At the end of November, voters in Taiwan decided to reject same-sex marriage in a referendum that could have made the island the first country in Asia to allow same-sex couples to share child custody.
7 million Taiwanese people, generally believed to be accepting of LGBTQ+ rights in general, voted not to change the definition of traditional marriage, effectively barring same-sex couples to legalize their marriage. Only 3 million voters answered yes, less than half the opposition. The result shocks not only inhabitants of this island country, but also LGBTQ+ communities worldwide, as Taiwan has long been considered a model country with regards to LGBTQ+ progress.
Jennifer Lu, from Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan, the main supporting group for LGBTQ+ rights in the island, vehemently protested the result, stating that LGBTQ+ people are part of Taiwan society and should therefore not be excluded from the state system. She believes that every family has a purpose and value of its own, and thus should be considered equal to one another.
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On receiving the news of their victory, a representative of Happiness Alliance, the religious group leading the opposition to same-sex marriage, stated that “this is a victory for those who vehemently protect traditional family values and education for future generations.”
The opposition to same-sex rights was organised by Christian groups, such as Happiness Alliance, who make up for around 5% of Taiwan’s population, according to The Guardian. The result was always expected to be a close call, but it was believed that the vote would swing in favour of equality. A May 2017 constitutional court ruling had previously told legislators that they had two years to make same-sex marriage legal.
Naturally, the Taiwan High Court’s received widespread opposition from hardline groups, and even though the court set a two-year deadline to draft a new law which features marriage equality, there has been no considerable progress from the government since.
Although the recent vote itself currently holds no legislative power, the newly revised referendum law dictates that every referendum with at least 280,000 signatures must be taken into account. Thus, this stalling tactic employed by the opposition will put a huge pressure on legislators, many of whom will face reelection in 2020.
This referendum also hints at a potential political conflict between Taiwan’s two leading political parties: the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) and the progressive Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). In 2016, lawmakers from DPP, which was, and still is, the ruling party, had started working on a law which legalises same-sex marriage. However, as the KMT gained popularity, same-sex marriage became a battleground where both sides attempted to exert control. The Kuomintang’s numerous stall tactics became more obvious as the result of the referendum was publicized, dealing a crushing blow to President Tsai Ing-Wen’s government and securing considerable political support from conservative political groups.
Though on the surface, the referendum looks like a fair chance for everyone to speak up their mind, experts have raised questions as to whether it is really a fair one. There is reportedly a wide gap between the money raised by both sides. Happiness Alliance has successfully raised as much as $3.2 million as compared to the Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan’s meagre $300,000. This has sparked complaints and outcry from the yes-sayers, as they accused the other party of intentionally misleading the public.
The recent events pose an era of uncertainty for the LGBTQ+ community, but there’s still a glimmer of hope. A quote from Taiwan’s chief justice Hsu Tzong-li was translated by Quartz as saying that a potential separate law would still need to consider equal rights if designed properly. Gay rights activist Chi Jia-wei was also mentioned as saying that a separate law would be acceptable if same-sex couples were entitled to the same privileges as heterosexual couples.