Taiwan LGBT movement prioritizes marriage

This is a guest post by Amy Hsieh, a doctoral student of political science at the George Washington University and a former aide to DPP lawmaker Bi-khim Hsiao.

Taipei’s gay pride march held on October 27 struck a new tone — for the first time, it focused on a call to legalize same-sex marriage in Taiwan. This is a big shift for a movement that in the past has focused on primarily on combating discrimination.

The movement is beginning to find receptive allies in Taiwan’s parliament, though for now mostly in the leadership of Taiwan’s opposition party. Su Tseng-chang, chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), expressed support for same-sex marriage on the eve of Pride. “Homosexual relationships happen naturally,” he wrote on his Facebook page, “just like the Lady Gaga song ‘Born this Way.’” 

And during Taiwan’s presidential election earlier this year, DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen ran on a platform that included support for domestic partnerships, winning her the endorsement of LGBT groups.

This evolution is thanks to grassroots organizing by LGBT groups and women’s rights NGOs. Several organizations came together in 2009 to form an alliance and have drafted a bill to amend the civil code on marriage and to institutionalize civil partnership rights. They are finding support from several female DPP lawmakers, who have pledged to propose legislative amendments.

But despite these promising developments, the larger cultural and political landscape of Taiwan still presents major impediments to the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Culturally, Taiwanese society is still strongly patriarchal. There are deeply held expectations of both men and women to marry and bear children to continue the family lineage. This underlies a deep discomfort with the notion of gay marriage even in the famously gay-friendly Taipei. And small but vocal Christian groups have been able to mobilize significant numbers against LGBT rights, as seen by a recent petition to halt the inclusion of LGBT topics in school curricula.

In the mean time, the government avoids taking a clear stance on same-sex marriage, instead commissioning scholars to “further study” the issue. Later this month, a court will hear a lawsuit filed by a gay couple seeking recognition of their marriage, but any landmark ruling is unlikely.

On the flip side, it remains to be seen whether proponents of same-sex marriage can garner enough support to institute the necessary legal changes.  If the experience of DPP lawmaker Bi-khim Hsiao is any guide, both support for and opposition to same-sex marriage can cut across party lines. When Hsiao first proposed a bill in 2006, her co-signers came from all major political parties, but so did opposition to the bill.

There is also support for LGBT rights within the ruling KMT party, which is generally seen as more conservative. President Ma Ying-jeou, who is also the KMT chairman, was a vocal supporter of LGBT rights when he was mayor of Taipei City, though he has come under criticism for turning silent on LGBT issues after becoming president in 2008.

With Ma’s approval ratings dwindling around 15%, could something as controversial as same-sex marriage present a tactical opportunity to rebrand the KMT’s image and reach out to progressive voters?

The problem with this scenario is that it is unclear where exactly is the progressive bloc in the Taiwanese electorate, let alone how to capture it. Unlike the U.S., where supporters of same-sex marriage are likely to also support other liberal policies, it is difficult to parse Taiwanese politics into a liberal-conservative spectrum. And with national politics focusing mostly on national security, it’s hard to see major debate on same-sex marriage anytime soon.



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