Tea Leaf Nation

Could Taiwan Be First in Asia with Marriage Equality?

Could Taiwan Be First in Asia with Marriage Equality?

TAIPEI — Austin feels lucky to be Taiwanese. A gay man, he freely enjoys Taipei’s vibrant club scene, centered around Red House, an historic theatre from the early 20th century. At night, groups of male friends parade the square and frequent its numerous gay bars before heading to a nearby club, where they dance to female K-pop bands. In many ways, Taiwan is already more free than other countries, he said. He is “not afraid someone will hurt me” because he is gay. But marriage equality for Taiwanese like Austin is not yet a reality, and proposals to legalize same-sex marriage have gained little traction in Taiwan’s legislature. The idea’s popularity is rising, however, and island-wide elections on Jan. 16 — when the more liberal Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is projected to oust the long-ruling Kuomintang (KMT) from the presidency and possibly the Legislative Yuan — could put Taiwan one step closer to becoming the first Asian nation to permit same-sex marriage.

Previous attempts at marriage equality on the self-governing island have failed. First proposed in a draft amendment to human rights legislation in 2003, marriage equality was put on the table again in 2013 by DPP legislators, this time in the form of a proposal to amend Taiwan’s Civil Code. It stalled.

But public support for same-sex marriage equality on this self-governing island of 23 million is on the rise. In July 2015, thousands of LGBT activists marched through the capital, Taipei, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional, effectively legalizing it nationwide. A 2015 poll sponsored by Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice found that 71 percent of respondents favored legalizing same-sex marriage, and imminently.

Other initiatives in Taiwan have sought to advance same-sex partner rights. Cities across Taiwan last year began to accept civil partnership household registration for same-sex partners, and allowed same-sex couples to join in mass marriage ceremonies, though both the household registration and the marriage ceremonies do not carry legal weight. The Ministry for Health recently allowed a special interpretation of the Medical Care Act to permit same-sex couples visitation rights and to make medical decisions for each other.

Support for marriage equality also runs relatively strong within the DPP. Although the party has not formally adopted a party-wide stance on the issue, many of its candidates support the current draft of same-sex marriage legislation. “A little less than [75 per cent] of all DPP legislators support the bill,” according to Michael Cole, senior editor and researcher at Thinking Taiwan, a DPP-funded nonpartisan think tank. “And the chances that it would be passed will be substantially higher if, once the new legislature opens on Feb. 1 the DPP and the third force parties have succeeded in securing a majority of seats in the Jan. 16 elections,” Cole said, using a term for third parties besides the KMT and DPP. According to a survey by Pride Watch Taiwan, an LGBT rights advocacy group, an overwhelming majority of supporters for the bill are DPP candidates. Most opponents are KMT candidates.

Opposition to same-sex marriage has come from a small but vocal minority of conservative religious groups. In November 2013, when a marriage equality bill originally proposed by Cheng Li-chiun and Yu Mei-nu, both DPP legislators, first entered parliament for consideration, tens of thousands of anti-gay marriage protesters took to the streets. But those groups are quite marginal in broader Taiwanese society, Dafydd Fell, director of the Taiwan Studies Centre at the School for Oriental and African Studies in London, told Foreign Policy via email.

The marriage equality question in Taiwan, as elsewhere, often splits along a generational divide. Yu, a long-time advocate of women’s and LGBT rights, told FP that supporters of the bill “are from the younger generation,” while those decision-makers over 40 or 50 years old tend to oppose it.

It so happens this generational divide is deepening, for reasons that include but go well beyond the marriage equality question. Dissatisfaction with the administration of current President and KMT member Ma Ying-jeou — in particular, his mounting coziness with mainland China — culminated in the occupation of Taiwan’s parliament by students and civic activists in March and April 2014, and at least 100,000 protesters rallied in the streets, a series of events known as the Sunflower Movement. Fledgling political parties founded in its wake have focused on social justice issues such as indigenous rights, environmental protection, women’s rights, and LGBT issues. The New Power Party, established in early 2015, has rapidly risen in the polls to become Taiwan’s third most popular.

The DPP has taken notice of the rise of these third force parties and of the issues that motivate their members. Those campaigning for 59-year-old Tsai Ying-wen, the DPP candidate for president and presumptive winner, include many social movement activists pushing for indigenous rights, women’s rights, and LGBT rights. The issues these third parties have raised are “very salient in this election, but for that reason they have also been adopted by the DPP,” Jonathan Sullivan, a Taiwan specialist at the University of Nottingham told FP via email.

Tsai’s embrace of the issue does not extend fully to the lower levels of the DPP. When the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights, an advocacy group, asked all political candidates to pledge their support as sponsor or co-sponsor of a marriage equality bill during these elections, only nine KMT and 13 DPP candidates agreed; but all candidates from liberal third parties have signed the pledge, including all 11 candidates put forth by the New Power Party (NPP). That puts its passage in continued doubt, even with a DPP victory. “To pass this bill, it must have the major parties’ strong political will,” said Victoria Hsu, CEO for the advocacy group and one of the authors of the 2013 Marriage Equality Bill.

Tsai’s support, at least, appears genuine. She promised support for same-sex marriage during her unsuccessful campaign in the island’s previous presidential election. In an October 2015 Facebook video, she directly expressed support for marriage equality — just in time for Taipei’s Gay Pride parade. “Everyone is equal before love,” she said. Tsai’s running mate, Chen Chien-jen, is a prominent member of the Catholic community, but in November 2015 quoted Pope Francis, saying everyone has the right to pursue happiness. “The Lord loves everyone, so he loves homosexuals,” Chen said.

Legislators Yu and Cheng say they plan to re-introduce their bill as soon as the legislature reconvenes. “I don’t think that in the first [parliamentary] session it will be passed,” Yu laughed. But it’s clear she believes it is only a matter of time.

Sam Yeh/Getty

Correction, Jan. 20: Victoria Hsu authored the 2013 Marriage Equality Bill in her role as CEO of the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights, and not in her capacity as a legislative candidate as originally stated. That alliance sought pledges of candidate support for the equality bill, not the Green Party-Social Democratic Party Alliance as originally stated.