Taiwan spent its Saturday voting on 10 referendums alongside its regional elections. Unsurprisingly, this presented practical issues for an electorate and election officials who were dealing with the new rules introduced by the revised Referendum Act of December 2017. No matter the result of the referendum questions, it is an important step forward in the push towards direct democracy that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and pro-independence forces have long championed.

According to the Central Election Committee website, out of 19,757,067 eligible voters, participation on all ten referendum questions ranged from 54.5 percent to 55.8 percent with votes on LGBT related issues drawing the highest numbers. Although the initial reaction was one of dismay, the LGBT community has rallied together and shows no signs of being crushed by the blow.

The first referendum that has been run under the revised rules and the lowered thresholds for calling and passing referendums saw a flurry of action as conservative forces proposed two anti-marriage equality questions (including a proposal to adopt a separate law such as a civil union to cover same-sex marriage) and an effort to have part of the Gender Equity Act enforcement rules removed (covering ‘homosexual education’). Pro-LGBT rights groups were behind two responsive questions calling for equal marriage to be enforced under the civil code and for gender equity education to remain the same.


Credit: Reuters / Tyrone Siu

Same-sex marriage supporters are refusing to give up, attending a Pride parade in Kaohsiung the day after marriage equality referendums failed at the polls.

As the results rolled in at around 2 a.m. on Sunday, things looked bleak for the marriage equality camp. Statements issued from various organisations echoed frustrations with the referendum and campaign process. Their concerns are echoed by Brian Hioe, owner of the news website New Bloom. In a comment to The News Lens on Monday he said:

“Progressive civil society groups have long looked to the referendum as a way of putting social issues directly to the popular vote, as a means of getting around the unwillingness of the legislature or executive to confront certain issues. However, it may not be too surprising that, much as it is an issue with general elections that those who have more resources and money usually triumph, this also occurred with the referendum.

“The most visible example of this would be, of course, the marriage equality referendum. Progressive civil society may have unwittingly put a powerful tool in the hands of conservative social forces going forward and so it is to be seen whether there will be any rethinking on the part of progressive civil society groups going forward.”

His concerns were echoed by Lev Nachman, a Ph.D student in Political Science at the University of California, Irvine, and recent speaker at the 3rd World Congress of Taiwan Studies, who flew to Taiwan to observe the elections. His slightly more upbeat response that suggests he believes that there is a sliver-lining to the clouds that descended on Human rights advocates in Taiwan yesterday.

“The referendum results are a major setback to gay rights in Taiwan,” he said. “The silver lining that people need to remember is these anti-gay rights referendums will not change the constitutional court’s decision to legalize gay marriage. However, the means and frameworks for those legalization are now up in the air. I do not think however, that gay rights activists will simply accept defeat. In the next year, there will be major mobilizations for gay rights, and the issue will stay relevant through the next year's presidential and Legislative Yuan elections.”

From further afield came support and words of encouragement from high profile LGBT activist George Takei in the form of a tweet:

It is interesting to note that Takei is referencing Proposition 8, the passing of which in California, a state which has a liberal reputation, was put down to an alliance between the Catholics, evangelical Christians, and the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and the vast amount of money and resources (including foot soldiers) this alliance afforded according to this New York Times article. Similarities to the campaign run here in Taiwan by the Alliance for the Happiness of the Next Generation are impossible to ignore.

The Referendum Act in Taiwan does not cap spending on referendum campaigns, which led to a vast imbalance between funding for the anti- and pro-LGBT rights campaigns, as reported prior to the referendums on Nov. 20 in the Chinese-language Apple Daily. Along with its overwhelming financial advantage, the anti-campaign successfully tapped into fears about the general disintegration of Confucian or "traditional" family values in Taiwan.


Credit: Reuters / Ann Wang

LGBT+ activist Chi Chia-wei arrives to cast his vote for the local elections and referendum measures in Taipei on Saturday, Nov. 24.

From personal experience on the streets of Taipei over the last couple of months, and based on numerous Facebook posts detailing encounters similar to my own, the anti-campaign also boasted hordes of foot soldiers. My personal impression was that these people were imbued with a sense that they are completing a mission from their God. According to statements from TAPCPR, this even led some foot soldiers to go as far as to break electoral and referendum regulations. As Nachman comments:

“The anti-gay rights referendum's success is tied to their ability to mobilize (mis)information around Taiwan. I believe six months ago, before these referendum movements were in full swing, people likely were more supportive of gay rights than they were after anti-gay groups mobilized. It’s disheartening that society can be swayed so by misinformation campaigns, but I believe that if gay rights groups counter-mobilize over the next year to correct the spread of misinformation, there is potential to regain support.”

Victoria Hsu (許秀雯), a member of the Executive Yuan Gender Equality Committee, co-founder and Executive Director of TAPCPR, and also lead lawyer in the marriage equality case in 2017 (which led to the Constitutional Court ruling of May 20017 which stated that same-sex couples shall not only be granted the freedom to marry but also enjoy equal protection as stipulated in the Civil Code) said in comments to The News Lens on Sunday:

“Basically, we know that enforcement is not really the opponents’ goal; they know full well that the referendums will have limited legal effect even if they are passed. Rather, it is changes in social atmosphere and the manifestation of political power that are key.”

