Are LGBT activists pressuring Taiwanese couple to drop marriage suit?

This post is based on reporting by Amy Hsieh.

Is Taiwan’s LGBT movement pressuring a same-sex couple to drop their lawsuit for marriage recognition just as its set to go to the island’s top court?

The case of Nelson Chen and Kao Chih-wei took and unexpected turn this week just as an administrative court was convening a hearing to refer their suit to the Constitutional Court. According to media reports, Chen said that he “might” or “tentatively intends to” withdraw his case. At the time, he said this was because he wanted to spare his family the attacks that have been posted on their Facebook pages.

But there are hints that they may be getting pressure from inside the LGBT movement to drop the case because of fear that an unfavorable ruling could set the cause back. On Thursday, an umbrella group pushing for a same-sex partnership law in the island’s legislature, issued a statement refuting remarks Chen allegedly made saying he was being pushed to withdraw the case. The statement from the Taiwan Domestic Partnership Task Force said:

We have never asked Nelson to withdraw his suit. In fact, we support every individual who is willing to stand up for their rights. Even if the constitutional interpretation turns out to contravene our belief in equal rights…no one will nor should place blame on individuals who have been brave enough to take a stand.

It’s unclear how seriously the couple is threatening to withdraw–the language used in media reports about his hesitation is very peculiar. But Chen announced that he will hold a “withdrawal of lawsuit press conference” on January 23 in a post on his Facebook page, inexplicably pairing the announcement with a picture of a toilet bowl. Reading between the lines, this could be is a play for more time to iron out disagreement with other LGBT rights activists in Taiwan.

If there is intra-movement disagreement about moving the case to the Taiwan’s top court, that wouldn’t be unusual. In many countries where individuals or couples have pushed marriage cases, institutional gay rights organizations have opposed such lawsuits fearing they were premature.



Taiwan same-sex couple considers withdrawing their case

In protest of a “passive attitude from the Justice system,” the couple at the center of Taiwan’s high-profile same-sex marriage lawsuit boycotted a Tuesday hearing on sending the case to the Constitutional Court, according to the Taipei Times.

They also hinted they may be having second thoughts about moving ahead with the case because they have become the targets of harassment.

“Does seeking marriage registration still make sense if my friends and family are hurt because of it?” said Nelson Chen, who complained his family had been attacked on their Facebook pages.

I’m still working on getting more information on what exactly happened today and what the couple is seeking from the Justice system–the information so far online is vague. The Taipei Times reports:

When asked by the press what they expected from the justice system, Chen said the Ministry of Justice should have played a more active role by proposing a revision of the law after it had completed a study on the same-sex marriage systems in Germany, France and Canada in May last year.

The report concluded that the Registered Same-Sex Partnership Regime adopted by Germany offers “a better common ground and a compromise solution between the marriage equality groups and those who are opposed to same-sex marriages.”

The court yesterday said that if the plaintiff and the defendant, the Zhongshan District Household Registration Office, would like to provide more information about whether such a union goes against the Constitution of the Republic of China, they could do so by Feb. 22.

Two women marry in Indonesia, then forced to flee

One thing I often hear from activists in very conservative countries is that marriage is not a priority because there’s much more urgent work to be done to make LGBT people safe and protect them from government harassment.

That’s a practical argument. But I’m struck by the stories that appear every few months about people in such countries going to great lengths to try to marry anyway, like the couple in India’s Uttar Pradesh that tried to marry this spring.

This one appeared this week from Indonesia. The Jakarta Post reports that two women—Angga Sucipto, 21, and Ninies Ramiliyutias, 40—managed to marry in January of 2012 by having Angga pass as a man when they registered their marriage with the Sei Beduk Religious Affairs Office (KUA) in Riau Islands.

The story is confusing, but it sounds like Angga is transgendered and lived as a man full time. But eventually the locals became suspicious of Angga for “never interact[ing] with them.” So the neighbors “raided” the couple’s house to check on Angga’s sex.

The story quotes “a neighbor” named Ricard Butar-Butar: “Finally, on Monday, we raided the couple’s house and discovered that Angga was actually a female.”

The community expelled Angga from the house but allowed Ninies to stay “because she owned the house.” Yet Ninies appears to have fled the house and gone into hiding after the raid.

The story continues:

Following the discovery of the same-sex couple, the Riau Islands KUA plans to increase the frequency of marriage counseling to prevent similar cases from happening in the future, according to the office’s head, Handarlin Umar.

The office also planned to report the marriage to the Religious Ministry next Monday, he added.

“We are still deciding whether to file a report with the police. We will report the case to the ministry first to ask for guidance on how to proceed,” Handarlin said.

The geopolitical stakes of Taiwan’s marriage case

A Taiwanese lower court meets Tuesday to formally decide whether to send a same-sex marriage suit to the island’s Constitutional Court. This is new territory for the Taiwanese legal system, but some experts say momentum is on the side of same-sex marriage advocates.

“This time is a real turning point,” said Chang Hong-Chen, an expert in Taiwan’s sexuality law who is close to the Constitutional Court.

