Marriage equality is one more step in a century of transformation
Taiwan’s population includes a Han majority with deep Confucian roots. Though Taiwanese society is in the midst of constructing a more diverse, multicultural identity and reclaiming its Austronesian heritage, Confucian traditions are undeniably part of the island’s story.
In the public debate over fundamental human rights—for that is what the fight for marriage equality entails—it would be counter-productive to deny the past. Yet to acknowledge tradition does not mean to blindly follow it. Recognizing historical facts gives us room to deliberate on the elements we might preserve, and those we might change.
Ironically, while some officials have suggested that the gay marriage cases before the Constitutional Court must uphold the traditions of “the past thousand years” against the intrusion of modernity—what the Minister of Justice inartfully termed a “newly invented social need”—the fight to reform marriage rights is not quite so unprecedented. The popular conception of heterosexual unions that the minister defended last week is itself a late-developing cultural practice.
Indeed, an important change advocated by May Fourth activists in the early twentieth-century was an end to traditional arranged marriages. They recommended coercive matches be replaced by consensual partnerships, animated by romantic love.
Holding aloft the twin inspirations of Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy, the activists questioned numerous aspects of the dominant Confucian framework, and in so doing, they transformed the practices, norms, and even language patterns of the Sinophone world—the cultural sphere stretching from Beijing to British Malaya to San Francisco’s Chinatown.
The writers and artists in this broader cultural enterprise, dubbed the New Culture Movement, argued that no one should be auctioned off to increase their family’s fortunes. Every human being has the right to be with the person they love, and to live a life of their choosing. On this front, their activism succeeded.
Thus, the heterosexual “marriage” defended in the Constitutional Court this week is itself the result of reform—not a venerated and unchanging orthodoxy. It is clear evidence that Confucian practice can adapt to modernity, as each generation interprets it anew.
Adaptation across generations
In recent years, we have heard many compelling arguments for marriage equality from spirited young activists leaping into the political fray. However, we must also recognize that the transition will not be easy for older generations. This is not because their lives will be directly impacted, but because they face changing social conditions they might never have imagined.
Instead of pillorying them for being too slow to change, let’s applaud them for how much they have grown and evolved in one lifetime. Once upon a time, they were born under the Japanese flag or in the throes of KMT dictatorship. Today, they live, vote, and run for office in a free society. Political naysayers predicted that an authoritarian Asian mindset would doom democracy to fail in Taiwan. Our parents and grandparents proved them wrong.
Even more importantly, while democracy might once have been seen as a Western import, in all the ways that matter today, it is resolutely Taiwanese. Society has successfully negotiated the apparent contradictions between Confucian hierarchy and universal liberty, and even established the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy to propagate liberal values across the world.
In the same vein, LGBTI rights—including the right to marry, the right to adopt, and the right to have one’s partnership viewed as equal before the law—are not simply a foreign oddity. Advanced democracies and the United Nations consider LGBTI rights to be part and parcel of basic human rights. If we are proud of Taiwan’s democratic transformation so far, then we should be proud that this island is becoming more equal, tolerant, and enlightened—that Taiwan will defend the civil rights of all its citizens.
As our elders take time to adjust to the new order of things, we can reciprocate with the patience and care they showed us in our early years, while encouraging them to move forward and secure human rights and justice for all.
Bigotry has no place in contemporary society, and discriminatory arguments to block gay marriage must be repudiated. However, some commentators have raised sincere questions about family life and the logistics of lineal descent. Let’s not dismiss these concerns flippantly, but assure them that there are reasonable answers we can find together.
Recall that in a few short decades, these are the same people who have gone from subsistence farmers to high-tech workers, imperial subjects to free and equal citizens. It has been a whirlwind of change—but they are capable of making the leap.
An ongoing social mission
As Hu Shih wrote during the New Culture Movement, the next generation will grow up free from the shackles of the past; but until the future arrives, it is our generation’s challenge to bridge the gap.
The fortunate members of that next generation will live in a society where it is not at all out-of-the-ordinary to speak and write in the vernacular; to cast a ballot for a woman president; or to marry a person of their choosing, male or female.
In contrast, our parents were educated under the old order, with an emphasis on hierarchy and traditional roles. Instead of recrimination, we might take the opportunity to practice empathetic understanding (善解). They did not always enjoy the common luxuries of political rights, freedom of thought, and cosmopolitan culture that our generation takes for granted.
Similar to Hu Shih and his fellow activists, our generation straddles the middle, standing between our free-thinking (future) children, and our tradition-minded parents. We bear two burdens: we must speak to our parents—using language they can understand—about our life and career choices, about our political activism, about our queerness, about our identity.
At the same time, we must educate our children to be caring, open-minded, empathetic human beings—free of the constraints that limited their forebears’ life choices. In a society as resilient and adaptable as Taiwan, I believe this mission is one the present generation can ably fulfill.
Taiwan is many things. It is an island in the Pacific. It is a raucous democracy. It is technologically advanced, deeply humanitarian, and environmentally-conscious. It is devotedly Confucian, and resolutely liberal.
Now, in the twenty-first century, whether through the action of impartial courts or a courageous legislature, Taiwan can also be the first country in Asia to grant every one of its citizens—regardless of gender, orientation, DNA, origin, or culture—the right to marry whomsoever they choose.