Taiwan is on the verge of becoming the first Asian government to legalize marriage equality. But the public is deeply divided.
- By Linda van der HorstLinda van der Horst holds a Master's degree in Modern Chinese Studies from the University of Oxford, and is an English-qualified lawyer. She currently works in international affairs.
In October 2014, a crowd at an LGBT rights rally in Taipei, one of many, lobbed four large red balloons emblazoned with the Chinese characters for marriage equality into the fenced courtyard of Taiwan’s legislature. At that time, a comfortable majority of Taiwanese supported same-sex marriage; a number of polls in the self-governing island of 23 million indicated as much, with one showing as many as 71 percent in favor. But several initiatives to amend the law to achieve marriage equality, first mooted in 2003, have not been successful. Two years later, three marriage equality bills now sit on legislators’ desks; although international media have been quick to announce that Taiwan stands on the cusp of being the first government in Asia to achieve marriage equality, the island’s public seems deeply divided. In the latest poll on the subject, released on Nov. 29, 46 percent of respondents supported marriage equality, while 45 percent opposed it. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s lawmakers and its civil society have been more cautious than recent headlines in Western media suggest.
Island-wide marriage equality initiatives have been unsuccessful in spite of growing support over decades. Even without national legislation, many local governments in Taiwan now allow same-sex couples to participate in collective weddings and to record their partnership in household registries across the island, although neither action confers any legal rights.
To many, the election of President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in January portended a broader, deeper change. Tsai openly made statements that appeared to support marriage equality during and after her campaign. In an October 2015 Facebook video posted to coincide with Taipei’s annual LGBT pride parade, Tsai exclaimed, “Everyone is equal before love.” A year later, she posted a photo on her Facebook page showing a rainbow, adding that her “belief has not changed” post-election. In August, Tsai appointed the first transgender official in government, Audrey Tang, as executive councilor for digital policy, which looked like another step toward acceptance of different gender norms.
Since Tsai took office this May, pressure has been building on her to deliver. Yet she has never explicitly promised that her administration would push for same-sex marriage legislation, and critics have feared that once in office, she would find herself unable to follow through on her progressive rhetoric. The party that Tsai leads, the DPP, “has neither devoted sufficient resources to communicate the issues of marriage equality nor to reconcile differences within the party,” Victoria Hsu, who heads the nonprofit Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights (TAPCPR), told Foreign Policy.
It was therefore a setback when Justice Minister Chiu Tai-san announced in August that his ministry still intended to introduce its own same-sex partnership bill — but only in 2017, after studying the impact of such a law on Taiwanese society. (In Taiwan, ministries can introduce bills into the legislature.) The effort dates back to the previous, more socially conservative Kuomintang (KMT) administration of Ma Ying-jeou and is an attempt to compromise between supporters of marriage equality and religious groups opposed. Proposing a separate law for same-sex partnership is politically easier, as it leaves the institution of marriage as currently constituted unchanged.
In the absence of strong top-down leadership on the issue from Tsai, momentum for the bills currently under consideration has come from the bottom up. Audrey Ko, the chief editor of Womany, an online media outlet focused on gender issues and LGBT rights, says a stigma remains for gays and lesbians in Taiwan, one her company seeks to dispel. Other organizations, such as the Taiwan Tongzhi (LGBT) Hotline Association, perform peer counseling and advocacy work. Even corporations are chipping in; in March, McDonald’s released a commercial in which a son comes out to his father in one of its restaurants. (The father accepts it.)
This summer, a number of Taiwanese pop artists organized a benefit concert to raise awareness for marriage equality; tickets sold out in minutes. Pop superstar Jolin Tsai performed a lesbian-themed song for the occasion. In the music video for the song “We’re All Different, Yet the Same,” she makes the case for marriage equality by describing the plight of a woman whose partner of more than 30 years is hospitalized; the woman is unable to sign a consent form for emergency surgery because she is legally not a spouse or family member.
A real-life version of this tragedy triggered public outcry and reinvigorated support for marriage equality. On Oct. 16, 67-year-old French professor Jacques Picoux fell to his death from the top of a 10-story building in Taipei, police said. He is thought to have committed suicide after depression caused by the death of his partner due to cancer; Picoux was unable to make medical decisions for his partner in his final days, as Picoux had no legal status. In a response to this outcry, legislators from the DPP and the KMT, as well as the caucus of the New Power Party (NPP), a young activist organization, all introduced similar marriage equality bills.
All three proposals would amend the Taiwan Civil Code to open marriage to same-sex couples, but they differ in how to do so. DPP legislator Yu Mei-nu’s proposal introduces a general provision extending to same-sex couples the right to marriage, as well as other family law rights that accompany married status. But it leaves further gendered language across the civil code intact. The proposals of KMT legislator Hsu Yu-ren and the NPP would make references to “husband and wife” and “father and mother” gender-neutral throughout all relevant civil code provisions. These latter two proposals have great symbolic meaning, because they remove a heterosexual presumption from the code, but the legal effect is likely no different than Yu’s proposal.
There is still a long legislative road to travel before Taiwan can become the first Asian government to legalize same-sex marriage. The bills passed their first reading on Nov. 17, but the DPP caucus whip has said the proposed bills will next be reviewed on Dec. 26. During the review process, any legislator can introduce a competing same-sex partnership act. Even if the bills were to enter a second reading, they could still face a boycott and be removed from the agenda. The bills will only become legislation after passing three readings.
As these bills went through their first reading in the legislature this month, thousands of people protesting against marriage equality, and only several hundred rallying for it, gathered on Taipei’s streets. Opposition to marriage equality in Taiwan largely comes from small but well-organized and vocal conservative religious groups. Four people reportedly even managed to storm into the legislative meeting room, shouting that the “legislators are monsters” and would want to change Taiwan “into an AIDS island.”
It is hard to tell whether the legislature will pass a same-sex marriage bill this time, says Hsu of TAPCPR, partly because of internal opposition within the DPP and KMT. (The NPP caucus fully supports its bill but only holds five seats in legislature.) Tsai has reiterated that the bills are “clear evidence” marriage equality has support across all parties. But even Yu, who introduced the DPP bill, says she is only cautiously optimistic about the chances of passing a marriage equality law.
Outside lawmakers’ offices, the battle for public support continues. If anything, it seems to be waning precisely at the time when it will be most needed. “More and more people are confessing that they love gays but that they don’t support same-sex marriage,” said Ko, because they believe allowing same-sex partners to get married will harm traditional family values. She is therefore unsure whether Taiwan will manage to pass a bill in the next year. At least, Ko added, “people are talking [about it], and it is not a taboo anymore.”
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