INTERACT fellow Shi-Yan Chao discusses the Marriage Equality Movement in Taiwan


Shi-Yan Chao, 2013 – 2014 INTERACT Postdoctoral Fellow at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, discusses the recent debates about marriage equality in Taiwan, which could be the first nation in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. Chao, who received his PhD in Cinema Studies from New York University, wrote his dissertation “Processing Tongzhi Imaginaries: Chinese Queer Representation in the Global Mediascape” about the production and consumption of tongzhi/queer images from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China. 

Please note that the views expressed on the WEAI blog represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute.

In the United States same-sex marriage has been a galvanizing subject for more than a decade, accompanied by various battles in the judicial system and on both the state and federal levels. Though barely covered by the American media, in Taiwan same-sex marriage has recently become an issue of heated debate following the latest push for its legalization, when, on October 25, 2013, the legislature referred a “marriage equality” bill to the Judicial Affairs Committee for review. This “marriage equality” bill proposes terminological changes to designate couples: “husband and wife” is to be replaced by “spouses” or “companions,”“man and woman” by “two parties,” and “father and mother” by “parents.” In so doing, the right to marriage, alongside myriad legal protections and benefits contingent to marriage as well as the right to adoption, would expand to include all citizens of marriageable age regardless of their “gender, sexual orientation, gender identifications, and gender attributes.”

This marriage equality bill is but one of the three proposals comprising the so-called “diverse family formation” plan (多元成家方案) promoted by the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights (TAPCPR, 台灣伴侶權益推動聯盟), a non-profit organization “with the aim of advocating equal rights for all people in Taiwan to found their families.” Their proposed “diverse family formation” plan means to address the rights of people in relationships incongruous with the traditional nuclear family. They have taken into consideration three particular types of relationships: same-sex marriage (included in “marriage equality bill”); civil partnership without restrictions as to the gender or sexual orientation of the partners (i.e., “civil partnership system” [伴侶制度]); and groups of friends who choose to live together and take care of one another as a family (i.e., “multiple person family system” [家屬制度]). While the first proposal, for the most part, simply neutralizes the component of “gender” in the current marriage system to include LGBT couples, the second and third proposals take “a new approach to marriage and the family,” posing a more fundamental challenge to society. Whereas the first proposal has passed the first reading in the Legislative Yuan last October, the second and third proposals are expected to have a much longer way to go.

Upon their introduction to the Legislative Yuan, the three proposals have drawn immense criticism from conservative groups and individuals. For instance, Chang Chuan-fong, the Unification Church Taiwan vice president and spokesperson for the interreligious “Taiwan Family” organization (台灣愛護家庭大聯盟), claimed that legalizing same-sex marriage is “a downward step that will lead to the collapse of civilizations,” and that the proposed bills as a whole would result in “the demolition of family, the abolishment of marriage, and the deluge of promiscuity.” On November 30, a demonstration led by the “Happiness of the Next Generation Alliance” (下一代幸福聯盟) was held in Taipei in support of the traditional family with over 200,000 people present. The protesters, consisting mainly of parents and their children, held signs that read “Made by Daddy + Mommy,” “Defend Marriage,” and “Oppose Amendment to Civil Code Article 972,” the current law which holds that marriage is between a man and woman. This mass demonstration was “a surprisingly large backlash” against the move to legalize marriage equality in Taiwan.

Three points should be made clear, however. First, as has been reiterated by so many gay rights activists in the United States, marriage is a basic human right that should not be subjugated to public opinion or popular vote. Second, even when it comes to public opinion, recent surveys show that a quarter of the population has changed its opinion about the issue over the past decade, and now over half of Taiwanese approve of gay marriage. For instance, a China Times poll conducted in August 2012 indicated that 56 percent supported gay marriage while 31 percent opposed it. According to the survey conducted by TAPCPR last August, 53 percent of the public supports gay marriage, while the opposition accounts for a minority at 37 percent. Third, the large turnout at the rally, as many have pointed out, had everything to do with the conservative Christians, a relatively small but outspoken minority. As journalist J. Michael Cole points out, the hands of Christian organizations were all over the protest, ranging from the hundreds of arranged buses delivering protesters to the site, to the religious songs and prayer performed on the site. Cole even traces the connections between prominent Christian segregations in Taiwan, money flows, and certain local politicians in their joint effort to block gay marriage regulations, potentially through “a loose coalition of evangelical groups with worrying ties to extremist Christian organizations in the U.S.”

In the earlier phase of the gay rights movement in Taiwan (essentially a Confucian influenced society),  the family was considered by many activists to be a fundamental obstacle that was as thorny as Christianity is in the West. The recent anti-gay campaigns nonetheless demonstrate the rising influence of the conservative Church through a trans-regional network (by way of the cases of Uganda and Nigeria). In Taiwan’s case, I want to stress that the influence of the family remains significant. It is evident in the aforementioned China Times survey that, while showing that 56 percent of Taiwanese people support marriage equality in concept, finds that 57 percent of the respondents nonetheless do not accept gay people in their families. In large part, the conservative Christian organizations (again, a relatively small group) effectively utilize this discrepancy to gain a wider base in their anti-gay (marriage) campaigns particularly through the scare tactics that provoke anxiety and fear in the public—the anxiety that their family values are under attack, and the deepest fear that their family lines will not continue if their children are gay or somehow are encouraged to become gay due to the passage of gay marriage. Under the rubric of “protecting family” and “happiness of the next generation,” the conservative Church has found certain common ground with the larger non-Christian demographic through the latter’s deep concern for the traditional (Chinese) family. Despite the Church-mobilized conservative forces actively exercising their political influence, the recent polls have nevertheless shown the contrary: over half of Taiwanese are ready for marriage equality. The bill is now in the hands of the government and the legislature. Will Taiwan become the first state in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage?

The International Network to Expand Regional and Collaborative Teaching (INTERACT) is a pioneering program at Columbia University that focuses on developing global studies in the undergraduate curriculum through a network of postdoctoral scholars focused on cross-regional, trans-regional and interdisciplinary teaching. Through innovative courses and active involvement in all dimensions of campus intellectual life, the INTERACT scholars seek to improve global literacy among Columbia students and equip them to be leaders in a globalizing world.     

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