Why Taiwan’s Same Sex Marriage Debate Matters
Adam Zivo | NATO Association of Canada | 2019 | 750 words
Taiwan’s parliament recently announced that it will go ahead with legalizing same-sex marriage. However, rather than amending the civil code to include same-sex couples, it will instead draft a new set of laws – separate, but equal. The move has been seen as many as a compromise in a national debate that has been controversial and raucous. In May 2017, Taiwan’s Constitutional Court ruled that the country’s current marriage laws violate equality rights and gave parliament a two-year deadline to amend them accordingly. Parliament was unable to find a solution, with both major parties showing concern about the potential political costs of supporting a cause with mixed public support. This stasis created an opportunity for an anti-LGBTQ+ group to secure enough signatures to spark a non-binding referendum on the matter. In response, pro-LGBTQ+ groups secured the signatures needed to put their own questions on the same referendum vote. This sparked concern among the local political commentariat, as the referendum vote would include multiple questions that were nearly identical, differing mostly in framing. This could lead to a lack of clarity, as it would be technically possible for voters to answer questions inconsistently and therefore simultaneously approve and disapprove of marriage equality.
The referendum, which occurred in late November 2018, was marked by robust public outreach campaigns by both sides. Mass demonstrations were held for and against marriage equality, with conservative groups throwing millions of dollars into disinformation campaigns connecting same-sex marriage with the sexualization of children. Taiwanese voters ultimately rejected amending current marriage laws but showed some support for producing legally distinct civil unions. This has sparked confusion. On one hand, Parliament is obligated by the Constitutional Courts to amend existing marriage laws to include same sex marriage. On the other hand, the referendum, though non-binding, shows that popular political will is clearly against this, and in favour for either no legal recognition or, if necessary, distinct civil unions. The clash between popular will and constitutional law has led to what some consider a minor constitutional crisis in the country. The choice to adopt civil unions can be interpreted as a compromise solution which attempts to appease both sides enough to avoid this. It remains to be seen what pushback there will be, whether from LGBTQ+ activists looking to press for the full rights implied by court rulings, or from LGBTQ+ opponents looking to exact political costs against a government they perceive as insufficiently attenuated to its constituents’ values.
While LGBTQ+ rights may seem like a soft issue to international observers, there are real geopolitical stakes involved. Firstly, Taiwan’s government is currently helmed by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), a liberal party that is associated with LGBTQ+ rights via a more general championing of human rights. The DPP also strongly supports a distinct Taiwanese identity and is skeptical of reunification with mainland China. In contrast, the Kuomintang (KMT) is less accepting of LGBTQ+ rights and has a friendlier relationship with Beijing. With marriage equality becoming a hot political issue, how the DPP balances conflicting interests may determine whether it stays in power, and, by extension, whether Taiwan’s trajectory trends towards or away from Beijing.
On a larger scale, LGBTQ+ issues are increasingly assuming a geopolitical dimension. In the early 2010s, American foreign policy incorporated LGBTQ+ advocacy within its larger project of disseminating liberal values. Russia, in turn, positioned itself as the antithesis of this, championing traditional values that were explicitly defined as a rejection of perceived Western moral corruption. Russia successfully leveraged the discourse of traditional values to consolidate Putin’s domestic power, and then began exporting its value system to its sphere of influence, notably in Kyrgyzstan and Georgia. This Russia-US divide marked the beginning of a larger trend wherein which LGBTQ+ acceptance is increasingly seen as a western project, rather than a universal issue, with gay rights being tied to the interests of competing blocs and national identities.
While this trend has been mostly been observed and analyzed in the battle for Eurasia, it may have some applicability in East Asian politics. Specifically, the success or failure of LGBTQ+ rights in Taiwan may be a litmus test for Taiwan’s future alignment with The West with respect to liberal values. Whether or not, and to what extent, LGBTQ+ rights take root in Taiwan can give clues as to whether Taiwan can be expected to stay within The West’s extended sphere of influence. As Taiwan is at the forefront of LGBTQ+ acceptance in East Asia, its actions also have implications on other LGBTQ+ movements in the region – most notably Japan, Thailand, and Hong Kong. This in turn has its own geopolitical implications that resemble, though don’t exactly match, Taiwan’s case.