While it’s far from certain what the court will decide–if it even agrees to take the case–the very fact that it’s being treated as a serious legal question is a major step forward.

Taiwan’s larger geopolitical interests are one important factor on the side of the couple suing for recognition. Taiwan ratified two major United Nations human rights treaties in 2009 and is in the process of bringing its laws into compliance with these standards. This process is about more than protecting the rights of its residents–it’s part of the battle with China over its diplomatic status.

Only a handful of nations recognize Taiwan as an independent nation, since the China still claims Taiwan to be part of its territory. If Taiwan can prove itself to be a model global citizen, some Taiwanese leaders hope, it will be able to make a stronger case for greater participation in the international community.

“Our government likes to play the international human rights card,” said Chen Yi-chien, a professor at the Graduate Institute of Gender Studies at Shih Hsin University.

While same-sex marriage rights aren’t specifically protected by international treaties, the focus on improving Taiwan’s human rights record has created an opening for same-sex marriage advocates to promote their case. It comes at a time that courts in other countries are increasingly concluding that marriage rights are human rights that deserve protection.

“This is just the right moment for the issue to be discussed from a legal perspective,” Chang said. “People in Taiwan and the justices of the Constitutional Court, they take foreign jurisprudence very seriously.”

But Chen isn’t holding her breath for a sweeping ruling establishing same-sex marriage rights; that might be too big a leap for Taiwan to take in this case. But she does think that there’s a good chance that the court could issue a ruling that would advance the cause even if it doesn’t immediately create a right to same-sex marriages.

“They are not going to say the current law is unconstitutional, but we’re hoping they will say … something in-between,” she said.

From her point of view, however, legal recognition is a secondary goal. If all this case does is to open serious debate on the question of same-sex couples rights, it will still have been an important achievement.

The goal, she explained, should be to “to use this kind of legal approaches to make society aware that there is a problem and how should we discuss… the issues of LGBT [people].”

The international context of this case means that the decision of the United States Supreme Court in the pending marriage cases could have a strong effect on Taiwan’s case. A broad ruling in favor of same-sex marriage rights could up the pressure on Taiwan’s justices, while a ruling against marriage rights could disuade the justices from taking the case at all.

“American law has a great deal of influence on this issue,” Chang said.

Chilean bishop: domestic partnerships bring “the destruction of human beings”

During a hearing earlier this week, the Catholic bishop of San Bernardo, Juan Ignacio González, declared that a proposed domestic partnership bill “brings the destruction of human beings and, although they deny it, destruction to social and family peace among men.”

Pablo Simonetti, president of Fundación Iguales, fired back through the media, calling González’s words “apocalyptic” and criticizing the bishop’s affiliation with Opus Dei.

“The majority of Catholics in Chile realize the unjust situation that sexual minorities live with,” he said. “We should clearly differentiate the opinion of the Catholic hierarchy and the Catholic people.”

American fast-food chains enforce “family values” abroad

You would think in a country where gay marriage is legal, a same-sex couple giving each other a casual peck on the lips in a McDonald’s wouldn’t be a big deal.

But a young gay couple was tossed out of a McDonald’s in Argentina yesterday after the manager spotted them kissing. And this wasn’t in an especially conservative part of the country. It was in Buenos Aires, a short walk from the official residence of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who signed some of the world’s most progressive LGBT rights legislation into law.

LGBT rights activists, lead by the groups Mateadas por la Diversidad and Free Zone, responded by holding a “massive kiss-in” in front of the McDonald’s Monday evening.

American-owned fast-food joints are an infamous danger zone for same-sex couples in Argentina, where the companies apparently see themselves as “family places” anathema to same-sex couples. Argentine journalist and LGBT activist Bruno Bimbi wrote in a recent article about the dilema of PDA:

The stories in Burger Kings and McDonald’s are famous. Every gay person in Buenos Aires knows one.

McDonald’s Argentina apparently apologized to the couple via their twitter feed, @McDonalds_Ar. “We’re sorry that happened. Please send us the address of the restaurant where it happened and your contact information by direct message,” the company wrote in a tweet addressed to @Lautibenitez.

I wonder what the global policy is on this from McDonald’s Corporation. I’ve sent a press inquiry to find out—will let you know what I hear.


AfterMarriage awarded Alicia Patterson fellowship

The winners of the 2013 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship have just been formally announced, and I’m thrilled to say that I’m one of them. This grant funds the kind of in-depth reporting projects that are becoming increasingly more difficult to do with changes in the journalism business. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to keep working on this marriage reporting.

I’m still finetuning my reporting plans for this year, but I hope to report on the experience of refugees who go to South Africa seeking partnership benefits, the spillover impact of Nepal’s landmark 2008 Supreme Court ruling protecting LGBT rights, the growth of Taiwan’s marriage movement, and the international networks that have evolved around this issue.

I’m also honored that my project was selected alongside those proposed by such a talented group of journalists. The full list of projects, as well as more about the fellowship, is here. And thanks so much to everyone who contributed to making my work so far possible—it’s because of your help that I was able to compete for this grant.