Being Tongzhi: Examining LGBT Rights In Taiwan

Campaigning for equal marriage rights at the Pride Parade. The annual march through Taipei's city streets is the largest in Asia, with well over 50 000 people taking part. The 2014 event had the theme "Walk in Queer's Shoes", to encourage the wider community to lend their support for equal marriage rights.
Campaigning for equal marriage rights at the Pride Parade. The annual march through Taipei's city streets is the largest in Asia, with well over 50 000 people taking part. The 2014 event had the theme "Walk in Queer's Shoes", to encourage the wider community to lend their support for equal marriage rights.

Many consider Taiwan to be East Asia’s friendliest country for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders.

Many people know Taiwan for its rapid economic growth. As one of the Four Asian Dragons, Taiwan – along with Singapore, South Korea, and Hong Kong – quickly industrialized from the 1960s to the 1990s. Much of Taiwan’s identity has also been defined by its successful development of a democratic system and its complicated relationship with China. But few may realize that Taiwan is also one of Asia’s most LGBT-friendly countries.

In a controversial McDonald’s McCafé ad earlier this year, a young Taiwanese man comes out to his father by writing the message “I like boys” (我喜歡男生) on a cup of coffee. The father storms off, only to return several minutes later to write on his son’s cup: “I accept that you like boys.”

The 2015 Gay Pride Parade brightens up Taipei's Ketagalan Boulevard (Photo: CNA)
The 2015 Gay Pride Parade brightens up Taipei’s Ketagalan Boulevard (Photo: CNA)

The commercial, which first aired in March, was met by staunch opposition from the Alliance of Taiwan Religious Groups for the Protection of Family, a coalition that opposes same-sex marriage and other LGBT rights. According to the publication AdWeek, the Alliance took the position that “Even if you just want to take a leak in a McDonald’s restroom, you can’t help but feel polluted.” The group also objected to McDonald’s “openly promoting gay issues.”

While a small but vocal minority in Taiwan has opposed so-called “gay issues,” many of these issues have been met with a much warmer reception by the society at large. In fact, an online poll sponsored by the Ministry of Justice last year yielded surprising results. Of the 300,000-plus respondents, 71% expressed their support for same-sex marriage legislation, an increase of 17 percentage points from a previous MOJ study in 2013. On the same point, the new poll found that of those identifying themselves as Christians, only 25% supported same-sex marriage.

Although same-sex marriage is not recognized in Taiwan, several bills to make it legal have been proposed over the years. During the administration of Chen Shu-bian, the first president from a political party other than the Kuomintang, an advisory panel was established under the Presidential Office to suggest amendments to Taiwan’s human rights law. According to Bob Kao, an attorney who writes for Taiwan Law Blog and researches LGBT rights, “In the version proposed by the advisory panel in July 2003, Article 26 of the bill stated that people have the right to marry and form families according to their free will, which was inclusive but vague language that may be interpreted as legalizing same-sex marriage.”

However, the final version adopted by the Executive Yuan that October used language that reverted back to an earlier proposal. As Kao explained on Taiwan Law Blog, this proposal “allowed same-sex couples to form families without using the term ‘marriage,’” reserving marriage for heterosexual couples. The draft did allow for civil partnerships, but ultimately the bill did not receive support within the cabinet, and so was never sent to the Legislative Yuan to be voted on.

Legislation resurfaced a decade later in 2013, when Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislators proposed an amendment to Taiwan’s Civil Code that would have altered the section dealing with marriage to make it gender neutral, thereby legalizing same-sex marriage. Same-sex couples would also have been allowed to adopt.

In response, tens of thousands of protesters, mostly from the “Protection of Family” camp, marched on Ketagalan Boulevard near the Presidential Office Building. A smaller, pro-same-sex marriage group was also present. Ultimately, the legislation was not passed.

A history of protests

The Taiwanese have a long history of activism for what they believe in. Pro-democracy demonstrations contributed to the ending of martial law in 1987 and the subsequent holding of popular elections for the full legislature and the presidency. A more recent example is the Sunflower Movement in which student protestors occupied the main Legislative Yuan chamber in the spring of 2014 to oppose prospective cross-Strait trade agreements that they considered to jeopardize Taiwan’s economic security. Nuclear energy has also been a contentious topic, and over the years hundreds of thousands have organized to advocate making Taiwan a “Nuclear Free Homeland” – a position that the current government has adopted.

“The spirit of fighting for democracy and human rights is already in the blood of the Taiwanese,” says Ashley Wu, executive director of GB Studio (a media production company with a core focus on such topics as the underprivileged, gender issues, and the LGBT community) and a board member of Tongzhi Hotline (see the sidebar). “Other LGBT groups in Asia are quite amazed by Taiwan’s LGBT movement because the community here is so strong.”

 

Given that background, it’s no surprise that Taiwanese people have often taken to the streets to show their support – or disdain – for LGBT issues. Not all of these demonstrations have taken the form of protests. Many major cities in Taiwan hold annual Gay Pride Parades (often referred to simply as “Pride”). These events provide an opportunity for sexual and gender minorities to take to the streets and walk in solidarity with other LGBT people.

Taipei’s Pride festival, which takes place each October (this year’s date is October 29), has grown quickly over its 13-year history and is now the largest such parade in East Asia – second in all of Asia only to Tel Aviv – attracting some 80,000 participants from all over the world.

For many participants in Pride, marriage equality is perhaps the most salient issue, but the areas of concern are much wider. As in the United States, members of the LGBT community are also fighting for freedom from discrimination and for rights with regard to adoption, visitations, inheritance, and more.

In many ways, though, Taiwan is already more progressive than the United States when it comes to LGBT rights. For example, Taiwan’s 2004 Gender Equality in Employment and Gender Equity Education Act made discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender illegal in the fields of employment and education. Although some states have implemented their own measures, the United States currently has no protections at the federal level for LGBT minorities.

Additionally, while marriage in Taiwan is still legal only between a man and woman, many of Taiwan’s major cities and counties now recognize household registrations for same-sex couples. According to the government-run news website Taiwan Today, about 75% of Taiwan’s population resides in these nine municipalities, and more than 500 same-sex couples have already registered. In Changhua County, for example, same-sex couples over 20 years old may record their relationship with the county government and share their relationship status with various organizations, such as police departments and hospitals.

Because of a special interpretation of the Medical Care Act by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, registered same-sex partners may now make important medical decisions for their loved ones if those partners are incapacitated. Some cities also allow these couples to participate in mass “wedding” ceremonies, though these carry no legal weight.

 

Obstacles to same-sex marriage

 Given the strong public support in Taiwan for same-sex marriage as well as the existence of other progressive laws, it may seem odd that same-sex marriage is not already legal. So why isn’t it?

Wu regards the Christian church as the biggest obstacle. “Even though Christians in Taiwan are relatively small in numbers, they have quite a strong influence in economics, in politics, and especially in the media,” he explains. Christians make up roughly 6% of Taiwan’s 23 million population and constitute the core of Taiwan’s largest anti-LGBT-rights lobbying group. Although some Buddhists and Daoists have joined the Alliance of Taiwan Religious Groups for the Protection of Family, in general those groups tend to be more tolerant on LGBT issues.

Wang Ya-Ko, professor of Cultural and Gender Studies at National Taipei University, offers a different explanation, arguing that traditional culture-based views present the biggest impediment to progress. “The most important issue in the family in Asian societies is lineage, and the son is expected to pass on the family line,” says Wang. “You have to have children. The anti-gay attitude in Taiwan comes from considering them as rebellious and useless because they don’t produce children.”

Currently same-sex couples in Taiwan are unable to adopt children. To circumvent this restriction, some male and female same-sex couples have joined forces to form opposite-sex partnerships that enable them to adopt.

In Taiwan, as in most countries, political parties are roughly identified by their ideological stances. The Chinese Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) is generally viewed as more conservative, while the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is regarded as more liberal. Given that the current president, Tsai Ing-Wen, comes from the DPP, hopes have been raised in the LGBT community that same-sex marriage legislation could be passed during her tenure. “Having the support from the government, from a major party, it will be totally different from the last eight years,” Wu predicts.

Although Tsai’s predecessor as president, Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT, did go on record as supporting same-sex marriage, it never became the formal policy of his party or government.

Tsai has also made her support known. “In the face of love, everyone is equal,” she wrote on her Facebook page before the Pride parade last year. “Let everyone have the freedom to love and to pursue their happiness. I am Tsai Ing-wen, and I support marriage equality.”

But it may still be a struggle to turn that position into official policy. While Wu is hopeful that marriage-equality legislation could be passed fairly soon, Wang remains more pessimistic. Citing the continuing strength of traditional mindsets, he notes that while men and women now have the same property inheritance rights under the law, in most cases women choose to abandon these rights in line with “the traditional idea that women who marry become outsiders of their family.”

As another example, he points out that whereas children in the past were legally required to adopt the father’s surname, the law now permits use of the surname of either parent. “But in practice, 99% of couples still choose the father’s surname for the children,” he says.

Members of the Alliance for the Protection of Families demonstrate outside the Legislative Yuan in opposition to giving homosexual couples the right to adopt children. (Photo: CNA)
Members of the Alliance for the Protection of Families demonstrate outside the Legislative Yuan in opposition to giving homosexual couples the right to adopt children. (Photo: CNA)

He sees the same tendency as existing with LGBT rights legislation. While Taiwan “has quite progressive legal protection mechanisms in different fields,” he says, “they are seldom put into practice.” For example, teachers in Taiwan’s school system are legally obligated to include lessons about gender and sexual inequalities in their curriculums. Yet Wang says few teachers actually do so, largely because of their personal beliefs.

To bring about change on gender and sexual issues, Wang and Wu both see education as the key. “A lot of homophobia stems from ignorance,” says Wang. “If you don’t fight it and educate people, then ignorance will grow.” For his part, Wu notes that though many people may not have LGBT friends, being exposed to LGBT issues through education will increase their awareness and degree of understanding.

The process may take time, but Taiwan starts with some significant advantages – the progress already achieved in establishing a legal foundation and the overall tolerance and generosity of the Taiwanese people.

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