LGBTQ RIGHTS/From closet to office: Japanese councilor's journey alongside Taiwanese partner
By Teng Pei-ju, CNA staff reporter
The marriage of Ariel Liu (劉靈均) to his Japanese husband Masahiro Shibaguchi in August, despite garnering significant media attention, has hardly impacted the couple's daily life in Japan, where same-sex marriage remains illegal.
But for Liu, a Miaoli native who grew up in Taipei, that certificate issued by a local household registration office was proof that "my hometown supports my very existence."
"It is hard to put how I felt at that moment into words," Shibaguchi, a city councilor in the small central Japanese city of Takahama, said when describing the day the registration took place.
"But I had a new and unprecedented feeling... a feeling that transcended elation," the 53-year-old told CNA during a recent video interview, a smile flickering across his face.
Liu and Shibaguchi are among several of the cross-national same-sex couples to have officially tied the knot in Taiwan after the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) scrapped a directive that had long been criticized as discriminatory, according to the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights (TAPPCR).
Despite Taiwan legalizing same-sex marriage in May 2019, that directive had excluded couples comprised of one person from a country or jurisdiction where same-sex marriage was not recognized.
Currently, only same-sex couples comprised of one person from China are unable to register their marriage in Taiwan because their matrimonial affairs are governed by a separate law, TAPPCR, a Taipei-based NGO that has promoted LGBTQ rights since 2009, said.
For Shibaguchi, 2023 has been a roller coaster and not just because of getting married, something he had thought would be "beyond [his] reach," in a foreign country.
This shy and reserved Japanese man who previously worked as a truck driver also had a drastic career change when he became the first politician in Aichi Prefecture to win an election after coming out of the closet.
According to Shibaguchi, he became aware of his sexual orientation when he was a third-grader at elementary school, but it was not until he met Liu, then a university lecturer, in May 2021, that he began opening up about his sexuality.
When a senior Takahama councilor from the Japanese Communist Party retired late last year, Shibaguchi, having liaised with the party since his early adulthood, took his chance and put his bid in for the job.
He was eventually elected in April in a race where 15 candidates competed for 14 seats.
During his campaign, Shibaguchi was not only open about being gay, but he also called for more education focusing on gender equality and the promulgation of anti-discrimination regulations, Liu, 38, who was also deeply involved in the campaign, explained.
Speaking of his role, Liu said in a self-deprecating tone that he had never been treated as a partner, but rather as more of a "lackey," when standing alongside Shibaguchi.
Liu, whom people could not distinguish from the locals because of his fluency in the Kansai dialect, said he would hand Shibaguchi the microphone, stand behind him and wave flags, and shake hands with passersby while his now-husband was delivering speeches.
He added, with a hint of satisfaction, that he had excelled at interacting with the kids brought along by their parents, often using toys to keep them amused, and also that he had enjoyed chatting with older students.
In contrast with Liu's modesty, Shibaguchi said his husband's involvement had helped draw more attention from young people who otherwise had tended to seem distant from the Communist Party.
Liu, currently a gender studies researcher at Osaka Metropolitan University, has been a veteran activist since he was a university student in Taipei.
Over the years, he has advocated for the rights of the LGBTQ community, ran anti-nuke campaigns, and worked with NGOs on various social causes.
In July 2017, he started an informal group, the Kansai Tongzhi Association, to promote gay rights in the Kansai region, and its presence has since expanded to other areas, according to Liu.
Speaking of how the people of Taiwan and Japan could collaborate on LGBTQ advocacy, Liu said the Taiwanese could help their friends in Japan be more aware of the socio-economic advantages of equality in society.
"The fulfilling emotional experiences and freedom enjoyed by Taiwanese people stem from their support of each other. It would be wonderful to let our Japanese friends see that," he said.
This, Liu said, is what inspires him to continue working with his group in Japan. He added that he looks forward to seeing more people join forces so that gay people "from Japan can also attain happiness."
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