Taiwan’s Struggle Over Marriage Equality Intensifies

Taiwan’s Struggle Over Marriage Equality Intensifies
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
What you need to know

The battleground moves to Taichung.

The issue of marriage equality in Taiwan is turning into a long, hard-fought struggle between the pro- and anti-marriage equality camps – and is set to continue for months at the very least.

Last week’s mass pro-marriage equality rally--widely reported as having drawn a quarter of a million people – keeps supporters hopes alive after a string of setbacks and defeats that appeared to have set in motion movement towards a civil partnership “separate-but-equal” law or outright rejection. The battle now moves to Taichung this Saturday, with a long-scheduled Pride Parade set to kick off at 1:30 p.m. in People’s Park, where supporters hope to show that the issue has traction in the Taiwanese heartland outside the capital.

While supporters of marriage equality have attempted for years to end marriage segregation for same-sex couples, hopes initially soared with the election of Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in January. During her campaign, she came out publicly for equality on the issue, and had incorporated rainbow themes into her campaign materials. Then, after her inauguration in May, her administration went dead quiet on the issue--leaving it out of her reform agenda.

It was a tragedy that shook the DPP from its torpor on the issue, with the suspected suicide of a retired professor and filmmaker suffering from depression after the passing of his long-term partner and the lack of rights a spouse would normally have. The incident drew considerable attention and energized supporters. Three bills from different parties were proposed in the legislature and the annual Taipei Pride Parade swelled to an estimated 80,000--the biggest turnout yet. With opinion polls long on the side of same-sex marriage, the international media piled on, stating optimistically that Taiwan would be the first country in Asia to end marriage segregation. Support in the legislature, however, was estimated by legislator Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) to be one vote shy of a majority.

Then the tide began to turn back toward the anti- side. The President washed her hands of the issue, saying “I believe that in the near future, all members of the Legislative Yuan will freely express their opinions on the amendments according to their own beliefs, values, judgments and the direction of public opinion. Regardless of the outcome, I will respect the decision of the Legislative Yuan.” Then her administration’s Ministry of Justice reiterated its support for a civil partnership law instead, which was echoed by the DPP party whip in the legislature. The president is unwilling to expend political capital on marriage equality, most likely because her party is deeply divided on the issue. The DPP has long-standing ties to the Presbyterian Church dating to the martial law era, and relies heavily on a more traditional southern and rural voter base. Her main opposition, the Kuomintang (KMT) is also divided on the issue, with uniform support only from the small New Power Party (NPP).

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Photo Credit: AP / 達志影像
Taiwanese protesters of anti-same sex marriage hold up slogans reading ''Marriage should be decided by referendum" during a rally against a proposal to allow same-sex marriage in Taipei, Taiwan, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying)

Opponents then held mass rallies, with the press widely citing 100,000 anti-marriage equality supporters in Taipei, over 50,000 in Kaohsiung and over 40,000 in Taichung--for around 200,000 in total, by far the largest showing ever on the issue. Polls, now including the option of civil partnerships, muddied the waters on exactly where the public stood. With many legislators likely wavering, the pro-camp needed a victory badly if they wanted to keep their hopes alive. A strong loss in the legislature, or the passage of a civil partnership law, would likely have moved the issue off the table for years to come.

They got a victory last weekend in Taipei, the nation’s capital. The widely reported 250,000 supporters significantly outnumbered the previous week’s anti-protests. The numbers indicate that, in Taipei at least, support is strong and widespread--countering the theory that public support was shallow and more of a fad than real conviction. The message to the government and elected legislators was clear on which side of the issue had greater voter support.

The battle now moves to the Taichung Pride Parade this weekend. Though not a rally, strong turnout will show that support isn’t limited to the capital, but that it is national.

The action will then head back to Taipei, as the various bills are discussed in committee in preparation to send to the full legislature to be debated and voted on in the first half of next year. As has happened in past, it is expected that both the pro- and anti- camps will hold rallies outside the Legislative Yuan, vying to outdo each other in shows of support.

Until a marriage equality bill is voted up or down – and victory for neither side is assured--expect more battles ahead. Estimates for when a vote will decide either way range from March to June of 2017.

It still remains to be seen if marriage equality has the necessary support to pass in the legislature, but for now strong shows of public support have served notice to their elected representatives which side the voters favor.

Editor: Edward White