She further added: “Last night, the Executive Yuan announced that it will prepare a draft of 'same sex marriage act' (not civil union law) to send to the parliament as soon as possible. Actually, the Executive Yuan issued its opinion on October 24. The announcements state that regardless of the results of the Referendum No. 10 , which asks people whether they agree that the Civil Code should define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, the legislation of legalizing same-sex marriage should still abide by the J.Y. Interpretation No. 748 given by the Constitutional Court on May 24, 2017. Same-sex couples shall not only be granted the freedom to marry but also enjoy equal protection as stipulated in the Civil Code. So, the subject matter is only about the formality of the legislation but not about whether same-sex couples can get married or not.

“The Constitutional Court made it very clear that if relevant authorities concerned fail to amend or enact the laws as appropriate within two years (counting down from May 24, 2017), two persons of the same sex who intend to create a permanent union shall be allowed to have their marriage registration effectuated at the authorities in charge of household registration, in accordance with the current Marriage Chapter in the Civil Code.”


Credit: Reuters / Tyrone Siu

Sunday's Pride parade in Kaohsiung was well-attended and participants remained optimistic despite Saturday's setback.

Elsewhere, a press release from a joint press conference by Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan and Gender Equity Education Coalition echoed Hsu’s comments on the legal fine points and added: “In the past few months of the referendum campaign, local and overseas conservative religious groups from poured enormous resources into the dissemination of misinformation and smear messages against marriage equality and gender equity education on newspapers, TVs, radio stations, and social networks. Baseless claims of enhanced stigmatization, discrimination, fear are everywhere. For example, Taiwan will become an island of AIDS if granted the right to marry. Or LGBTQ+ leads to low birth rate and LGBTQ+ education teaches sexual promiscuity.

“The false news is so rampant that La France à Taiwan and Belgian Office Taipei both released clarification statements. On the contrary, when the Taiwan government attempted to counter misinformation later, it was already too late. Our first referendum was held under such a climate and many frightened and manipulated citizens cast their votes. We are deeply sorry that the seemingly democratic process turned out to be a game of money, power and politics.”


Credit: Taiwan Marriage Equality Coalition & Gender Equity Education Coalition

Speakers at the joint press conference expressed dismay about how disinformation infected the public debate over marriage equality but vowed to fight on.

The press conference also addressed the situation in Taiwan in the global context stating: “Taiwan is not the first country to face setbacks on the road to gender equity education and LGBTQ rights. The United States, France, Australia and Canada have all been in similar situations, facing strong opposition from the conservative forces. But in the long run, we find that the tide of manipulated fear will eventually die down in the face of 'truth.' The setback is temporary, and the results may not be ideal, but through this discussion, more people now understand LGBTQ, heard more stories and have now more empathy, all of these are seeds that will change the future. Thank you everyone for fighting for gender equity education.”

The anti-equality camp seemed jubilant in their victory and, despite a litany of missed calls between myself and Yu Hsin-yi (游信義) of the Alliance for the Happiness of the Next Generation on Sunday, I awoke to a text message on Monday morning from Yu that read “Pass the referendums act threshold! Sincerely thanks to all the partners of our alliance for their hard work! Glory to God and all citizens! The referendums is [sic] a rational debate on the marriage system not against LGBT referendums. May the wounded heart be comforted, wish rational discussion and bless Taiwan. Let us continue loving our family, our home, and keep going! Best wishes Sammy-yu”

Yu could not be reached for further elaboration on his text message.

Meanwhile, LGBTQ+ equality pioneer Chi Chia-wei (祁家威), who brought the landmark case to the constitutional court, struck a positive note: “Vote counts today are still inspiring to me. In the past, LGBTQ+ movement and political mobilization was unimaginable. Today, however, more than two million voters, including many heterosexuals, really understand and respect LGBTQ+ communities. As we continue, more people will support us. The anti- LGBTQ+ group [spent] over NT$1 billion for 5 millions votes, while we fight with our limited resources. In historical trajectory, we will eventually win. We urge the administration not to execute this referendum result without future. Taiwanese society should continue to progress.”

The LGBT community in Taiwan seemed to take his comments to heart. Facebook was flooded with avatar filters with a rainbow and the wording ‘Together, Stronger.’ Undeterred by Saturday’s results, the Pride march in Kaohsiung was well-attended and, in a phone interview with Jennifer Lu (呂欣潔) of Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association (社團法人台灣同志諮詢熱線協會簡介) live from the parade on Sunday, she spoke movingly of the emotional catharsis she felt seeing citizens old and young, and gay and straight couples lining the streets and showing their support for the LGBT community in Kaohsiung.


Credit: Jonathon Tree

Supporters of marriage equality offered free hugs in Taipei's Ximen district on Sunday evening.

In Taipei, an impromptu free hugs event was held in Taipei's Ximen district. Organizer Jonathon Tree commented via email on Monday morning: “I wanted to show those in the LGBT+ community who are having a rough time – who have just watched their family members, colleagues, and communities vote against their rights – that there is support out there, that there is hope. That's why I decided to organize this event. It was heartening to see people come together, connect with each other, and comfort those who needed support. Some people were even moved to tears, seeing that there are still people out there who love them for who they are. LGBT+ rights have never come without setbacks, anywhere in the world.

“This is a setback for Taiwan, but it is by no means the end of this story.”


Credit: Kevin Laurencio

For Taiwan's LGBT community, Saturday's wave of rejection brought more opportunities for positivity and healing.

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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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