With marriage equality legalized in 21 countries across the world, Asia is the only continent without a jurisdiction that recognizes same sex marriage. That could very well change today, as Taiwan’s Council of Grand Justices is set to hand down its decision on whether banning same sex couples from marrying is unconstitutional.  

As a diplomatically isolated nation, Taiwan does not make international headlines often. But in the past eight months, the push for marriage equality has helped to put Taiwan in the international spotlight. Dubbed as the “LGBTQ Capital” in Asia, Taiwan’s efforts in respecting and advancing this issue have been widely recognized.

Taiwan’s road to same sex marriage, however, began more than three decades ago, when Taiwan was not yet a democracy. Through out the years, LGBTQ rights went through many rounds of back and forth in the legislature, itself a product of nascent democratization and often mired in polarizing identity politics.

If Taiwan’s constitutional court does deem same sex marriage to be legal, not only will it become a watershed in Taiwan’s history of democracy and developing civil society, it will also have profound meaning for LGBTQ rights around the world.

How did we get here?

Taiwan’s marriage equality movement dates back to 1986, when Chi Chia-wei (祁家威), a long-time LGBTQ activist, urged the Taiwanese government to legalize same sex marriage. According to Chi, he first started petitioning for same sex marriage because during a fight with his partner, his partner shouted “it’s not like we’re married anyway.”

In 1986, Taiwan was still ruled by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) as a one-party authoritarian state. Chi’s petition was not only rejected, he was put in jail as a political prisoner, alongside the democracy activists who would later form the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Chi tried again in 1992, and again in 1998, and then turned to the courts in 2000 and 2015, all to no avail.

However, during the 30 years since his partner first inspired him, Taiwan’s society has changed dramatically. Not only are there now elections of the president and legislature, civil society has begun to tackle specific issues of minority rights as well. Other allies joined in Chi’s fight.

The Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership (TAPCPR), for example, proposed three draft bills in 2012 and rallied support in society. The bill was officially introduced in the legislature in 2013, where it was dropped after passing the first reading.

“Since the KMT, which held the majority in the legislature at time, didn’t support the bill and the DPP never had the chance the chance to push the bill onto the legislative agenda, the draft bill was dropped in the legislature eventually,” said Victoria Hsu, Chairman of TAPCPR’s board. “TAPCPR realized that there was a structural problem facing the movement, because in order for the bill to pass, it needs the support of the major party. However, none of the parties were behind the bill in 2013.”

In 2016, Taiwan experienced a major shift in political landscape. The ruling KMT was badly defeated by the DPP in both the presidential and legislative elections. According to Hsu, the voters had high expectations the new president Tsai Ing-wen will bring about reforms quickly, including the issue of same sex marriage, which Tsai addressed in a campaign video.

In October last year, the issue grabbed newspaper headlines, after both the KMT, the DPP, as well as the new upstart New Power Party (NPP), all introduced their respective versions of marriage equality draft bills. Several legislators from each party, led by Yu Mei-Nu from the DPP and Jason Hsu from the KMT, began to work on fine-tuning and rallying support for the bill inside the legislature. To Hsu, the cross-party collaboration is unprecedented.

“Traditionally, that’s not a normal practice, because in Taiwan, the two parties just don’t work together,” said Legislator Hsu. “My philosophy has always been building bridges, and I want to set a good model for others to follow while realizing that there are issues on which politicians can work across the board.”

As the legislature began to discuss about the draft bills internally, supporters and opponents for marriage equality started to escalate their voices, with groups from both sides organizing large-scale rallies to express their opinions and present their arguments.

However, it wasn’t until the tragic suicide of Jacques Picoux, a French professor at the National Taiwan University, did the pro marriage equality side begin to step up its game. Picoux assumably took his own life after the death of his partner to cancer. During the treatment, Picoux was denied the right to make crucial medical decisions because they were not legally married.

“After the Professor Picoux incident, I think everyone just joined together,” said Jay Lin, founder of Taiwan International Queer Film Festival (TIQFF) and Queermosa. “We realized that this is a crucial issue that will define LGBTQ rights and our agenda, so we started building a coalition since the later half of last year.”

The legislature was able to settle on one version of the draft bill, and it pass through the committee on December 26, 2016. Opposition groups tried to climb over the barbed wired walls of the legislature in protest. However, the legislature seemed to have moved away from the issue since the beginning of 2017, and the media attention around it also began to decrease. Only until March 24th, when Taiwan’s constitutional court decided to hear the marriage equality case, did the issue resurface. The much subdued tone by the government around the issue has made supporters and citizens suspect whether the Tsai administration and her party may be planning to drop the issue again.

Political calculation or political opening?

