Taiwan’s bid to become the first country in Asia to recognize same-sex unions has been a rocky road. One woman, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislator Yu Mei-Nu, has been at the center of that ride.
Politicians first introduced equal marriage legislation into the parliament a decade ago. And, when President Tsai Ing-Wen and the DPP campaigned in 2016 elections, they promised to equalize marriage.
In May 2017, the Constitutional Court ruled the Civil Code’s definition of marriage as between ‘a man and a woman’ was unconstitutional. The country’s highest court gave lawmakers two years to legislate.
But Tsai and the DPP were slow to act. And, last month, anti-equal marriage campaigners petitioned the government for a referendum.
Sound confusing? Gay Star News spoke to DPP lawmaker Yu Mei-Nu about how Taiwan came to be heralded as a beacon of liberalism. And, importantly, why its bid for marriage equality has now stalled.
Why is Taiwan one of the best places in Asia for LGBTI rights?
Since people heard Taiwan will be the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage, many people are curious about Taiwan. Both China and Japan have adminstered Taiwan. We had martial law since the Japanese occupation ended [in 1945] until 1987. Taiwan has gone through a long process to democratize and its people have put in a lot of effort. We now have full democracy, with many local parties. In the process of pushing for democracy, we pushed for women’s rights, workers’ rights, and farmers’ rights. This came as LGBTI rights were being recognized globally and we rode on that same wave.
Taiwan is segregated from the international community [because of China]. But, on a public bottom-up level, Taiwan’s civil society is very strong and very active. That’s why we are called a beacon of liberalism in Asia. We have more in common with Europe and the USA than we do with mainland China. We value freedom, rule of law, democracy, and human rights. These are the total opposite of what China believes in.
Why is equal marriage important for Taiwan?
Marriage is a basic human right. The history of modern Taiwan has been fighting for human rights. We claim we base our nation on human rights and democracy. So when we see LGBTI rights are being abused, we cannot ignore it. We have addressed women’s rights, children’s rights, aboriginal rights, and now it is time to address LGBTI rights. We cannot deny that this community has emotions. Even heterosexual Taiwanese cannot turn a blind eye to these unfair circumstances.
What challenges does LGBTI equality in Taiwan face?
Although Taiwan bases its values on human rights, they are still not universal. In 2015, three equal marriage bills were brought to parliament. This evoked a backlash from religious groups in Taiwan. Although these groups account for less than 10 per cent of the population, they are vocal and can mobilize a lot of people. They evoke a lot of fear among people and spread false information. They do so especially among older people.
Has marriage equality in Taiwan been derailed? Who is to blame?
As you know, the Constitutional Court ruled on 24 May 2017 that it was unconstitutional to deny marriage to same-sex couples. The problem has been in what form new legislation should take. There has been a lot of space for manipulation. Actually, the [equal marriage] bill has had cross-party support. But it has faced challenges from religious and ‘family’ [conservative] groups, particularly in the southern part of Taiwan, where information may not circle so easily. A lot of legislators representing this region are afraid to express support for equal marriage for fear of losing votes.
If the Constitutional Court has already ruled same-sex marriage should be legalized, why is Taiwan having referenda on the issue?
The Constitutional Court was asked to rule on whether equal marriage was a human right. There was a number of different arguments both for and against. But, the judge only ruled on whether the situation was unconstitutional or not. It cannot give an order to the legislature. The judges said that as they believed the situation was unconstitutional. They said it must be changed within two years.
At the same time, Taiwan has recently amended its referendum law to allow petitions for referenda. The committee reviewed recent statements from the anti-LGBT groups pushing for a referenda. The committee ruled that as the groups didn’t contravene the Constitutional Court’s ruling for a ‘legal union’, it was eligible.
What are you doing now, inside and outside of the Legislative Yuan, to promote LGBTI rights?
On a macro, political level, there is not much we can do at the moment. The proposed bill is stuck in negotiations. It is not moving anywhere. Even within DPP, although not many lawmakers are against equal marriage, they are facing loud challenges at a district level from people they represent.
On a personal level, I go to schools, churches, and women’s groups to interact with people. I try to touch their hearts in a soft way. We have already passed the point of reasoning and using legal terms. Now we have to slowly get people’s heads to turn around. People may have prejudices but after talking, they are often willing to understand the issue. They were often misguided. We have to communicate so that parents will soon realize its not so fearful if their children are gay.
What will be the next frontier of LGBTI rights in Taiwan?
There has been some debate about transgender issues and designating gender on ID cards. But the executive body has been hesitant. We are currently debating same-sex marriage, so I think it is not the right time [to discuss trans rights]. But it is a human rights issue, and we will continue to to talk about it. That’s the next goal.In society, a lot of people have the misconception that trans people are just pretending. It will take time, but we will change attitudes. Our digital minister, Audrey Tang, is transgender. She presents a good example to society that a trans person can work in an important position.