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Why is Taiwan voting on LGBTI rights and what is at stake?

Why is Taiwan voting on LGBTI rights and what is at stake?

LGBTI activists in Taiwan gather signatures for a equal marriage referendum (Photo: Facebook)

Taiwan made headlines last year when its highest court ruled that failing to recognize same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.

It was the first such ruling in Asia. It also paved the way for Taiwan to be the first country in Asia for equal marriage.

What’s more, Taiwan has long been heralded as a ‘beacon of liberalism’ or ‘the best place to be gay in Asia’ .

Taiwan holds the region’s largest LGBTI pride parade. This year, more than 130,000 attended.

One factor in Taiwan’s largely pro-LGBTI stance is a curriculum teaching gender and sexuality diversity in schools introduced in 2004.

But, on Saturday (24 November), Taiwan will hold national referendums on both equal marriage legislation and the LGBTI curriculum act.

A rainbow flag leads one of three parade routes (Photo: Rik Glauert)
A rainbow flag leads one of three parade routes in Taipei LGBT Pride Parade (Photo: Rik Glauert)

So, what happened?

In May 2017, Taiwan’s Constitutional Court ruled that the Civil Code was unconstitutional in denying marriage to same-sex partners.

‘Sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic that is resistant to change’, the court said.

‘The freedom of marriage for two persons of the same sex, once legally recognised, will constitute the collective basis, together with opposite-sex marriage, for a stable society’.

It gave the legislative Yuan two years to act.

Advocates hoped, in line with the court’s suggestion, lawmakers would change the Civil Code’s definition of marriage to ‘people’ instead of a ‘man and a woman’.

The ruling, however, led space to enact separate legislation to recognize same-sex marriages.

But Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, despite campaigning on a promise of marriage equality in the run-up to 2016 elections, and other lawmakers failed to enact legislation.

A lawmaker Gay Star News spoke to put this down to the country’s small but powerful Christian population. She also said older Taiwanese held conservative traditional family values and were susceptible to misinformation.

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s government made it easier to propose referendums. Citizens need only to gather signatures from 1.5% of the electorate —280,000 in this case – to secure a referendum.

Anti same-sex marriage campaigners in Taiwan deliver petition for a referendum on the issue.
Anti same-sex marriage campaigners in Taiwan deliver petition for a referendum on the issue.

What is on the ballot?

Anti-LGBTI groups in September gathered enough signatures for referendums on equal marriage and the Gender Equity Education Act.

LGBTI advocates, in return, also gathered signatures for their own referendums on the same issues. These were all passed by the Election Commission in October.

On Saturday, therefore, Taiwan residents will be asked their opinion on five yes/no LGBTI rights questions.

Questions 10, 11, and 12 proposed by anti-LGBTI rights campaigners ask:

‘Do you agree that marriage should be restricted to being between one man and one woman under the Civil Code?’

‘Do you agree that the Ministry of Education and schools at the elementary and junior high level should not teach about homosexuality as detailed in the Gender Equity Education Act?’

And,

‘Do you agree to unions outside of the ones defined as marriage by the Civil Code to protect the right of same-sex couples to live together permanently?’

Meanwhile, questions 14 and 15, from LGBTI rights advocates, ask:

‘Do you agree that the rights of same-sex couples to get married should be guaranteed by the Civil Code’s marriage regulations?’

‘Do you agree that gender equity education as defined under the Gender Equity Education Act should be taught at all stages of the national curriculum and include education about emotions, sex, and homosexuality?’

Tens of thousands of equal marriage supporters rallied in Taipei, Taiwan on Sunday (Photo: Facebook)
Tens of thousands of equal marriage supporters rallied in Taipei, Taiwan on Sunday (Photo: Facebook)

What will happen next?

Unfortunately, LGBTI rights advocates and observers Gay Star News spoke to do not hold out much hope for a positive outcome on Saturday.

Conservatives have run a well-funded campaign of misinformation.

According to the court ruling, Taiwan will legalize same-sex unions in May 2019. This will happen whatever the results of the referendum.

But, the results could force lawmakers to enact separate legislation, equivalent to the UK’s Civil Partnership Act, rather than change the Civil Code.

This would be a major blow to the LGBTI community and a missed chance to guarantee equality for gay and lesbian Taiwanese.

The result of the Gender Equity Education Act questions could have more worrying implications.

Advocates warn that repealing LGBTI-inclusive education could damage Taiwan’s increasingly progressive society.

Above all, wins for conservative campaigners will send a terrible message to Taiwan’s LGBTI community, especially young people.

Taiwan prides itself on being a freewheeling democracy established on firm respect for human rights. Rights activists in the country hope this weekend’s results will not put that at risk.