To some in the pro-marriage equality camp, President Tsai’s unwillingness to adopt a clear stance over marriage equality and DPP’s passive approach towards prioritizing the draft bill in the legislature are seen as a sign of political calculation. Some prominent supporters, such as Chen Fang-ming, professor at National Cheng-Chi University’s Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature, has repeatedly urged President Tsai and the DPP to prioritize marriage equality over other issues in the media. Victoria Hsu argues that there will be a big price to pay if marriage equality isn’t legalized as promised in four years.

“If President Tsai can’t legalize marriage equality in her first term, the DPP will definitely lose some votes in the next election,” said Hsu. “The difference in her attitude during the campaign and after being elected clearly shows that there are some serious political calculations when it comes to this issue. I don’t think politicians should suppress the legislation like this. If it’s a policy that concerns human rights, they need to defend it. It is as simple as that. Her approach now clearly involves some serious contemplation over the electorate’s reaction.”

As it is unclear when the multi-party caucus negotiation over the draft bill will begin in the legislature, Legislator Jason Hsu thinks that President Tsai is running out of time to make a decision on marriage equality. Since there are local elections scheduled for next year, and it could be hard to advance the draft bill if no decision is reached before the end of 2017.

“I fear that the current situation could freeze the marriage equality movement for the next two years,” said Hsu. “She might use the issue to raise her popularity again in the next presidential election, but that might be a miscalculation as a lot of people might have already lost faith in her.”

However, some believe that President Tsai is waiting for the next political opening to take action. Hannah Fazio, the 2016-2017 Fulbright research fellow on marriage equality in Taiwan, said that President Tsai is waiting to see which direction is the movement heading.

“I think President Tsai is trying to see which way the wind will blow,” said Fazio. “It’s also a very politically motivated movement, so it is critical to see where the political opening will be. I think the elections in 2018 and 2020 are key, because the legislators are waiting to see how their constituents will vote. People need to lobby their legislators and let the government as well as the DPP know what they want.”

Setting an example in Asia

Despite the current stagnation of the issue in the legislature, those that are closely following the movement still believe that Taiwan can set an example for other countries in Asia through legalizing marriage equality. As the first country that’s on the cusp of making the significant step, a positive outcome will be critical for Taiwan and Asia in many respects.

“If Taiwan can become the first country in Asia to legalize same sex marriage, it can provide a map or framework for other countries in the region to follow suit,” said Hannah Fazio. “I think Taiwan is the beacon of hope for Asia in this regard, and is leading the path to legalize same sex marriage.”

To some, the ongoing foreign media interest in Taiwan’s marriage equality movement helps to highlight the development that Taiwan has gone through in the last few decades, which is the focus on democracy, human rights and civic society.

“I think an issue like marriage equality does give Taiwan a high visibility,” said Jay Lin. “Taiwan tends to be more liberal and open compared to other Asian countries, and something like this has a lot of media interest. It is not just about marriage equality, but a whole fundamental transformation that the society is going through. Plus, Taiwan’s movement is coming from a grassroots level, so there are a lot of activities that can keep the international media interested in Taiwan, which is a good thing.”

What’s next for the movement?

As the constitutional court plans to hand down the ruling today, what is next for the marriage equality movement? One thing for sure is that the legislature’s approach will be ever more crucial, as the details of the law would need to be amended.

“There will be a lot of offense and defense in the legislative process,” said Victoria Hsu. “But our efforts certainly won’t end here. Even though we may make some momentary achievements, there is still a long way ahead of us. TAPCPR plans to keep using all of our resources to advance gender and human rights, and politically, we will keep putting pressure on both local and central governments.”

While many remain hopeful for the outcome on May 24, they all agree that it is necessary to apply lobbying and public pressures to the legislators and demand them to push the draft bill forward in the legislature.

“It will be crucial for us to show mass support, and keep lobbying to remind those legislators who have declared their support for marriage equality last year to vote with their conscience,” said Jay Lin.

And even if marriage equality is legalized, the movement will not end here. Jay Lin emphasizes that more outreach is necessary to make the LGBTQ community more visible, more audible and more persuasive. He believes that with more mutual understanding and rational discussion will help the LGBTQ community deal with opposition in Taiwan.

“I think even if marriage equality passes, it won’t automatically change people’s minds,” said Lin. “It doesn’t just stop discrimination automatically. I hope a lot of the communication in the future will be very sensible and logical discussions, over coffee.”

For now, all eyes will be on the constitutional ruling on May 24th, and many are hoping that it can provide a set of clear and positive instructions that can demand the legislature to reopen negotiation and discussion over the marriage equality bill. Hopefully, Taiwan can make things right this time.

 

William Yang

William is a freelance writer and photographer based in Taiwan, with a passion for human rights and storytelling. He holds a Master of Journalism degree from Temple University, and has extensive experiences interning at global NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Mercy Corps.