On May 24th, Taiwan’s Constitutional Court ruled in favor of marriage equality, stating that the provision in the Civil Code, which only allows a man and a woman to wed, violated constitutional guarantees for same-sex unions. The historic decision is paving the way for Taiwan to become the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex unions. Consequently, Taiwan is receiving significant attention from the global media and many marriage equality supporters are commending Taiwan as a beacon of human rights and LGBTQ equality in Asia. Yet, curiously, progress on the marriage equality front seems to have had little or even a negative impact on the approval rate of President Tsai Ing-wen and her government.
Both Pro and Against Camps are Dissatisfied
In her presidential campaign, then-candidate Tsai explicitly expressed support for marriage equality. However, after the 2016 elections, the Civil Code amendments for marriage equality (民法修正草案or 婚姻平權法案) moved slowly through the legislative branch. Several Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) heavyweights, including the party whip Mr. Ker Chien-ming (柯建銘), opposed the reform and preferred a civil union law that provides fewer legal rights for gay couples. The government, for its part, dragged its feet in drafting an amendment to the Civil Code until after the ruling of the Constitutional Court. In the historic public hearing of the marriage equality case in the Constitutional Court on March 24th, the representative of the government, Minister of Justice Mr. Chiu Tai-san’s (邱太三) arguments against gay marriage were almost categorically refuted by the honorable justices. Therefore, people who support marriage equality, especially among the younger generations, appear to blame President Tsai for moving too slowly to fulfill her promise. According to these supporters, this failure to act left significant opportunities for the mobilization of the opposition.
Groups against legalizing same-sex marriage have also been active. In particular, the Alliance of Religious Groups for the Love of Families Taiwan (台灣宗教團體愛護家庭大聯盟，護家盟), created in 2013 and led by evangelical Christian groups, has successfully organized several large rallies and stimulated public opposition against the legalization of same-sex marriage. Opposition groups have also organized various non-governmental organizations in the name of parents, guarding filial values, protecting children, and correcting sex education. Recently, these groups have targeted gender equity education at all levels of schools. These groups are resourceful and able to buy commercials on mainstream media and lobby legislators at both the local and national levels. As a result of such mobilization and anti-marriage-equality campaigns, conservative citizens—especially those who value the traditional filial values—warn that the Tsai administration should not pass a “controversial act.” One can often hear the typical reactionary opinion, “[the] government should deal with important issues, especially economic development (拚經濟), instead of progressive reforms” (see, e.g., this piece).
Historical and Structural Factors in the Opposition
In the past decade, religious anti-LGBTQ groups have tended to be associated with the pan-blue parties, as the Nationalist Party elites often publicly support traditional values. However, public opinion on same-sex marriage has less to do with party identity in general. The cleavage occurs along age cohorts and regional differences. More than 80 percent of people under age 30 are supportive of marriage equality (this is also the post-martial-law generation that tends to support more liberal values). Northern Taiwan also tends to be more amenable to liberal values than Southern regions, the DPP strongholds. The regional difference may be a result of multiple factors, including more opportunities for exposure to cosmopolitan values via education, media, and social movements, and the degree of industrialization.
Furthermore, a more ingrained obstacle for marriage equality within the ruling DPP stems from opposition in the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church and long-term pro-Taiwan activists. While Christians only consist of about 6-8 percent of the population in Taiwan, church leaders were historically significant participants in politics, and their opinions are thus influential to politicians. In particular, in the authoritarian era, the Presbyterian Church played a major role in the social movements for democratization and became a core support group of the DPP. Because most Christian elites oppose marriage equality, legislators and local politicians fear that they will lose financial and mobilization support from these allies if they support marriage equality. Besides the Church elites, several major leaders of the democratization movements and/or the “deep-green” pro-Taiwan activists also oppose the amendment of the Civil Code (e.g., Lin Yi-hsiung) and prefer a civil union law with fewer legal rights for the gay couple. The opposition from the DPP’s core supporters and heavyweights is thus the largest challenge for President Tsai.
Implications of the Obstacles
Taiwanese party politics have always been centered on Taiwan’s relationship with China, so debates between progressive and conservative ideologies have never been the most salient issue.. However, the cleavage on marriage equality is not determined by pro-Taiwan or pro-China attitudes. This can be seen as a positive development, as Taiwanese society may be transforming traditional or conservative ideologies into something new. But the cross-cutting cleavages mean that the anti-reform camps have more opportunities to mobilize people with different ideological positions. Considering that the conservative generations hold power and resources, one can never take for granted that the trend of liberal values will prevail.
Although prominent international media outlets, human right groups, and activists in neighboring countries have all been inspired by the achievements for LGBTQ rights in Taiwan so far, the government is still delaying the process of legalizing same-sex marriage. Legislator You Mei-nu (尤美女), one of the leading promoters of marriage equality, moderated the Consult Among Parties (立法院黨團協商), a legal process in the legislature, on May 31st. However, the Ministry of Justice still refused to endorse the marriage equality bills in the Legislative Yuan. Although the Secretary-General of the Executive Yuan, Chen Mei-ling (陳美伶), is leading a special session (同性婚姻法制研議專案小組) for drafting the amendment, they only promised to draft a bill within the two-year deadline articulated by the Court, and seem unwilling to fulfill the campaign promise of President Tsai promptly.
On balance, President Tsai may have missed her opportunity to take credit for the promotion of marriage equality. In particular, the mobilization of opposition groups to the LGBTQ community has led to the accusation that the government has been too passive in protecting and promoting the rights of minority groups. At the same time, conservative groups have accused Tsai of destroying traditional values, and link her low approval rates with policies that engender social controversy. Just like various kinds of progressive movements and activism, there is no royal road to achieving the last mile of reform.
The main Point: Taiwan could become the first country in Asia to achieve marriage equality, but it has led to a backlash from conservative groups, which undermines President Tsai’s prestige.