The public’s view on same-sex marriage legalisation

Written by Timothy Rich, Isabel Eliassen, Andi Dahmer and Carolyn Brueggemann.

Image credit: #LegalizeGayMarriage by Marek Kubica/Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0

On May 17, 2019, the Democratic Progressive Party-led Legislative Yuan passed same-sex marriage legislation, signed by President Tsai Ing-wen five days later, making Taiwan the first country in Asia to have marriage equality. Despite passage, several points of contention remain regarding the law. For instance, same-sex couples cannot adopt unless one of them is the biological parent of the child. In some cases, adoption applications are rejected because the couple has only been officially married for a few months, indicating to officials their relationship may not yet be ‘stable’. Additionally, Taiwan’s assisted reproductive technology is not open to same-sex couples, and under current law, Taiwan will not recognise the marriages of transnational couples, unless both countries recognise gay marriage. These issues are likely to be addressed in President Tsai Ing-wen’s second term, with opposition groups, evident during the 2018 local elections and this year’s national elections, committed to prevent further LGBT rights.

We ask to what extent has the public’s view on same-sex marriage changed in recent years and to what extent this influenced the 2020 election? The 2018 local elections clearly indicated a shift in the political saliency of the issue of same-sex marriage legislation over the past several years, while Tsai’s re-election with a continued Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislative majority would suggest that opposition to the issue has declined in salience.

Initial survey work suggested Taiwanese openness to legalisation. The first survey on the issue, by the National Union of Taiwan Women’s Associations in April of 2016, found that 75% believed homosexual relations to be acceptable. In terms of same-sex marriage, the Taiwan Social Change Survey in 2012 and 2015 found supporters outnumbering opponents, with marginal differences between DPP and Kuomintang (KMT) supporters.

Yet, by 2018 support had noticeably declined as part of a concerted effort of conservative organisations. In the 2018 local elections, all five of the referendums related to the LGBT community had anti-LGBT outcomes. Despite this, the Legislative Yuan passed a same-sex marriage law in May of 2019, in accordance with the May 2017 ruling from the Constitutional Court. The assumption remained that support would increase post legalisation. For example, the United States and Canada reported broader levels of acceptance of same-sex marriage after the law was passed, with similar patterns seen in Ireland. In New Zealand, following legalisation, same-sex marriage was reported to be more openly “accepted” rather than simply tolerated.

Although support for same-sex marriage has been shown to increase in many countries after legalisation, this is not the case for all countries. A 2016 survey found that 72% of South Africans believed same-sex sexual activity was morally wrong, despite the country legalising same-sex marriage in 2006. Similarly, Ecuador legalised same-sex marriage in July 2019, although the majority of citizens remain opposed.

Following the 2018 local elections, many predicted that the issue of same-sex marriage would hinder Tsai and the DPP in 2020. For proponents, Tsai had openly supported legalisation but did little to ensure its passage in the legislature following the 2017 court decision, leading to questions of Tsai’s dedication to the LGBT community. Meanwhile, opponents, energised from referendum victories, viewed a DPP defeat as the clearest means to roll back legalisation efforts. The 2020 election campaign featured several attempts to spread false information via social media regarding not only the implications of same-sex marriage, but a continuation of similar efforts used in the 2018 local election races. In this case, the most well-known campaign targeted older voters, warning them that allowing gay marriage and same-sex relationships would yield fewer grandchildren, while other anti-LGBT campaigns warned that same-sex legal unions could result in greater prevalence of HIV and AIDS within Taiwan.

Survey Data

To address perceptions of same-sex marriage legalisation and its implications for the 2020 election, we conducted a web survey through PollcracyLab at National Chengchi University’s (NCCU) Election Study Center in December of 2019, with five hundred and two people, asking two questions specifically about same-sex marriage. First, we asked respondents, on a five-point scale of strongly oppose to strongly support, which best described their opinion on same-sex marriage legalisation. Consistent with other survey work, we see little consensus, with 39.2 per cent in support, 33.5 per cent in opposition and over 27.3 per cent indifferent. Additional analysis unsurprisingly finds that age negatively corresponds with support, with divergent rates between those that support the DPP, where 56.9% supported legalisation, versus only 14.7% the Kuomintang (KMT) supporters.

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Considering how same-sex marriage became increasingly politicised in Taiwan, especially after the election of Tsai, one could assume that views on the issue may have been more malleable than otherwise suggested. For example, our survey work prior to the 2018 local elections showed that support declined sharply when framed in terms of how opponents viewed same-sex marriage as a threat to traditional families, especially among DPP supporters, with little evidence of a boost when framed in terms of being a sign of Taiwan’s progressiveness.

To address the significant shift in public opinion over a relatively short timeframe, we asked: “Since the legalisation of same-sex marriage in May of 2019, has your opinion of legalisation changed?”. Here, nearly one in five (19.3 per cent) claimed their position changed. We also see that roughly a quarter of KMT and Han Kuo-yu supporters claimed their position had changed, compared to 15.7 per cent among DPP and Tsai supporters.

