Episode 7: The Gay Rights Battle in Taiwan

News presenter: [00:00:03] Taiwan has local elections over the weekend.

News presenter: [00:00:05] A stinging defeat for Taiwan's ruling party and its message of independence.

News presenter: [00:00:10] Voters disapproval of President Taiwan's Tsai Ing-Wen management of the economy.

News presenter: [00:00:15] The election was a remarkable turnaround for the opposition KMT. The party China's leaders tend to favor. It now has the political control of three quarters of Taiwan cities.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:00:29] On Sunday, voters in Taiwan delivered a crushing blow to the country's ruling party. President Tsai Ing-Wen went into the local elections with a huge majority. But voters turned on her Democratic Progressive Party, which is strongly in favor of independence from China. They also dealt a blow to the country's gay rights movement.

News presenter: [00:00:48] There were setbacks as well in two contentious referendums with Taiwanese voting against same sex marriage and changing the name...

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:00:59] I'm Imtiaz Tyab. And this is The Take. None of this was supposed to happen. In 2017, Taiwan's Constitutional Court ruled that gay couples could marry. And directed the legislature to write new law saying so. It was hailed as a victory for a country that's been at the forefront of gay rights in Asia.

News presenter: [00:01:23] This case has divided Taiwanese society. While many people are celebrating the opponents of gay marriage are vowing to step up their campaign by pushing for a referendum on the issue.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:01:35] In all, five referendums on the question of same sex marriage were on the ballot last weekend. Opponents of gay marriage carried the day. And those who fought hard for gay marriage rights-

Victoria Hsu: [00:01:45] My name is Victoria Hsu.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:01:48] Are now facing an uncertain future.

Victoria Hsu: [00:01:50] I was lead lawyer in the marriage equality case in 2017.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:01:56] Victoria represented one of the plaintiffs in that 2017 case. It was a personal victory for her.

Victoria Hsu: [00:02:04] I'm a lesbian and as a lawyer I found that there is a need for more legal professionals to get involved in the LGBT movement. Because if we want to have equal citizenship and equal rights there must be some reform to our legal systems.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:02:27] Explain to our listeners what the gay rights movement in Taiwan sort of- how it fits within society and how it is perceived more broadly across Taiwan.

Victoria Hsu: [00:02:42] Since 1986, my client Mr. Chi Chia-wei, he demanded our government to legalize gay marriage in 1986. You know, so the idea of gay marriage or marriage equality is not western stuff. So basically the gay rights movement started almost at the same time that we abolished our martial law. Late 1980s. Yeah. But at the first stage, a lot of gay people couldn't come out. So people wrote articles or published in magazines under some pseudonym and started to organize study groups to discuss LGBT issues.

Victoria Hsu: [00:03:40] The second stage maybe started from 2000 to 2010. At this stage the LGBT community has increased and they established several different organizations. I mean more well organized to do the advocacy and become more political.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:04:09] I want to take you back to 2017 when the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of same sex partnerships. How did you feel at that moment?

News presenter: [00:04:22] This ruling was the culmination of a campaign that began 30 years ago.

Victoria Hsu: [00:04:29] I deeply feel we deserve that decision. We've been working so hard for several years. And I also have had some kind of a concern. Since our Constitutional Court didn't say that immediately that gay people can get married, but gave the parliament two years to amend the law.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:05:02] And in the intervening time, a lot changed. Religious organizations that opposed gay marriage gained a lot of traction.

Victoria Hsu: [00:05:13] The anti-gay churches, they are really very rich. So they can buy a lot of TV and radio advertisements. And I have to admit that part of Taiwan's society, they are still some kind of a deeply rooted homophobic culture. So that contributed to this results of the referendums too. Of course. A lot of ordinary people just don't know gay persons around them.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:05:51] There are some people who suggest that this misinformation campaign about this specific issue, that China was involved on some level. Is that something you've seen?

