A Different Kind of Rainbow: Green, Blue, and Red in Taiwan’s Same Sex Marriage Debate

A Different Kind of Rainbow: Green, Blue, and Red in Taiwan’s Same Sex Marriage Debate

A Different Kind of Rainbow: Green, Blue, and Red in Taiwan’s Same Sex Marriage Debate

Taiwan’s Supreme Court (最高法院) is slated to rule on the constitutionality of a bar on same-sex marriage on May 24. As Taiwan debates legalizing gay marriage, through a change to its civil code, it has received widespread attention in the international press.  Observers have puzzled over the social, political, and religious dynamics that have led to a split in public opinion[1] on the matter. On the one hand, what unique conditions exist in Taiwan to account for its embrace of more liberal ideas about human sexuality ahead of other Asian societies?[2] On the other, what accounts for such a robust opposition movement, in a country that lacks a statistically significant religious right?[3]

While most have identified Taiwan’s vocal and highly-organized conservative Christian community as the primary source of opposition, this attribution is only part of the story, as Christians compose less than 5 percent of Taiwan’s population. Further, within this group there is tremendous diversity with regard to religious observance, political affiliation—and views on gay marriage. Similarly, coverage has also focused on the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) (with an assist from the New Power Party) as spearheading marriage equality efforts, and on President Tsai Ing-wen’s support for the cause. However, the reality is more complex than a simple split along party lines. One of the bill’s authors is Jason Hsu (許毓仁), himself a member of the Kuomintang (KMT). KMT lawmakers are split on the proposed legislation, while the DPP faces internal opposition to its efforts. Tsai herself has moderated her position and rhetoric, speaking instead about dialogue and the need for understanding across sides.

Clearly, efforts to map Taiwan’s debate around sexuality resist simple categorizations of Left and Right, pan-green and pan-blue, or “culture war” constructs. Instead, they reflect Taiwan’s unique political configurations and alliances, which are informed by historical legacies and play out in the shadow of China’s threat. This article represents an effort to map these configurations along several axes: the history of church-state relations; cross-Strait relations; and the deep generational divide that characterizes opinion regarding same sex marriage.

Church and State

Most analyses of the role of religion in the debate over sexuality identify three major actors: the Taiwan Presbyterian Church (often lumped together with Protestant Christians, generally),[4] the local Roman Catholic Church and its hierarchy, and “traditional religious groups,”[5] a term that typically refers to Buddhists, Taoists, folk religions, and the commonly-practiced amalgamation of these.[6] But each of these religious groups relate to the Taiwanese state in distinct ways, often rooted in their unique historical experience. Consequently, religious attitudes toward the politics of same sex marriage must be viewed in this light.

As an example, the Taiwan Presbyterian Church (TPC), the largest Christian denomination in Taiwan, is closely tied with the Democratic Progressive Party. Founded by Presbyterian missionaries to Taiwan, with a strong emphasis on indigenization, the TPC’s  identification with Taiwan and the Taiwanese people provides a stark contrast with later generations of missionary organizations and institutional churches that arrived in Taiwan after being exiled from the newly-founded People’s Republic of China (PRC). These deep roots in Taiwanese soil meant that they were well-placed to resist the imposition of KMT rule and found themselves further activated by the brutal repression of the White Terror era. While the TPC has been less involved in protest-oriented politics since the end of the martial law period and the election of Chen Shui-bian, it remains associated with the DPP, and is recognized as playing an important role in Taiwan’s democratic development.

The Presbyterian response to the same-sex marriage movement in Taiwan is thus instructive for understanding the way that this issue has split traditional coalitions. In a panel discussion on the topic of gay marriage in Taiwan held at George Washington University in April, Taiwanese scholar Fang-Yu Chen and student activist June Lin both identified Christian activism as primarily responsible for fomenting opposition to marriage equality bills. At the same time, they credited the TPC with important contributions to democratic, grassroots movements in Taiwan. It is unsurprising, then, that the TPC itself is split on the issue: its governing General Assembly issued an official opposition letter, but the denomination has also birthed a well-known LGBTQI-affirming church, the Tong-Kwang Light House Presbyterian Church (同光同志長老教會). The TPC’s internal split and institutional opposition to gay marriage place it in a conceivably difficult position in relation to the DPP on this issue.