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When disaggregated further, we see that not only were those that changed their views less likely to be indifferent, but that more than half moved to oppose or strongly oppose. Explained another way, of those who stated that they supported legalisation, 13.7 per cent said their position on the issue had changed since legalisation, compared to nearly a third of those in opposition that said their position had changed in the same time (31.5 per cent). Moreover, a majority of identifiers within both of the main parties that had changed their view on legalization become less supportive.

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The results suggest that despite legalisation, proponents have failed to challenge misinformation or overcome traditional value concerns effectively. This may be a temporary pattern due to generational differences in support, but also contact. Consistent with the broader literature on contact theory, legalisation may generate an environment in which more Taiwanese have personal contact with Taiwanese LGBT, leading to the debunking of opponents claims. However, simply assuming that these issues will solve themselves over time cedes the ability to frame the narrative around legalisation to those that oppose it.

Election Results

Panellists at the post-election conference hosted by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy commented that the DPP was apparently unhurt by same-sex marriage legalisation, and they even predicted that this might encourage DPP legislators to support more progressive policies as the party was able to absorb these losses in most places.

To measure this, we looked at district legislative races compared to 2016, finding that the average vote for DPP district candidates declined from 54.7% to 48.8% this year. Limiting the comparison only to districts where the DPP ran candidates in both elections shows a slightly smaller decline (55.4% vs 50.7%). Similarly, working around redistricting (e.g. the addition of a district in Tainan), and only counting incumbents in districts whose boundaries did not change, produce a similar decline in vote share (56.6% vs 52.1%). Comparing results by the city or county level and removing the areas in which the DPP did not run a candidate in both elections (Hsinchu, Kinmen, and Lienchang counties), shows again a similar decline (53.5% vs 47.9%).  Of particular note, the DPP vote share declined by over 9% in Tainan and Hsinchu cities as well as Pingtung, Taitung, and Hualien counties.

City/County20162020Net change
Taoyuan City46.846.2-0.6
Tainan City70.060.5-9.5
Taichung City54.053.4-0.6
New Taipei City55.147.8-7.3
Kaohsiung City61.154.6-6.5
Taipei City55.147.3-7.8
Yilan County53.746.2-7.5
Miaoli County40.234.1-6.1
Changhua County47.748.60.9
Nantou County44.343.5-0.8
Yunlin County61.054.0-7.0
Chiayi County59.151.9-7.2
Pingtung County58.749.6-9.1
Taitung County64.249.6-14.6
Hualien County53.840.5-13.3
Penghu County55.453.8-1.6
Keelung City41.547.35.8
Hsinchu City41.331.8-9.5
Chiayi City54.050.2-3.8
Average53.547.9-5.6

Obviously, we cannot disentangle the effects of same-sex marriage opposition from a general Han populist support or other factors, nor do we assume that a significant portion of the electorate are single-issue voters. However, we do see that the major DPP declines occur both in areas where prior to 2016 the party fared poorly, but also in traditional DPP strongholds. Such an aggregate account does not take into consideration how individual legislators addressed same-sex marriage. For example, Hsiao Bi-Khim, the DPP incumbent in Hualien, was an early proponent of same-sex marriage campaigning in a traditionally blue district, which likely provided ample fodder for legalisation opponents. Coupled with a general underperforming KMT, the results contextualise the extent to which the DPP could absorb the political costs of same-sex marriage legalisation.

Conclusion

Views of same-sex marriage in Taiwan continue to evolve, as not only parties have politicised the issue, but also as Taiwanese become more aware of friends and family who are LGBT. Legalisation, however, does not necessarily equate to tolerance, as previous research shows continued concerns about accepting members of the LGBT community in the workplace and family.

While too early to assess whether the DPP charts a more progressive path in 2020, the party’s ability to minimise the electoral costs of supporting same-sex marriage is clear. In particular, the 2020 election demonstrated the importance of DPP’s “youth voter mobilisation strategy”, marketing to the millennial generation and Generation Z, groups generally supportive of progressive policies including LGBT rights and groups that the KMT largely have failed to court. In addition, the definitive act of legalisation in May 2019 perhaps ended speculation of Tsai’s commitment, solidifying support among legalisation proponents. Meanwhile, the negative consequences which conservative opponents predicted (e.g. loss of family values, increased rates of HIV transmission) did not come to fruition by election time and, therefore, such scare tactics likely counter-mobilized proponents.

For Taiwanese supporters of same-sex marriage and LGBT rights more broadly, the 2020 election provides hope for continued reforms. However, efforts and expanding LGBT rights through legislation and the courts must also be accompanied by similar efforts to lower the misconceptions among those who have no direct contact with Taiwanese LGBT and remain concerned about the implications of legal and societal changes. Similar efforts should also help overcome the initial decline in support for marriage equality post-legalization.

Timothy S. Rich is an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University. His main area of research focuses on the electoral politics in East Asian democracies.

Isabel Eliassen is an Honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University majoring in International Affairs, Chinese, and Linguistics.

Andi Dahmer, a 2018 Harry S. Truman Scholar, recently graduated from Western Kentucky University. Her primary research focuses on the diplomatic recognition of Taiwan as it relates to Central America, with broader research interests in Taiwan and the Koreas.

Carolyn Brueggemann is an honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in International Affairs, Spanish, and Chinese.

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