TAIPEI -- More than 100,000 people, many wearing rainbow face masks and waving rainbow flags, took to the streets of Taipei on Saturday for the world's largest LGBT pride parade since the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic in March.
Taiwan, which became the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage last year, has tamed the virus through strict travel restrictions, contact-tracing and face mask distribution, and has now gone 202 days without a local transmission. The pride event is seen by many in Taiwan as a double celebration of LGBT rights and the island's handling of COVID-19.
The island of 23 million has also avoided any major restrictions on daily life, allowing 130,000 people to march alongside giant rainbow flags and brightly-colored floats on two parade routes from Taipei's City Hall. This contrasts with many Western nations that face new lockdowns amid a second wave of infections.
"I am excited to see so many people out on the streets," said Kristy Tseng, who came from the nearby city of Taoyuan to attend the parade wearing a rainbow mask and was walking behind an LGBT marching band, "the rest of the world is affected by the pandemic, but because of our government's efforts here we have a safe environment."
Many attendees wanted to express their thanks to Taiwan's government and health professionals for the successful coronavirus response, said Jennifer Lu, executive director of Taiwan Equality Campaign. "It is because of them we can have this parade," she told Nikkei Asia.
She likened Taiwan's coronavirus response to the decades-long fight for marriage equality, which finally succeeded in May last year. "The motivation is different, but you can see that with one common goal, people in Taiwan are willing to devote their time and energy to the public interest, I am very proud of our people, of our civil society."
Organizers claimed Saturday's parade is the largest physical LGBT pride event since Australia's Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival in February, which took place days before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic.
President Tsai-ing Wen said "love, tolerance, a better Taiwan" were keywords for the day in a rainbow-coloured Facebook post, "let's work hard on these," she said.
Earlier this week, Tsai took to Facebook to invite citizens to march with her ruling Democratic Progressive Party at the parade, promising free Taiwan-made rainbow face masks for anyone who signed up.
"In 2019, thanks to the hard work of many people, Taiwan became the first Marriage Equality country in Asia," she said.
A legal challenge led by LGBT activist Chi Chia-wei led to a 2017 Constitutional Court ruling that the country's Civil Code was unconstitutional for failing to recognize same-sex marriage.
After bitterly fought referendums in 2018, the majority of Taiwanese citizens opted for a separate marriage law over changing the Civil Code and the bill passed by the legislature on May 24, 2019, minimized use of the term "marriage" and did not grant full adoption rights or marriage rights to all transnational couples.
More than 4,000 same-sex couples wed under the law in its first year.
"Even though the marriage law has already been passed, we still come out to push for progress" said Yu Ping, a doctor in Taipei who was walking with her wife and brother-in-law. "The government and the people have worked well together to control the coronavirus, this is our pride."
On Friday, Taiwan's military included for the first time two same-sex couples in its annual mass wedding ceremony.
Proudly democratic Taiwan has championed the marriage law and LGBT acceptance as a point of difference with China, its gigantic authoritarian neighbor. Beijing claims the island as its territory, and has said it can be brought under its control by force if necessary.
"The pride parade delivers a very clear message that human rights is the fundamental thing that makes Taiwan different from China," said Wayne Lin, head of public relations for pride organizer Taiwan Rainbow Civil Action Association. "Hundreds of thousands of people can march on the street here. In China you cannot do that."
Negative views of China internationally have reached record highs as it cracks down on freedoms in Hong Kong, steps up military action across the Asia-Pacific region, and amid accusations it covered up the initial spread of the coronavirus.
Thanks to pressure from Beijing, Taiwan is excluded from global health bodies such as the World Health Organization. The island has boosted its global image by donating more than 50 million Taiwan-made face masks to countries in need and inviting foreign leaders to visit and learn from its coronavirus successes, dubbed the "Taiwan Can Help" campaign by the government.
Taiwan's coronavirus response has also highlighted Taiwan's position at the forefront of LGBT and gender equality in Asia, according to Lu.
In April, Taiwan Centers for Disease Control ministers donned pink face masks at a press conference after male students reportedly refused to wear masks of that color to school for fear of being ridiculed by classmates. This prompted other government agencies and institutions to come out for LGBT and gender equality with pink and rainbow face mask photos on social media.
"No color is exclusive to girls or boys. #GenderEquality lies at the heart of #Taiwanvalues," the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote on Twitter.
Digital Minister Audrey Tang -- the world's first openly transgender cabinet minister -- has gained international praise for developing open-source solutions to mask distribution, developing contact tracing systems and helping combat pandemic fake news.
"More and more people are getting to know Taiwan and what we stand for," said Lu, adding that the Taiwan Can Help message fits with her mission to assist other Asian countries in their bid for LGBT equality, despite Taiwan's exclusion from the world stage.
Thailand's cabinet in July approved a draft same-sex civil partnership bill that, if ratified by parliament, will give couples inheritance and adoption rights. In Japan, support for same-sex marriage is rising and in February last year, 13 same-sex couples filed lawsuits against the government for denying them marriage certificates.
Lu said LGBT Taiwanese and their supporters also took to the streets on Saturday to support the rest of Asia in its push for LGBT rights. "We want people to feel hope during the pandemic," Lu said.