishioners, who are almost entirely gay men and lesbians, Wong moved beyond the church and campaigned for social justice, showing up to protests with rainbow flags, and writing political columns in local newspapers. When he spoke in public, he often had his wife at his side. A Christian priest standing in front of news cameras, protesting for social justice and gay rights, is a rare sight in eastern Asian countries where bringing unwanted attention to your family is something that people simply do not do.

Pastor Silas Wong of Tong-Kwang Lighthouse Presbyterian Church

Taiwan’s legislature voted in favor of legalizing marriage equality, that day as Wong waited in the rain. The president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, sent a tweet before the vote: “Good morning Taiwan. Today, we have a chance to make history & show the world that progressive values can take root in an East Asian society. Today, we can show the world that #LoveWins.”

Although it is encouraging to receive the president’s support, the decision was not really up to the Legislature. Taiwan’s government leaders were ordered by the country’s Supreme Court to develop some sort of marriage rights for same-sex couples, after ruling in 2017 that laws restricting marriage to one man and one woman were unconstitutional. Thanks to the Supreme Court, marriage equality, or perhaps civil unions or something of the sort, was inevitable.

However, when the government chose to go all the way to “marriage,” it was not because they care about social justice. Legalizing same-sex marriage creates a wedge between their country and their too-close-for-comfort neighbor, China, who claims Taiwan a renegade territory to be reclaimed and reincorporated someday.

This is not something that progressive, capitalist, and democratically inclined Taiwanese officials are excited about. So confronting a taboo topic like same-sex marriage allowed Taiwan to separate their society from the culture of China, and remind everybody that all sorts of things happen in Taiwan that the mainland Chinese would not like.

There are some glitches with the current marriage equality law, including the lack of provisions for same-sex couples to adopt children. Pastor Wong sees this as the next step for Taiwan, as the country evolves to accept marriage equality as a part of their culture.

Related: Celebrate marriage equality by meeting the men of Asia’s gay capital – Taipei, Taiwan

There is also trouble on the horizon for marriage equality. As is the trend in many countries around the world, an ultra-conservative wave is sweeping Taiwan, and it is a story familiar to Americans. A front-runner for the 2020 presidential election, Han Kuo-yu, is a brazen and relatively inexperienced candidate who says dramatic (and sometimes offensive) things to keep himself in the news, and presents himself as the only person who can save Taiwan from all its problems but does not present many actual plans to do so. A lot of people in Taiwan love Han, a result of his dynamic public presence, and these voters support his conservative party’s wishes for building more political ties with communist China. And, of course, these are also the conservative voters who do not like same-sex marriage.

But Pastor Wong is optimistic. Hundreds of same-sex couples have married since the law was enacted, including four couples from Wong’s church (“And there are more to come!” he said). Wong hopes the citizens of Taiwan, as was the case with Americans, will see same-sex couples differently now that they can get married, and subsequently change their minds and support the law.

“Legalization of gay marriage is a modern trend,” Wong said, “and fulfills the wish of human fairness here.”

Photos provided by Silas Wong