Taiwanese laws that prohibit same-sex couples from marrying violate their personal freedom and equal protection, the island's Constitutional Court ruled Wednesday. The justices called sexual orientation an "immutable characteristic that is resistant to change."
"The judges have today said yes to marriage equality," said Amnesty International's Lisa Tassi, who directs campaigns in East Asia. "This is a huge step forward for LGBTI rights in Taiwan and will resonate across Asia."
Taiwan's president has asked the Ministry of Justice to come up with a legal framework for complying with the decision.
The court's ruling gives Taiwan's government two years to change its marriage laws. If that deadline passes without legislative action, same-sex couples will be allowed to register for marriage and obtain "the status of a legally recognized couple."
The long-awaited ruling was greeted by cheers at an outdoor rally organized by the Taiwan LGBT Family Rights Advocacy, which live-streamed the announcement on a large video screen as well as on Facebook.
Allowing single people to have the autonomy to decide whether to marry and whom to marry, the Taiwanese court said in a news release, "is vital to the sound development of personality and safeguarding of human dignity, and therefore is a fundamental right."
The court also said that when same-sex couples create "a permanent union of intimate and exclusive nature for the committed purpose of managing a life together," they're not affecting the rights of people in a heterosexual marriage.
The issue of same-sex marriage has been a source of contention for decades in Taiwan. The key plaintiff, Chi Chia-wei (sometimes written as Qi Jia-wei), has fought for gay rights since the 1980s and first sought a marriage license 16 years ago, Focus Taiwan reports.
Critics of legalization voiced their opposition to Wednesday's ruling, as Taiwan News reports:
"Groups opposing same-sex marriage, including Coalition for the Happiness of Our Next Generation, protested outside the Judicial Yuan after the result came out. Some requested the invalidation of the interpretation and the president to step down."
Noting a history of discrimination against homosexuality and homosexuals' lack of political power, the court said that "in determining the constitutionality of different treatment based on sexual orientation, a heightened standard shall be applied."
Ahead of today's ruling, there were signs that Taiwan was poised to legalize same-sex marriage. It was a key campaign issue for President Tsai Ing-wen, who took office one year ago, and the legislature has been weighing a change to Taiwan's Civil Code, according to The China Post.
Back in 2013, Taiwan's Interior Ministry surprised many when it decided "not to revoke a marriage between two trans women," as Gay Star News reported. In doing so, the government said the couple had been "a man and a woman" when they registered to marry.