As Taiwan debates gay marriage, advocates eye influence abroad

Proposals to legalize same-sex marriage looked on track to become law in 2017. But after pushback, the legislation’s future is in question – and, to supporters, so is a chance to burnish Taiwan’s image as an island open to social change.

Tyrone Siu/ Reuters
Legislators Jason Hsu and Yu Mei-nu (R) join hands with gay rights activist Chi Chia-wei (C) during an event to support the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia in Taipei, Taiwan on May 17, 2017.

As bills to legalize same-sex marriage made their way through the legislature last year, Taiwan seemed poised for a blast of international limelight – not so common for the island of 23 million.

For LGBT advocates throughout Asia, the proposed law promised to be an exciting “first” for the region. For a groundswell of Taiwanese, it also represented one more step in Taipei’s years-long strategy of compensating for its diplomatic handicaps with “soft power” strength, bolstering its image as a place open to social change – particularly in contrast to mainland China, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan.

“It’s no longer the more traditional China,” says Jens Damm, associate professor in the Graduate Institute of Taiwan Studies at Chang Jung University in Taiwan. “We don’t discriminate,” he says, summarizing his view of Taiwan’s message to people overseas. “We have gender equality, gender mainstreaming. These are all seen as positive.”

But after a surge of resistance, that legislation’s future looks less certain. Taiwan’s top court is expected to rule Wednesday on whether the Civil Code, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, is constitutional – a ruling with the potential to shape the current bills, which are some of Taiwan’s most controversial in years.

The results of this legal showdown could give Taiwan international attention, supporters say. But the question is whether Taiwan cements its image as a leader for gay rights in Asia, or simply is seen as another place where same-sex marriage remains a fraught issue, especially as the debate spreads beyond the West.

'We're getting there'

Two complementary bills that were once expected to receive parliamentary approval early this year have faltered under opposition from conservative advocacy groups. The legislature, which is controlled by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, will recast the bills as needed to accommodate the ruling of the constitutional court, says an aide to Yu Mei-nu, sponsor of a pending bill.

“We’re getting there,” says Jay Lin, a Taipei father who would consider marrying his partner if allowed by law, says of progress on gay rights. Even if the bills fail, he says, the “dialogue” and “visibility” they have created will help Taiwan. “I do feel that society as a whole has changed quite significantly over the past decade or so.”

It's common for same-sex couples with children to get questions, but conversations often end on a note of support, says Su Shan, mother to twin babies. Pop stars A-mei and Jolin Tsai have performed at lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender events in Taipei, such as the annual Gay Pride Parade, which drew 80,000 this year. Television host Kevin Tsai, who is openly gay, puts a face to LGBT issues in the island’s free-wheeling mass media. And President Tsai Ing-wen backed same-sex marriage during her campaign, although some say she has dialed back support since taking office.

A poll commissioned by the Kuomintang opposition political party found that just over half of the public supported same-sex marriage, while 43.3 percent opposed it. Support is as high as 80 percent among people in their 20s, according to university studies compiled by the group Taiwan LGBT Family Rights Advocacy.

People elsewhere in Asia see Taiwan as a place gay people can live with little fear, says Jovi Wu, an online sales worker in Taipei who once lived in China. “In Taiwan, people are nice to gays and lesbians, so we feel safe here,” she says. “We don’t fear our family and employers. There’s pressure, but nothing like political repression or a backlash from the schools.”

Cross-Strait contrast

In mainland China, which claims Taiwan as one of its provinces, gay communities have seen growing acceptance. But cultural emphasis on children's duty to support their parents, and provide them with grandchildren, discourages openness: fewer than 5.5 percent of gay people in China were open about their orientation in public, according to a UN-supported survey. Homosexuality was only removed from an official list of mental illnesses in 2001.

China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since the civil war of the 1940s, when Chinese Nationalists opposed to Communist rule fled across the Taiwan Strait. Sidelined by China’s economic and political clout, with just 21 official allies, Taiwan has tried since the 1990s to impress other countries via soft power, emphasizing the arts, its culture, and civil society.

Former president Chen Shui-bian elevated a series of social causes to help Taiwan stand out from China, which he harshly criticized during his time in office in the early 2000s. His government approved a $195 million budget for the health and education of Taiwanese aborigines, for example, who make up about 2 percent of the population: an attempt to improve their standard of living after decades of forced assimilation, but also to emphasize the non-Chinese aspects of Taiwanese history and identity.

Gay rights got a lift after multi-party democracy replaced martial law in the late 1980s, as did other social and civil rights issues. As Taipei mayor in the 1990s, before becoming president, Mr. Chen spoke up for LGBT causes to help Taiwan stand out in Asia as an open society, Dr. Damm says.

“Taiwan can look like an Asian democratic country, so that’s good for Taiwan’s image,” says Tsao Cheng-yi, senior project manager with the Taipei-based LGBT advocacy group Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association. “This would remind other Asian countries you can do this. I think it would be a major encouragement for LGBT people in neighboring Asian countries.”

Sparking resistance

But visible opposition to same-sex marriage picked up in December, with a demonstration in central Taipei that organizers claimed drew 30,000 people. Only about 5 percent of Taiwanese are Christian, and much larger percentages identify with Taoism or Buddhism, which have few explicit prohibitions against homosexuality. Church groups, however, have merged with those promoting traditional Chinese family values, which they say favor households headed by one man and one woman, to build resistance.

“The overall aim is to destroy marriage as we know it,” says Joanna Lei, a former legislator and the chief executive officer of the Chunghua 21st Century think tank in Taiwan. “Some places are waiting for Taiwan to set the example. If Taiwan falls, then the rest of Asia will fall.”

Death of a same-sex spouse would leave the survivor dependent on government support, as a disproportionate number of couples might lack children to support them in old age, a common expectation in ethnic Chinese societies such as Taiwan’s, says Chen Chih-hung, who chairs a small Christian political party, the Faith And Hope League.

Yet greater acceptance of LGBT causes follows gradual acceptance of another challenge to Confucian family values, Damm says: more Taiwanese women’s decisions to stay single. Once critical, conservative elders now largely leave them alone, although Taiwan now has one of the world’s lowest birth rates: 1.1 children per couple, on average.

Then again, some skeptics see support for same-sex marriage as just a way for the president and her party to hold onto the support of LGBT groups, rather than because they believe in same-sex marriage itself.

“This is kind of a pragmatic thing,” says Nathan Liu, an international affairs and diplomacy professor at Ming Chuan University in Taipei. “Taiwan society is pretty conservative.”

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