What you need to know
Can Taiwan’s democracy withstand attempts to sabotage Asia’s first same-sex marriage law?
As Taiwan passed a law on marriage equality last Friday congratulations flooded in from around the world on social media and Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs promptly released a short film celebrating the passing of the law, framing it as another reason that Taiwan deserves a place on the global stage. However, despite the passage of the law there is still much work to be done in order to protect LGBT rights and, given the reaction of the KMT and anti-marriage equality groups, there is cause for concern that attempts to repeal the law might lie ahead, and that the issue might remain high on the agenda in the January 2020 presidential elections – a move that has the potential to damage Taiwan’s international reputation.
With calls by DPP heavyweights in the immediate lead-up to Friday’s vote to resist pressure from anti-equality groups and to ‘stand on the right side of history’ the DPP came together to land firmly on the side of placing human rights over fears of a backlash in the January elections. The new law, while perhaps best being described as imperfect, did take into consideration the results of the referendums (which despite the claims to the contrary of the anti-equality side, fell under article 30.2 of the referendum law which mandates further deliberation at the Legislative Yuan level, as opposed to 30.1 the results of which are binding) and therefore the DPP cannot fairly be accused of ignoring the referendum results. While it might be argued that the path to the passing of the law was mismanaged, the law that passed balanced the fine line between respecting the higher authority of the Council of Grand Justices’ (constitutional court) and attempting to find a compromise took the referendum results into account.
While the law is an important step forward for human rights in Taiwan – offering the right to marry, inherit property and limited rights of adoption, some issues remain that the bill did not deal with. Additionally, it is not unreasonable to expect attempts by the anti-marriage equality faction to push back against the new law by proposing a new referendum or throwing their weight behind the KMT, who largely opposed the passage of the law, in the upcoming January 2020 election. The day before the vote KMT Caucus Secretary-General John Wu (吳志揚) suggested there would be pushback from the KMT should the law pass, and in a press conference held immediately after successful passage of the bill KMT Legislator Lai Shyh-bao (賴士葆) (who proposed an alternative, less-favorable bill) promised to push to repeal the act if the KMT regain power.
At an anti-marriage equality rally held on May 8 outside the Legislative Yuan speakers onstage, including several priests and church leaders, urged the attendees to punish the DPP at the next election for pushing through the marriage equality law. I spoke to one attendee who said that while she had been a life-long DPP-supporter she was considering changing her position due to pressure from her church. At the same time she raised the specter of the DPP acting in a way reminiscent of the White Terror by including a requirement for the inclusion of a copy of ID to validate signatures supporting proposed referendum questions in the referendum reform bill currently under review. Asked then if she felt that she could vote for the party that was responsible for the White Terror (the KMT) she admitted that she wasn’t sure what to do.
Dr Yen-tu Su (蘇彥圖), an Associate Research Professor at the Institutum Iurisprudentiae, Academia Sinica commented on Friday evening: “The passage of the bill ensures that the holding of the 2017 constitutional court decision would finally be implemented. With this new law, the DPP and President Tsai restore significant support from young progressive voters at the risk of alienating social conservatives. [However] the anti-gay-marriage groups might propose a new referendum to repeal the law. The KMT might also turn this into a wedge issue for 2020 presidential and parliamentary elections. Technically speaking, [a referendum] can easily be framed as a new issue and be proposed immediately after the new law takes effect. But its constitutionality would definitely be challenged. Today the DPP also advanced the bill of referendum reform into the second reading. If the reform bill is passed this summer, it would be much more difficult for any referendum proposal to reach the January 2020 ballot.”
The proposed changes to the referendum act are an attempt by the DPP, who championed the updates in December 2017 that significantly reduced the amount of signatures required to get a proposal approved, to avoid the pandemonium of the November 2018 referendums. It includes measures to hold referendums on a set date each year, separate from other election dates, and to require signatures in support of referendums to be supported by a copy of the signatory’s ID card. The build up to the November 2018 referendums saw at least one instance of a whistleblower who said their boss had forced them to fake signatures on the anti-equality proposals by copying out the entire patient list at their surgery. Many other instances of irregularities were recorded across all 10 proposals, for example deceased people being listed as signatories.
Also commenting immediately after the law passed Lev Nachman, a Ph.D student in Political Science at the University of California, Irvine, whose specialism is Taiwan echoed this “It's still too soon to tell but I'm predicting this will help Tsai and the DPP. Obviously the path to get to where we are today was hindered tremendously by them both, and I doubt voters will forget, but tangible evidence of progress - and as imperfect as these bills are, they are progress, will help the DPP more than hurt, especially since this gets Tsai and the DPP some needed credit back with grassroots activists.”
