Taiwan became a pioneer in human rights, as well as a beacon for members of the LGBTQ+ community in Asia, when its constitutional court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage on May 24th this year.
In a region where gender and sexual equality faces significant challenges, why Taiwan? The answer lies in the formation of a unique Taiwanese identity, which is creating a space for marriage equality and other progressive causes outside of the conservative aspects of East Asian tradition. It is part of the effort of Taiwanese society, particularly the younger generations, to distinguish themselves from China, a country which denies that a separate Taiwanese identity even exists in the first place. Furthermore, compared to China’s lackluster track record as a defender of LGBTQ+ rights, the fight for marriage equality in Taiwan is not just a fight for LGBTQ+ rights alone, but a fight to protect this new Taiwanese identity, which is based on democracy and universal human rights.
Arguments Against LGBTQ+ Rights From Tradition
While obstacles to full acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community existed in both Chinese and Taiwanese societies, it is important to distinguish these obstacles from those in “Western” societies. Religious life in Taiwan is dominated by Buddhism and Taoism, both of which have “little doctrinal resistance to homosexuality.” Traditionally, its culture has derived from Confucian values, which causes homosexuality to be seen in a negative light, but not as inherently sinful as, for example, many Christians would see the issue.
Nevertheless, Confucianism prioritizes the transmission of culture from generation to generation through means such as xiào (filial piety), which demands the “recognition of and reverence for the source of life.” Xiào also consisted in “putting the needs of parents and family elders over self, spouse, and children,” meaning that the needs of the collective were more important than the individual, with the emphasis being on the importance of the family. These priorities include growing the family, relegating a woman’s worth to her ability to reproduce, and leading one of Confucius’s followers, Mencius, to declare that the worst of unfilial acts was “a failure to have descendents.”
Since sons were also responsible for making sure that a family’s ancestors were properly respected in filial ancestor worship, if that son were gay and thus didn’t reproduce a new generation, the chain of worship would be broken, according to tradition. In this traditional world view, homosexuality was seen as putting one’s own needs selfishly over that of the family.
Homosexuality was decriminalized in Taiwan in 1896, while Taiwan was under Japanese rule. However, homosexuality remained taboo until activists began the fight to destigmatize it. Early origins of the marriage equality movement began in 1986, while Taiwan was still under martial law. That year, long-time activist Chi Chia-wei was arrested and “imprisoned for five months after submitting his first petition asking for gay marriage to be recognized.” Yet, a little less than a decade later, Taiwanese writer Hsu Yu-sheng and his American partner Gary Harriman were able to hold a public wedding in Taiwan, and became the first couple to do so. While the marriage equality movement was beginning to form, significantly so was Taiwan’s new democracy, as almost four decades of martial law was lifted in 1987.
Since then, a series of high-profile events have propelled the marriage equality movement forward, along with other advances for the LGBTQ+ movement. Four years after the apparent murder of a 15 year old who had been bullied for being effeminate in 2000, the Gender Equity Education Act came into effect. In part this was because a resulting lawsuit regarding the young boy’s death found the school principal and two other school administrative staff members guilty of manslaughter for their failure to “shape a gender-friendly environment.” In 2005, a 17 year old girl who had been struggling with depression committed suicide after her mother forced her to go to conversion therapy. Her mother demanded that the doctor ‘cure’ her homosexuality first and her depression later, because homosexuality was worse than depression in the mother’s eyes.
More recently in 2010, more than 100 member of various LGBT groups across Taiwan held a march in response to the double suicides of two female students, who left a note saying that they were in love, but not accepted by their families. The organizers of the march reminded the media that in 1994 there was a similar double suicide of a young lesbian couple who attended First Taipei Girls High School. In their suicide letter they wrote “that the nature of this society did not suit them and thought their lives to be negligible.”
These incidents, as horrifying as they were, nevertheless helped build grassroots support for the marriage equality movement in Taiwan, beginning with the passage of the Gender Equity Education Act. However, the activist spirit began to really gather steam starting in 2014, as the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which is more socially conservative, began to lose public support due to a stagnant economy, poor governance, and a growing unease over the party’s China policies.
Widespread discontent with the KMT transformed into social and political activism, especially those organized online and led by younger citizens, like the student-led Sunflower Movement. From March 18, 2014 to April 10, 2014 Taiwanese students occupied the Legislative Yuan with the purpose of stopping the parliament from approving the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement, a free-trade accord with China. Additionally, the protesters also demanded new laws that would increase transparency and legislative oversight regarding agreements with China. These young activists mobilized many young people across the island into politics, helping create a space where groups focused on activism could politicize. For instance, in November of last year, The Taiwan Student Marriage Equality Association, which is made up of more than 70 student associations, joined the fight to pass the legislation that would eventually legalize same-sex marriage in Taiwan. In the span of three weeks, the student groups collected more than 45,000 signatures from petitions meant to pressure legislators.
President Tsai Ing-wen, during her campaign, ran on a pro-Taiwan, pro-activist platform that pledged full support for marriage equality. However, upon her election, her administration’s support for marriage equality became more lukewarm, as did other pro-marriage equality lawmakers, frustrating some of her supporters. Taiwan’s small but vocal and well-funded same-sex opposition groups, supported by evangelical Christian churches, played on parental fears by claiming that same-sex marriage would lead to incest, bestiatily, AIDS, and a future where humans would be allowed to wed inanimate objects. Eventually, perhaps realizing that there was a limit to the effectiveness of the Christian rhetoric, the opposition movement broadened its message to focus on traditional Chinese culture. Justice Minister Chiu Tai-san, in a court defense of existing policy during a hearing for marriage equality, claimed that same-sex relationships “could complicate the rites of ancestor worship” saying, “what are we going to write on the ancestral tablets if same-sex marriage is legalized?’”