Other religious groups’ positions on this issue are also affected by their historical relationship with the state, as much as they are by theological or philosophical principles. The Roman Catholic Church, whose personnel were expelled from the PRC, found itself aligning more naturally with the KMT during the martial law period, as the bulk of its leadership were virulently anti-communist. These political sympathies were exacerbated by the well-known and continuing clash between the Vatican and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders, as a result of the CCP banning Catholics’ free exercise of religion and establishing a rival church—the Catholic Patriotic Association—under Party supervision. As a result, the Church apparently made few efforts to appeal to native Taiwanese, focusing predominately on the Chinese community that migrated to Taiwan post-1949. As Taiwan’s bishops have mobilized against marriage equality legislation, its laity remains divided—but its official opposition jibes well with its more conservative political alignment.

Taiwan’s diverse Buddhist groups provide the final illustration of the way in which an institution’s historical relationship with the state influences its attitude toward gay marriage. As Richard Madsen has written, major Buddhist organizations like Tzu-Chi proliferated in the aftermath of martial law, when a wide variety of civil society organizations were founded in the fledgling democracy.[7] Though a “traditional” religion, many of Buddhism’s institutions in Taiwan are relatively new, as they were banned under martial law. As a result, they have emerged alongside Taiwan’s democracy, and their views on social issues have shifted along with Taiwanese society more broadly. Thus, Cheng et al find that Buddhist attitudes toward homosexuality have liberalized at similar rates as the general population.[8]

Cross-Strait and Trans-Pacific

More than partisan politics, Taiwan’s political alignments on this issue may also be informed by the China factor. This has had two primary effects on the gay marriage debate in Taiwan. First, the China factor has meant that those who are pan-blue and tend to favor a more conciliatory position in Taiwan-PRC relations, or view themselves as primarily “Chinese,” would be inclined to resist taking an action that would differentiate themselves further from the PRC. On the other hand, pan-green and “third force” party members are mobilized by rhetoric about being “first in Asia” to legalize gay marriage, giving them a moral victory over the PRC. Timothy Rich and Ashleigh Cleary found this reflected in polling, writing that, “among KMT or pan-blue supporters more broadly, highlighting that Taiwan would be first in the region to legalize same-sex marriage appears to lower support for legalization.” In contrast, pan-green candidates have used support for LGBTQI rights as a campaign strategy, portraying Taiwan as a beacon of liberal values, living in the shadow of an authoritarian, socially conservative leviathan.

However, Taiwan’s important relationships with American conservatives militate in the opposite direction. The unique nature of the US-Taiwan relationship—characterized in the period of official relations by Cold War rhetoric and in the unofficial period by arms sales—has meant that, while Taiwan remains an area of strong, bipartisan agreement, its greatest advocates are often found on the right. While Tsai Ing-wen is known for being a feminist and a social progressive domestically, she has also cultivated friendships with leading figures on the American right, who have been traditional advocates of Taiwan. With sustained US conservative attention paid to Taiwan, it is unsurprising that several of the groups tied to anti-gay marriage efforts within Taiwan are funded by religious and political institutions in the United States.


While the usual factors in changing views on social issues, such as age, geography (urban v. rural) and education,[9] are relevant  in Taiwan, the island’s singular geopolitical position and unique church-state history have constructed a complex political landscape in which the debate over gay marriage has played out. Taiwan’s path toward marriage equality, like the country itself, must be seen in its own right, rather than through the lens of external social, political, geographic or religious categories.

The main point: Taiwan’s singular geopolitical position and unique church-state history have constructed a complex political landscape in which the debate over gay marriage has played out.

[1] Surveys on this topic and their methodology have been hotly contested and remain controversial. For a helpful analysis see this article, https://twstreetcorner.org/2016/11/28/chenmeihua-3/
[2] Jens Damm, “Discrimination and Backlash Against Homosexual Groups in Taiwan,” in Politics of Difference in Taiwan, ed. T.W. Ngo, Hong-zen Wang (London and New York: Routledge, 2011), 152-180.
[3] Yen-hsin Alice Cheng, Fen-Chieh Felice Wu & Amy Adamczyk, “Changing Attitudes Toward Homosexuality in Taiwan, 1995–2012,” Chinese Sociological Review, 48:4, 317-345. Cheng, Wu, and Adamczyk argue that religious opposition was a less salient factor in the 1990s; as Taiwanese society liberalized, Christian groups became activated and their conservative social views more entrenched (337-338).
[4] Damm, “Discrimination and Backlash,” 169-170.
[5] Cheng et al, “Changing Attitudes,” 328.
[6] This discussion presumes the common designation of Confucianism as a “civil religion,” (cf Robert Bellah) rather than akin to the religions discussed in this article.
[7] Richard Madsen, Democracy’s Dharma: Religious Renaissance and Political Development in Taiwan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 18-19.
[8] Cheng et al, “Changing Attitudes,” 337.
[9] Cheng et al, “Changing Attitudes,” 336-339.