Victoria Hsu: [00:06:03] I believe so. Yeah. But it's hard to prove. It's hard to prove.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:06:09] Why do you think China would want to be on the other side? As in, opposing the idea of same sex civil partnerships?

Victoria Hsu: [00:06:18] This is a kind of a strategy to, you know, to have cooperation with the conservative powers in Taiwan including KMT and the anti-gay organizations.

Adrian Brown: [00:06:36] There's always one overriding issue in a Taiwanese election, and that is China. It's it's it's the elephant in the room.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:06:46] Adrian Brown is a correspondent for Al Jazeera English. He's been covering Asia for 30 years. We reached him via Skype in his hotel room in Taipei this week and asked him to help explain how we got here. How did we end up with these referendums on the ballot that contradict what seemed to be settled law? And what does China have to do with it all? It has a lot to do with Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan's president. And remember she and her party, the DPP, lost big in last weekend's elections.

Adrian Brown: [00:07:18] These are the first elections since Tsai Ing-wen was elected president two and a half years ago, becoming the first female head of state Taiwan's ever had. But China has not been making life easy for Tsai Ing-wen, and that's mainly because Tsai Ing-wen has refused to go along with what's known as the, as the one China policy. Which basically accepts there is only, you know, one China and Taiwan is a part of it.

Adrian Brown: [00:07:46] But at the same time people are worried, increasingly worried, about you know economic factors. You know the economy here is flat. This used to be one of the great Asian tiger economies. I had- I interviewed a student the other day. Twenty one years old, Maurice Chau. He's looking for a job in China. He's about to graduate and he says that basically, job prospects are much better in China. Better pay. So he's prepared to move to the country that many Taiwanese regard as the enemy because employment prospects are so much better there.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:08:25] Tell me a little bit about Taiwan and tell me about how Taiwan fits into the broader scheme of things.

Adrian Brown: [00:08:33] Well Taiwan, it's interesting. I'm here with one of my colleagues from Beijing who's not been to Taiwan before, but he said something very interesting to me the other day. He said that Taiwan to him was almost like the future and the past of China. And you sort of think that if China ever did become, you know, let's say fully democratic. A different system from the one it has now. I think it would be much more like Taiwan than it would be like Hong Kong. And of course the, you know, the one country, two systems policy that Hong Kong currently has was actually designed you know for Taiwan because you know China has never given up the idea of this place one day being reunified with the mainland.

Adrian Brown: [00:09:20] I'll give you a simple sort of analogy. I mean if you imagine that China are the parents, there are three children. There is Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. But Taiwan is the most cherished of all those three children. And what the parents are saying is, you know, come back home. Live at home. You can have the key to the front door and come and go as you please. But Taiwan point blank refuses to. And you know insists it never will.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:09:49] Help me understand this. In 2017, a Constitutional Court decided in favor of same sex marriage. And yet it became a ballot measure as part of a referendum. How did that happen? And why did that happen? It seems a bit strange that if the court rules something that it would then appear in a ballot in local elections.

Adrian Brown: [00:10:13] I mean it's another reminder that, you know, Taiwan is a very vibrant free democracy, but it's also quite a bewildering one. So what happened is the government decided to make it easier for people to organize referendum, so it reduced the threshold needed. In the past it was something that was like a- you had to have more than almost a million people in support of a referendum. It lowered it down to about 50 thousand. So that made it much easier to organize referendums, which is why you had so many in this election.

Adrian Brown: [00:10:48] When I was here 17 months ago covering that High Court- that ruling by the Constitutional Court, it really seemed that Taiwan was on the threshold of becoming, you know, one of the most liberal places in Asia. But in the space of 17 months, which is not very long, it has sort of tilted back the other way.