Despite this opposition, on May 24, 2017, marriage equality was deemed a constitutional right in Taiwan by its Constitutional Court, with the justices calling sexual orientation an “immutable characteristic that is resistant to change.” The judges ruled that the Taiwanese government must change its marriage law to comply with their decision within two years. While this progressive decision may seem unusual, especially in comparison to East Asian societies like China, Japan or Korea, Taiwan has historically been a unique democracy that has been no stranger to progressive policies protecting minority rights. When President Tsai Ing-wen was elected, female candidates won 43 out of 113 seats in Taiwan’s parliament. Similarly, while Taiwan’s indigenous Austronesian community only makes up 1.5% of its population, indigenous representatives now hold 8 seats, or 7% of parliament.
Though marriage equality is usually argued as simply a basic human right, some see marriage equality in Taiwan as a way for Taiwan to further distinguish itself from China by projecting a more modern image to the global community. In a stark comparison to Taiwan, in China a group of mothers made news last May after they attempted to “advertise” their LGBT+ children at Shanghai’s “marriage market” in People’s Park. Met by intolerance from onlookers, eventually security officers came and ordered the mothers to leave the park under the guise that they had not registered their ‘advertising event’ (the parents had been handing out educational flyers).
Recently, homophobia has been intricately linked with nationalist thinking in China. Back in April, a women’s basketball coach at a Chinese university posted a photograph of two students holding a banner with golden characters and a red background on school grounds that said, “keep homosexuality far from the university campus. Protect Chinese traditional mores. Defend core socialist values. Resist corrosion from decadent Western thoughts.” Back in June, days after Taiwan’s historic ruling, China Netcasting Services Association (CNSA) banned “any display of ‘abnormal sexual behaviors’ — including homosexuality — in online video and audio content.” This new regulation means that if content includes homosexuality, it could be edited or banned. To get around the rules, a lesbian social media platform, Rela, only published its lesbian-themed short films and sitcom on YouTube and its own app. However, on May 26, Rela was shut down without explanation.
Why is Taiwan’s fight for marriage equality different from the other democracies of East Asia: Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea? In part, it is because of Taiwan’s struggle to form its own civic identity as a response to China’s sovereignty claims. There’s a sense of urgency for progressive Taiwanese activists to reform Taiwan due to China’s belief that it will one day “reunify” Taiwan. This desire was explicitly outlined in China’s anti-secession law in 2005 that states “China’s right to use ‘non-peaceful means’ against Taiwan” if it attempts to “secede” from China.
Conversely, the democracies of South Korea and Japan are not subject to such outside pressures, and have been moving much slower on the issue of LGBTQ+ rights and marriage equality: neither country is facing significant threats to their identities nor to their values. This lack of urgency means that the fight for equality is still in its beginning stages, especially in South Korea, whose military penal code defines “consesual intercouse between homosexual adults as ‘reciprocal rape,‘” companies such as Samsung and Google agree to block gay dating apps in the country, and a university officially announcing that they would expel homosexual students from their school, with no government response. Japan is further along in the fight for marriage equality and LGBT rights as “municipal governments have begun issuing certificates that recognize same-sex unions as being equivalent to marriage, granting couples rights in such areas as hospital visits and apartment rentals. But same-sex couples are still unable to legally wed.” However, the upcoming 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo could open Japan up to more scrutiny over their lack of marriage equality, and fling their marriage equality movement into the mainstream.
Comparisons between Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea also highlight the situation of the other democracy whose traditional values are rooted in Confucian thought: Hong Kong. While the fight for LGBTQ+ rights was gathering an unstoppable momentum in Taiwan, Hong Kong recently took a step back in the fight for marriage equality. When a Hong Kong immigration officer, Leung Chun-kwong, married his husband in New Zealand in 2014, Leung fought for his husband to receive the same spousal benefits that heterosexual employees receive. This past April, a High Court judge ruled in favor of Leung, but was immediately met with backlash. In late May, more than 27,000 individuals, 80 civil groups, and five lawmakers petitioned the government to appeal the decision. The next day, the ruling was appealed by Hong Kong’s Department of Justice.
Despite the appeal of a monumental ruling, could Hong Kong follow in Taiwan’s footsteps, and become the next East Asian jurisdiction to legalize same-sex marriage? Currently Hong Kong has made the shortlist to host the 2022 “Gay Games” despite opposition protests, and a citywide representative survey by the Equal Opportunities Commission early last year found that 92 per cent of those aged 18 to 24 were in favour of further anti-discrimination legislation for sexual minorities.
Furthermore, could the resulting protests from the imprisonment of Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow, sentenced to between six and eight months in prison for leading the “Umbrella Movement,” spark political change in Hong Kong? Similar to the Sunflower Movement, the Umbrella Movement was a “79-day demonstration defending Hong Kong’s autonomy from Beijing’s increasing encroachment.” Threats to democracy paved the way for marriage equality in Taiwan, firmly establishing Taiwan as leaders of LGBT rights in East Asia. Could Taiwan’s success pave the way for Hong Kong, and the rest of East Asia?
The author would like to thank Dr. Gerald Blaney for his advice and assistance in editing this paper.
(Feature image by William Yang)
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