How Will Conservative Backlash to Same-Sex Marriage Impact Tsai Ing-wen’s Chances for Re-Election?

Written by Jens Damm.

Image credit: 2014 TAIWAN LGBT Pride by More Weeping/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A common criticism in Taiwan and among journalists is the lack of international media coverage of Taiwan. Thus, the fact that Taiwan made headlines internationally when it became the first in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage should be a boost for President Tsai Ing-wen, who was an outspoken supporter of the legislation. However, since Taiwan’s highest court ruled in 2017 to give the Legislative Yuan two years to pass legislation legalising same-sex marriage, it seemed that Taiwan’s international recognition for progressing in gender rights was domestically counterproductive. Tsai, who had already been criticised for being an unmarried female head of state, was increasingly attacked by conservative ‘green camp’ supporters and even members of her own party. Some critics within the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) exited and established the Formosa Alliance, a party advocating both Taiwan independence and a socially conservative agenda.

After the “victory of LGBTQ” in 2017 a fierce opposition emerged, heavily supported by an US-financed, international evangelical Christian network. This opposition was most evident in the 2018 referenda: despite some opinion polls showing equal support both for and against same-sex marriage, the referenda proved to be a nightmare for activists and Tsai. Questions such as “Do you agree that Civil Code regulations should restrict marriage to being between a man and a woman?” and “Do you agree that the Ministry of Education should not implement the Enforcement Rules for Gender Equity Education Act in elementary and middle schools?” received widespread support. Same-sex marriage was nevertheless legalised, as the Court’s decision overruled the referenda result. There were two exceptions, however, provided for in adoption rights and the restriction of same-sex marriage in binational couples. Same-sex couples can only be married in Taiwan if the spouse also comes from a country which recognises same-sex marriage.

Same-Sex Marriage – the diffusion of a Western development to Taiwan

From the late 1980s Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium allowed same-sex registered partnerships and gradually began to open marriage for same-sex couples. These countries were followed in the early 2000s by South Africa, other European countries, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand. In most cases, parliaments acted after long struggles by social movements and ‘gay friendly’ political parties. In a few cases, such as Ireland, same-sex marriage was legalised by referendum. Slovenia was a contrary case where a parliamentary proposal for marriage was rejected by referendum. In general, however, social acceptance went along with legislation.

Taiwan seemed to be the most progressive of all Asian countries. Unlike in Germany where I was involved for years with the Green Party in struggling to achieve marriage equality, party affiliation in Taiwan did not clearly align with attitudes towards same-sex marriage. Taiwan’s DPP historically had strong relations with social movements including feminist groups, while the Kuomintang (KMT) resembled Western conservative parties. The DPP provided some support for same-sex marriage, whereas a majority of the KMT opposed.

In a nutshell, the foundation for LGBTQ rights in Taiwan was formed through a combination of a strong social movement of feminists, LGBTQ rights activists, Western-trained judges and a legal framework. President Tsai Ing-wen herself supported same-sex marriage, albeit with carefully worded statements. However, having taught at a Presbyterian University in Taiwan’s south, I was not surprised to see the strong opposition to same-sex marriage coming from more rural and southern constituencies, as well as that of the Presbyterian Church. My personal experiences in everyday life and in discussions with female students and teachers in public schools reported the many contradictions between an official policy focusing on gender equality and women’s rights in a male dominated society.

The biggest political issue of this election is the Formosa Alliance. Established in 2018 and becoming a political party in 2019, it brings together older adherents of Taiwanese independence such as Lee Teng-hui, former Vice President Annette Lu and former President Chen Shuibian, with younger activists from the Sunflower Movement. They had a common goal in support of the 2018 referendum on Taiwan’s official name at the Tokyo Olympics. But while younger sunflower activists supported same-sex marriage, gender education in schools, etc., Annette Lu and other Presbyterian members did not. Annette Lu had notoriously announced that AIDS was God punishing gays. Lu’s position stood in stark contrast to Tsai and the liberal, urban, educated DPP members who emphasised Taiwan’s progressive stance towards human rights, gender equity and LGBTQ rights as a means of promoting Taiwan on an international stage.

Tsai’s stance was supported by the European Union and US government, both of which also approved of her cautious dealings with Beijing. Although Tsai rejected the 1992 consensus advocated by Beijing, she also refused to officially declare Taiwan independence and thus angered both young and old generations of independence activists. While these two groups may have been united in their support for independence, they differed fundamentally on other issues. The younger generation fully supported the global (Western) perception that Taiwan has become a vibrant, Asian democracy with elements of multiculturalism and a strong emphasis on gender equality, evident in the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

Conclusion

I argue that Taiwanese society’s movement towards the acceptance of human rights as global values, multiculturalism, the rights of individuals etc. is intrinsically linked to the development of a Taiwanese identity (based what Habermas called a Verfassungspatriotismus) as used to assert Taiwan’s international status. Taiwanese LGBTQ rights could thus act as a signifier of Taiwan’s democratisation with the aim of achieving soft power and opposing any form of a ‘one China policy’. Although there is still a conservative, reactionary majority in Taiwan and among DPP supports, there are signs that things may change, especially if Tsai is re-elected for a second term.

The younger and better educated support gender equality and LGBTQ rights, individualistic behaviour, and are much less attracted by an ethnocentric Taiwanese nationalism. As China’s civil society has weakened, so too have the links between Taiwanese and Chinese civil societies, which has strengthened Taiwanese civils society ties with the West, Japan and Southeast Asia. Except for US evangelicals, Taiwan’s stride towards more ‘progressive values’ has been received positively in international media reports, which are very important for Taiwan’s self-esteem. Taiwan being the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage is something many Taiwanese are proud of, even if they still regard LGBTQ issues as alien to their own family and society.

Jens Damm is a board member of the European Association of Taiwan Studies and an Associate Fellow at the European Research Center on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT), Eberhard Karls University, Tübingen, Germany. Between 2009 and 2019 he was an Associate Professor at the Graduate Institute of Taiwan Studies, Chang Jung University, Taiwan.

From December 16th 2019 till January 6th 2020, researchers from the European Research Centre on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT) and Taiwan Studies Program (TSP) present a joint special issue on the forthcoming presidential election that will be held on January 11th 2020.

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