Gay rights pioneer Chi keeps rainbow flag aloft after accepting award

“I am willing to exchange my Presidential Cultural Award for the right of gay people to get married,” long-time gay rights activist Chi Chia-wei (祁家威) said last month after it was announced that he had been granted the prestigious award.

Having fought decades in Taiwan for the legalization of same-sex marriage and other gay rights, 59-year-old Chi was named on Oct. 13 as the recipient of the 9th Presidential Cultural Awards in the social reform category.

“He has always firmly promoted equal gay rights, and (was given the award) because he filed a request for a constitutional interpretation that allowed same-sex marriage to be protected at the constitutional level, and allowed Taiwan to become a pioneer in Asia on the issue and a more progressive country,” according to the General Association of Chinese Culture (GACC), which hands out the biennial award.

Chi was among the five recipients of this year’s Presidential Cultural Awards, which were launched in 2001 to honor individuals and groups that contribute to Taiwanese society. The awards are given in five categories, namely cultural endeavor, humanitarian contributions, youth creativity, indigenous hope and social reform.

At a ceremony in Taipei on Tuesday, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who heads the GACC, presented the awards to the five recipients, including Chi.

Chi, who came out as a gay man in 1986, has since been pursing various legal channels for Taiwan to legalize same-sex marriage.

In 2000, two years after a district court rejected an application by Chi and another man to register as a married couple, Chi filed a request for a constitutional interpretation on same-sex marriage. However, the request was rejected by the Justices of the Constitutional Court in 2001.

In 2013, Chi again tried to register with another man as a married couple but their application was turned down by a household registration office in Taipei. In 2015, Chi joined forces with the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership and again filed a request for a constitutional interpretation on gay marriage.

In May this year, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.

When Chi was named as a recipient of the Presidential Cultural Awards last month, he said he was pleased with the recognition but cared more about the legalization of same-sex marriage and hoped Taiwan would take that step soon.

He said he was saddened and devastated by the Taipei High Administrative Court’s decision in October to turn down a request by two women, Fang Min (方敏) and Lin Yu-li (林于立), to register as a married couple.

Since the Constitutional Court has already ruled that same-sex marriage will become legal in Taiwan in two years if the Legislature does not legalize it before then, the lower courts should not be rejecting such requests now, Chi argued. Gay people pay taxes too and should therefore enjoy equal rights, he said.

While Chi has been battling within the legal system for a long time, he does not see Taiwan’s society in general as intolerant of homosexuality.

Growing up as a gay person in Taiwan, he never experienced much homophobia, he told CNA in an interview last week.

He said his family was supportive right from the start, when he came out to them, and he never faced any hostility in the military or at his workplaces.

“Somehow, I was destined by God to be a gay rights activist,” Chi said.

Even people who oppose same-sex marriage “find it hard to open their mouths in front of me,” he said.

Nonetheless, in the society, there is much that needs to be changed with regards to gay rights, he said.

For example, Chi said, gender equality education is needed in schools to prevent bullying and to help children embrace their sexual orientation when they grow up.

“Children do not live in a closed world,” he said. “If you don’t teach them these things in school, young people nowadays will learn from other sources.” At a rally on Oct. 16 to commemorate the death of gay French professor Jacques Picoux (畢安生), Chi said he was probably given the Presidential Cultural Award because the constitutional court decision took the government by surprise and it hoped that by giving him an award, he would not wave his rainbow flag “in high places” anymore.

“But of course I will continue to wave my flag, until the day same-sex marriage is truly legalized,” said Chi, who is known for carrying a large rainbow flag at gay pride parades and other rallies.

At the Picoux rally last month, Chi was draped in a rainbow flag and was wearing a rainbow-colored hairband.

Asked by the rally’s host if he would stop waving the flag when same-sex marriage becomes law in Taiwan, Chi said, “At least I won’t have to climb to such dangerous heights anymore to wave it.”

By Christie Chen and Yu Hsiao-han, CNA staff reporters