Father Otfried Chan: [00:11:12] I simply state our belief, our teaching- our doctrine, catechism, marriage for us is the union between a man and a woman.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:11:24] This is Father Otfried Chan, a Taiwanese Catholic priest who's been an outspoken critic of same sex marriage. Al Jazeera English reporter Adam Bemma interviewed Chan last week in the wake of the election. Chan's opposition is rooted in his faith and, he says, his culture.

Father Otfried Chan: [00:11:41] Whatever sexual relationship outside of marriage, be it between two different sexes or two person same sex, it's not good. We call it a sin. This is our stand. And also in Chinese we have a very special term for, not only husband and wife, [but] grandfather. Maternal side and paternal side. If this law recognizes, say it grants a special title or status, legal status, to one of the partners, that would affect the- who the ethic values and also the Chinese culture. How should I call the parents of my partner? I have no answer for that.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:12:40] You live in Beijing. You've been covering China for a very long time. Can you tell us a little bit about China's own stance on gay marriage and LGBTQ rights in general?

Adrian Brown: [00:12:51] Well homosexuality is not illegal anymore. It was legalized several years ago. But, you know, I have done stories about the LGBT community in China. They are a very persecuted group. Yet in Shanghai, you know, they have allowed gay rights parades to happen. It's almost like they, the government occasionally will turn a blind eye to this sort of thing. But occasionally it will target these groups if it feels for some reason that they've overstepped the mark and become political.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:13:27] In the context of Taiwan, we know the president was a vocal supporter of gay rights and indeed the move for same sex marriages. What is China's interest in the same sex marriage question in the context of Taiwan? Is it to undermine the president? Or is it a matter of principle against gay marriage?

Adrian Brown: [00:13:50] I think they will do all they can, and have been doing all they can, to undermine her presidency at every turn. It's important to remember, these referendums are legally binding. So the government has to act on them. But the trouble is, the referendums have given one answer and the High Court has, you know the Constitutional Court, has given another.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:14:25] A lot hangs in the balance. Taiwan now has to square the court ruling with these ballot referendums. And it's all happening against the backdrop of a much bigger election on the horizon. In 2020, the country will choose its next president. And that president is going to have to listen to what the people asked for in this last election. Better relations with China in order to fix a flat economy. In some ways the gay marriage battle looks small compared to the rest of the political issues the country is grappling with. But for a lot of Taiwanese people, this referendum result is a very big deal.

Victoria Hsu: [00:15:07] This is not the end of the marriage equality.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:15:12] Including Victoria Hsu, the lawyer we heard from earlier. She's playing the long game.

Victoria Hsu: [00:15:17] You know I'm old enough, actually I'm 46 years old, and I get involved to social movements from my 18, yeah, 18 years old. So I have- I think I have more experiences than other young activists or other young people who recently get involved to the movement. So basically I personally was very calm to, yeah, to hear the results. The first thing we do is to, you know, to give our supporters some comfort. To make them to see that there [is] still a lot of work to do. We encourage all the supporters of the equal rights to stand up and speak up for the cause. Because even though we didn't win the ballot, it's still relatively successful campaign actually. Considering our limited resources and as a minority in population.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:16:43] And she and her partner still plan to get married next year. As they see it, the courts have spoken.

Victoria Hsu: [00:16:50] We wish to have our wedding and get registered as spouses with legal effect. We've been waiting for this moment for a long time actually. We believe that sooner or later we will realize 100 percent marriage equality. It's not a yes or no question. It's just, you know, it's just a matter of time. And we have to do more and be patient and don't lose hope.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:17:30] That's it for us this week on The Take. There's a link in the show description of this episode. It's for a survey where you can tell us your thoughts on the show. Kyana Moghadam produced this episode. She had production help from Morgan Waters, Jasmin Baoumy, Jordan Marie Bailey, and me, Imtiaz Tyab. The show's lead producer is Graelyn Brashear. The sound designer was Ian Coss. Special thanks to Adrian Brown, Victoria Hsu, Adam Bemma, Peng Peng, and Joyce Huang.