Touching on the subject of the referendums Nachman continued “You could argue that since this went against the referendum law that it will hurt Tsai and the DPP since the popular majority in terms of the midterm referendums were not in favor. I think however that since so much of the conservative side of the DPP from the south supported these legislators by voting in favor, only after some major compromises were reached, they can sell their yes vote to their base of support more easily and hopefully not lose out on too many votes.”
He continued “I think it is also important to remember how much compromise went into this, meaning so many progressive policies like gay adoption are not being realized today and the fight is far from over. But this is a reason to celebrate.”
In an interview with The News Lens International on Friday afternoon Jennifer Lu (呂欣潔), the chief co-ordinator of the Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan, while overall expressing satisfaction with the new law, also outlined the plans that the coalition has to continue the battle toward true equality. Only one article on the bill failed to pass, which was an amendment proposed by the New Power Party which would have effectively allowed marriages where one spouse is from a country that does not recognize same-sex marriage to be recognized in Taiwan. Currently according to the Act Governing the Choice of Law in Civil Matters Involving Foreign Elements (articles 46, 46.1) such marriages would not be recognised. Lu seemed optimistic that the government will try to correct this anomaly.
“I think that complicated situations will happen between countries like Japan or South Korea or other Asian countries. Right now we are a global world, so a lot of people meet someone from another country and if they fall in love there might be some issues in the future. But we will try to figure out how to deal with that and fight for their rights in the future” Lu said. “According to our previous discussions with the government they guarantee that they will figure out a solution very soon once marriage equality is enacted they will figure out how to do that.”
When asked about other areas of concern Lu pointed to the need to maintain the government policy on Gender Equity Education, which was also subject to a referendum question that passed last November proposing that LGBT-education should not be taught in elementary and middle school.
“Of course co-adoption rights … and I personally really worry about the gender equity situation in Taiwan because that’s the opposition’s strategy, they try to confine Gender Equity Education to marriage equality issues. They want to mess it up and manipulate people’s worries and fears, especially those of the parents. So they just keep attacking Gender Equity Education. But that policy is exactly the reason why the younger generation can support us, they support marriage equality as an issue of human rights – because they understand it’s not terrifying, its normal. So this policy is extremely important in Taiwan and I think it’s crucial for the younger generation. But [the opposition] want to push this policy back ... So I really want to protect and keep the policy alive. That’s very important for Taiwan. [No changes to the act have been made officially], but you can see the atmosphere has become so different from before. When I just joined the LGBT movement we were very welcome to go to schools to share our personal life stories. How I came out, why I’m a lesbian, and our life story. We could go to the schools and share our stories to educate young people and the teachers. But right now teachers are terrified because the opposition just keep attacking the teachers who want to teach about these issues. There were a lot of lawsuit cases because a so-called ‘parent group’ keeps suing these teachers for doing their job. [report in Mandarin]”
In a reflection of the national mood prior to the anti-marriage equality campaign kicking off in 2018 – where polls suggested that the majority of the public were in support or indifferent to the issue - Lu continued “When I started going into schools eighteen years ago the atmosphere was very different. People didn’t really understand LGBT but they were open to understanding.”
At Friday afternoon’s marriage equality rally hosts appealed to the crowd to recognize that the government had been in a difficult position but had managed to get the law passed. They referred to the KMT’s statement that they would repeal the law if they returned to power and reminded the crowd that they should try to communicate openly with their parents to avoid this eventuality. When asked how seriously she took the threat Lu responded “Through these three years of work we realized that LGBT people should participate in the political arena more. Because the [opposition] use a lot of resources to push their agenda. We know there will be a lot of backlash in the future, so we need to prepare well.”
She continued “I take that threat very seriously because during the referendum we saw that the conservatives combined their resources: money, people, and power to try and push this democratic system back and that is serious. We know that will happen. So we will definitely join the team that protects our democracy and that is another very important area of work that we want to focus on in the future.”
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) also took to Twitter to thank the international community with a well-considered tweet on May 18:
In a reflection of the importance of the law in an international context even Beijing mouthpiece the People’s Daily tried to muscle in on the action with a bizarre tweet seemingly trying to claim credit for the upswell of support for Taiwan’s new law, which was quickly and brusquely slapped down by a response from Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮).
The passage of the marriage-equality law has potential to cement Taiwan’s reputation as a country which is committed to defending human rights and democracy. The constitutional court ruling in 2017 had press around the world reporting that Taiwan had approved same-sex marriage, only to be followed up in November 2018 with the conflicting referendum results that pushed Taiwan back into the background on the issue. Tsai Ing-wen’s tweet to the international audience shows that she has correctly assessed the impact of such legislation on Taiwan’s standing in the global community, while the KMT reaction appears to disregard the damage that may be done on the international stage - as well as domestically - if they press ahead with anti-marriage equality measures.
Read Next: The Highs and Lows, Tears and Cheers of the Marriage Equality Rally
Editor: Lea Yang (@TheNewsLens)
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