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Same-sex marriage sparks a ‘culture war’ in Taiwan

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Special To The Japan Times

Taiwan is one of the most LGBT friendly societies in Asia, with an active gay community and possibly the largest annual gay pride parade in the region. In recent weeks expectations spiked that it would soon legalize same-sex marriage. On Dec. 3, The Economist opined, “It would be even better if the country that hardly any others recognize became the first in Asia to recognize that gay people deserve equality.” But this won’t happen until mid-2017 at the earliest due to President Tsai Ing-wen’s lukewarm support and a backlash from powerful conservatives.

Even though Christians represent less than 5 percent of the population, they are a cohesive political force that is spearheading opposition. They are exploiting Tsai’s cautious approach and sparking “Taiwan’s first culture war,” according to professor Rwei-ren Wu from Academica Sinica in Taipei. A recent poll suggests Taiwan is polarized on the issue of legalizing same-sex marriage — 46.3 percent support it, 45.4 percent oppose it, and more than 65 percent of those aged under 40 are in favor of the change.

Tsai took office six months ago and has seen her support plummet from 70 percent in May to 41 percent in late November, while her disapproval rate has soared to 43 percent. It appears that voters are impatient for change and she hasn’t delivered enough to satisfy the expectations she raised. Wu argues that Tsai hasn’t prioritized her policy initiatives, hasn’t consulted enough within her party, hasn’t communicated well with the public and comes across as a frosty technocrat.

Wu feels she should show more determination and passion, sentiments echoed by Jason Hsu, the youthful Kuomintang (KMT) MP who has tabled a same-sex marriage bill aimed at bridging partisan politics. Hsu sees this as an opportunity to do the right thing, reposition his conservative party on social issues and appeal to young voters who overwhelmingly support the reform. He asserts this is a generational issue, sentiments shared by Jennifer Lu at Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association, a advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. In her view, “marriage equality is not just a matter for gay and lesbian people, but also an important reflection of Taiwan’s democratic values and of a society that respects diversity.”

Wu asserts that Taiwan is a pariah state, increasingly isolated due to the pervasive “one China” policy that leaves it in global purgatory. In his view, Taiwan should embrace a progressive liberal agenda to build bridges and win friends with liberal democracies. Thus, mainstream support for LGBT rights is much more than a battle for justice and equality at home: It is an effort to project a modern, cosmopolitan image that sharpens the distinction with China and positions Taiwan as an appealing exemplar of the liberal values, norms and trends in advanced societies around the world.

Tsai’s tepid backing of LGBT rights risks alienating the youthful supporters who catapulted her into power. Joy, a 31-year-old Taiwanese lesbian, is skeptical about politicians but confident that the LGBT community will be given equal rights sooner or later. We chatted at the recent Taiwan Reading Festival where she was working, adjacent to a massive anti-LGBT rights demonstration in central Taipei that attracted more than 80,000 protesters. She wasn’t troubled by the loud, angry homophobic presence of what she calls “the againsters.” She expects that the government will eventually enact a revision of the outdated Civil Code and recognize same-sex marriage.

There are basically two options: amend the Civil Code or pass a special law granting legal status to same-sex couples. Conservatives back the latter; progressives, the former, which would involve an overhaul removing wording from the code that reinforces the patriarchal family model. Hsu expects opponents of this reform to boycott the legislative review on Dec. 26 and that a vote won’t happen before next May. He thinks the chances of any reform are only 50-50 but vows to keep fighting.

Joy rejects the idea of a special law sanctioning same-sex unions because she feels it is insulting. She says it would reinforce discriminatory attitudes and the marginalization of the LGBT community. Polls suggest most under-40s agree with her, while the older generation ranges from hostile to unenthusiastic about granting legal recognition to same-sex partners. For the young it is an issue of fairness and the right to love, while older Taiwanese remain attached to traditional family values.

Why is this an issue now? In October, Jacques Picoux, a prominent gay French professor, committed suicide after an inheritance dispute with his Taiwanese partner’s family, and partly due to frustration after he was barred from participating in end-of-life medical decisions regarding his partner of more than 35 years. This suicide generated a powerful groundswell of support for reform on LGBT issues. Suddenly it appeared that Taiwan might legalize same-sex marriage, but this optimism has faded as disappointed advocates accuse Tsai of empty gestures and not following through on campaign promises.

Opponents have stirred up anxieties by spreading false rumors that under the proposed reforms terms such as “mom” and “dad” would be outlawed and education would promote homosexuality. I also met some under-40s who harbor doubts about the reforms with one telling me that her parents find the whole idea of homosexuality revolting and granting official recognition unacceptable. While she personally welcomes the reforms, she is reluctant to offend her parents.

William Yang, a gay blogger, says he can live with the special law as long as those in the LGBT community gain legal rights — but he would prefer amendment of the Civil Code. Most of those in Taiwan’s LGBT community that I met seem more adamant that the special law would preclude the equality they desire. KMT legislator Hsu argues that retaining an outdated Civil Code will only perpetuate exclusion.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) may have initially backed same-sex marriage to appeal to youthful voters, but as political analyst Gwen Wang told me, its delay in acting on that support puts it in an awkward position, especially since it is floundering on all the reforms it promised involving labor, pensions, the judiciary, transitional justice, etc. — and the economy remains stagnant.

There is a real risk that her half-hearted support for reform will stoke cynicism among youthful voters. To regain their confidence, Wu argues that Tsai needs to abandon her risk-averse style and vocally support same-sex marriage to show her opponents that she is tough and not forsaking her supporters.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus.