Same-Sex Marriage in Taiwan: A Comrade Story

 

On the 17th of October, 2016, lecturer Jacques Picoux committed suicide. His death was a rallying call that led to a social movement that was bolstered by the 2016 Pride Festival in Taiwan. His death galvanised members of both the LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ community to call for same-sex marriage to come into law. Legalising same-sex marriage would prevent further suicides in the LGBTQ community. Picoux’s apparent suicide was the result of current laws in Taiwan not granting gay partners the same rights as married couples.

Although the Pride Festival is an important event that showcases a high level of citizen participation in civil society, the 2016 Pride Festival was hugely significant for engaging citizens to participate heavily in protests and activities directed towards changing legislation in the Taiwanese law. Pride in 2016 has greatly affected civil society in creating democratic protests which are both for and against same-sex marriage. It was not until the 29th of October, when the festival was in full swing that we fully recognized its importance for civil society. Civil society in this case is the idea of participation aiding in the democratic process (Kohler-Koch, 2010). It can also be defined as being a community that is ‘self-regulating’ and empowered with the use of ‘knowledge’, ‘skills’ and ‘values’ of the citizens (Keane, 2013). It is fundamentally separated from state institutions and thus, they are nongovernmental institutions that are generally ‘nonviolent’, ‘self-organizing’, ‘self-reflexive’ and are in constant ‘tension’ with the government (Keane, 2013).

In effect, Pride 2016 is the focal point that has led to civic engagement because it is making a  difference in ‘civic life’ of our ‘communities. This has been done by developing a mixture of ‘knowledge’, ‘skills’, ‘values’ and ‘motivation’.This civic engagement can improve the ‘quality of life’ in communities, through both ‘political’ and ‘non-political’ processes (Ehrlich, 2000). Though, in the case of Pride 2016, non-political turned to political. It is important to understand the festival in order to comprehend the possibility of Taiwan becoming the first Asian nation to legalize and recognize same-sex marriage.

We also covered Mr Gay Taiwan 2016. This event gathered almost no attention by the media.  We covered it in the capacity as citizen journalists (Define) and thus gained insights as to the sentiment of the LGBTQ community. The Mr. Gay Taiwan contestants embodied the spirit of the LGBTQ community which the winner  will represent them abroad during the  Mr Gay World Competition. However, before we explain these events and their importance, it is first essential to understand the history of the LGBTQ community in Taiwanese history to understand the progress and regression of their place in civil society.

The history of LGBTQ issues in Taiwan

“There are no days in our kingdom, only nights. As soon as the sun comes up, our kingdom goes into hiding, for it is an unlawful nation; we have no government and no constitution, we are neither recognized nor respected by anyone.”

Pai Hsien-yung’s: During the martial law era

Simon, 2004, p 68

Throughout history, the openness towards the LGBTQ community has varied greatly. From ancient Greece to modern Taiwan, the history of LGBTQ has seen periods of acceptance, as well as long periods of persecution. One of the earliest common laws written on the issue of ‘sodomy’ was the Buggery Act of 1533 (buggery meaning sodomy), in which Henry VIII made the act of sodomy a criminal act with the punishment of death (Asal, Sommer, Harwood, 2013). Such legal persecution went hand in hand with religious persecution, as Islam and Christianity have influenced  society’s view of homosexuality. However, Taiwan is different. It is important to note that although Taiwan has been historically and culturally detached from China in the last number of decades, it is still pertinent to allow the inclusion of Chinese history to explain the norms and conventions which exist  in Taiwanese society today. As such, much of the early history of LGBT is found within the analogues of Chinese history. The introduction of Taiwanese based LGBTQ issues will be made more relevant as we deal with contemporary issues later, as they have been inversely affected by the past, which must also be understood.

Europeans travelled to China more greatly during the 16th century and as a result they came into contact with a broadly new culture. They admired China for its sophistication and its well defined culture. However, they were disgusted by one aspect of Chinese society, homosexuality. Galeote Pereira described China’s ‘greatest fault as  the ‘commonality’ of sodomy. Matteo Ricci was shocked by the presence of male prostitutes openly offering their services on the street (Hinsch, 1990). China was far more liberal than Europe for its openness of homosexuality. Chinese culture silently allowed, or rather, ignored the prominence of homosexuality in its society. As long as men fulfilled their fealty to their parents and society by rearing children, their homosexual activities were seen as nothing more than a person satisfying their sexual thirst. Emperors were not exempt from their sexual urges, and the Han dynasty is recorded as to having the most Emperors (10)  who kept male lovers (Hinsch, 1990). Even in high society, homosexual activities were still occurring.

It is the idea of bloodline (血緣) that has affected the present day Taiwanese LGBT community. It was the fear in ancient times that ‘without a descendant to continue the line’, ancestors would have nobody to worship them. (Hinsch, 1990, Ruskola, 1994). A similar law to the British Buggery Act of 1533 was enacted by the Qing Dynasty in 1740, which made ‘consensual sodomy’ between two men a punishable offence with one month in a ‘cangue’ and ‘one hundred blows of heavy bamboo’. It is important to note that the law was not enforced widely and it was selective in nature. In other words, even with a direct edict from the Qing court, homosexuality was still able to exist in society, albeit further in the shadows. (Ruskola, 1994).

It was not until 1912, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, that the decriminalization of homosexuality occurred. (ILGA Report). But the stigma associated with homosexuality has still persisted in Taiwanese culture.  KMT rule was omni-present in Taiwanese society between the 1950s and 1960s and could be described as heterosexualized. “Family values” were regarded as deriving directly from Confucian and Chinese tradition. Public discourses of same-sex desire were viewed as almost non-existent (Damm, 2005).

 

During the period from 1970 to 1987, there was a flourish of change towards the LGBTQ community. This period coincides with the grip of the KMT lessening on Taiwan. Civil society campaigned for more political openness and the right to have other political parties. However, yellow journalism still reported news stories about raids in Taipei New Park (Today called 228 Peace Memorial Park) in which homosexuals were arrested for violating ‘good mores’, as there were no laws against homosexuality in Taiwan. The AIDS scare also created a damaging effect on the image of same-sex relationships (Damm, 2005). Despite setbacks and a clear lack of acceptance by greater society, it is obvious that the social movements helped to end KMT martial law and political dominance. This paved the way for LGBT rights for the future, and that future is now. Democracy and the openness of the government was essential in allowing the LGBTQ community to flourish and it continues to be important as we enter a new chapter in Taiwan history, the social movement for same-sex marriage rights.

Current Events (in 2016)

Taiwan’s modern civil society is a far cry from what it was over 20 years ago. Today Taiwan is no longer under martial law and has a multi-party system of governance which is mainly dominated by the DPP and KMT. While the KMT leans more towards the right, the DPP is far more progressive in its policies which engage in excelling Taiwanese society both as an independent state from China, and also in terms of civil liberties. The 2016 election was a decisive victory for the DPP, with a majority of 60 seats and subsequently Taiwan had its first female president, Tsai Ing-wen (Bush, 2016, January 16). Within this climate of progressiveness, it is little wonder that LGBTQ issues have become more elevated in their importance since Tsai’s election victory. Tsai has spoken in favour for same-sex marriage and the DPP has been largely supportive of gay rights, but most importantly as stated before, they hold the majority in the Legislative Yuan (Horton, 2016, November 18).

This political support is also bolstered up by widespread support for same-sex marriage. It is remarkable to discover Taiwan is often referred as being the most LGBTQ friendly country in Asia. Buddhism and Taoism offer little resistance in their doctrine towards the  LGBTQ community. The only religious element that opposes issues concerning the LGBTQ community are Christian groups, who comprise 5% of the Taiwanese population. Likewise, Taiwanese societies traditional leanings on fealty from Confucius doctrine also plays a role in this opposition (Jacobs, 2014, October 29).

At the time of  reporting on Mr. Gay Taiwan and the 2016 Pride Festival and Parade, the social movement of legalizing same-sex marriage had not been in full swing as is it is now. We could not cover every single protest, due to our rigorous academic schedules; however,  we were still able to uncover the spirit of this movement by writing about Mr. Gay Taiwan and interviewing participants at Pride. Furthermore, we followed the news stories arduously, and continued discussing these events with the LGBTQ community. Covering the Pride Festival and Mr Gay Taiwan coverage  yielded interesting insights and new knowledge into these social movements that few journalists have investigated. These insights explain the fervor of protest and change within Taiwanese civil society.

A November survey conducted by the KMT found that 51.7% of the sample group were in favour of amendments to allow same-sex marriage, while 43.3% were against it. The survey had a sample size of 1,070 participants with a 95% confidence level and a margin of error of 3% (Hsu, S, 2016, November 29). Although this survey shows a higher percentage of support for same-sex marriage, it is still not a definitive representation for all of society.

It is obvious that this is a contentious issue in Taiwan. The Taiwanese are split nearly down the middle. Our surveys and interviews found that same-sex marriage rights was the most indicated as being important for people from the LGBT community.  This is no surprise when it is considered that prior to the Pride events, gay French lecturer, Jacques Picoux was suspected of committing suicide after he fell from a building. His death was blamed on the failure for legalising same-sex marriage as he had been distraught after the death of partner. Pride 2016 was transformed  into a’ type 1 social movement’. A ‘type 1 social movement’ according to Hsiao (2011) has a high capacity to ‘mobilize internal resources’ and ‘exerts high pressure’ on the state to make changes. It is then no surprise that the attendance for the Pride Festival was upwards of 80,000 people, with a strong message; we want to be heard and we want equal marriage rights. This is reflected in our surveys and interviews of the Mr. Gay Taiwan participants.

What was not reflected in our surveys and interviews was the ‘against’ side of the same-sex marriage debate in civil society. Thousands protested on the 17th of November for and against same-sex marriage. Police had to separate the two opposing groups. The anti camp had worn white t-shirts with chinese that roughly translated to ‘marriage and family, let the people decide’. They were calling for a referendum to decide on same-sex marriage rights. A spokesperson for the ‘The Happiness of the Next Generation Alliance’ said that ‘we are different from the West. In Eastern culture, we place great importance on filial piety to one’s father and mother” and that “Now they want to amend the law to do away with the ‘father’ and ‘mother’ altogether” (South China Morning Post, 2016, November 17). Although Christian groups are very forthcoming in their opposition, it is greater Taiwanese society which is far more vocal, after all, only 5% of the Taiwanese population is Christian, while 43% of those surveyed oppose same-sex marriage. It is ‘filial piety’ that is most important. As stated previously, bloodline in Taiwanese culture is pertinent and to grant equal marriage rights to same-sex couples would be seen as an attack on that cultural convention. It is thus obvious that the media has focused too much on Taiwan being the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage and see the facts, those being, the divide between for and against is split down the middle.

The Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights has a contrasting view to that of the opposition. The TAPCPR states that ‘there are many forms of intimate relationships’ and that’ the legal concept of marriage has remained exceptionally rigid’ and is ‘failing to address the many types and needs of diverse families’. They also found that less than 50% of families in Taiwan conform to the traditional image of nuclear families (TAPCPR.com).

With events happening so fast, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for the same-sex marriage movements that have sprouted so rapidly in Taiwan, along with the opposition to it. Irregardless as to where you stand on this issue, what everyone in Taiwan can be proud of is the level of civic engagement that is occurring. Although it is causing some level of diffraction in society, if the issue was not important, there would not be protests or as much media coverage on the issue or the events surrounding it. It is clear that the issues affecting the LGBTQ community in Taiwan has larger implications and influence beyond simply the LGBTQ community. It affects Taiwanese civil society and Taiwan’s image on the international arena.

The Case of China

Across the strait, civic engagement on the part of  people who want to create dialogues for LGBTQ issues has been constrained by the CPC.  This is not to say that nobody has battled for the rights of same-sex marriage and fought against discrimination, but the lack of civil society in China and freedom of press and for that matter freedom of speech, has led to there being no dialogue created to facilitate discussion of the LGBTQ issues in the greater Chinese society. However, this lack of dialogue and civic engagement isn’t restricted to the LGBTQ community, it is present throughout all of Chinese society.

Shambaugh (2016) detailed how the CPC can survive in the future, and one of his recommendations for keeping China on an ‘authoritarian track’ is to lessen its ‘state controls’ and ‘liberalize’ many aspects of civil society. Hu Jintao had experimented with this by slowly loosening control over the ‘media’, ‘non-governmental organizations’, ‘intellectuals’, ‘education’, ‘social discourse’ and other areas of civil society. However, Shambaugh also details that since 2009, civic life has been subject to crackdowns. Unlike before, the use of social media, even under the control of the Great Firewall, still poses problems for ‘sowing the seeds of only greater resentment’ (Shambaugh, 2016). Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012,  his crackdowns have been used to legitimize his right to rule. One way in which he has consolidated his power has been by enacting a law to punish Chinese netizens with up to three years in prison for posting any messages that can be determined as ‘rumours’. As well as this Beijing has banned seven academic research areas, which include civil society and freedom of press (Elizabeth, 2014).  

Recently, Beijing has also enacted laws to grant security forces ‘control over foreign NGO’S’ who are operating in China. This law stipulates that any NGO who wants to operate in China, must register with ‘public security officials’ and NGO’s cannot engage in any political or religious activities that can damage ‘China’s national interests’ and ‘ethnic unity’. This measure has been done to squeeze both domestic and foreign NGOs in China alike and will have implications for civil society (Phillips, 2016, April 28). With President Xi’s strong arming society into submission, it is not shocking to learn that it is not only LGBTQ communities who are voiceless in China, but so is greater society.

Closing thoughts

Now, in 2017, the right to same-sex marriage has been granted in Taiwan. It might have taken a lot longer than many people expected, but it finally happened. In many respects, it is a step forward for society in Taiwan and illustrates that change from within Taiwan is possible.

My hope for Taiwan after this is that the LGBTQ community will be more integrated into society, but that will take more time than anything else. My other hope is that the social movement behind the LGBTQ community can be seen again for other movements, for example migrant worker rights and protecting and preserving aboriginal culture.

All in all, it was an amazing year for LGBTQ rights and I look forward to the next pride parade this year.

Sources:

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