An estimated 137,000 people marched for marriage equality in Taipei on Saturday, pressuring the Taiwanese government to make good on its year-and-a-half-old promise to facilitate same-sex marriages. In May of 2017, the country’s constitutional court struck down laws intended to further persecute same-sex couples and gave the government two years to legally formalize gay marriage. The president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, campaigned in 2016 on marriage equality and LGBTQ rights, but supporters say she’s wavered on the subject since taking office. With a flood of public referendums to be held in conjunction with the Taiwan’s local elections this November, the issue of marriage equality has again become a subject of conflict and Taiwanese are being asked to affirm their support for the issue, despite the court’s ruling.
Conservative and religious groups pushing back against the issue have called for a separate law to satisfy the court’s ruling but preserve marriage as, legally, “a bond between one man and one woman.” They have, along with rights activists, submitted their own questions for November’s referendum. How exactly their separate law would differ from the country’s current framework for civil unions – which offers same-sex couples a limited version of the rights afforded to married couples – is unclear, and activists say that such a proposal is obviously discriminatory. “We will use our vote to tell Tsai Ing-wen’s government that people want marriage equality,” said activist Miao Poya, who submitted one of the referendum questions to be posed to the country next month and attended the weekend’s parade.
The march, occasioned by the country’s 16th annual gay pride parade, was the largest of its kind in East Asia. Its unprecedented size suited the cause: in the event that Taiwan does legalize gay marriage, it will be the first Asian country to do so.
Many of the activists at Saturday’s parade expressed their unhappiness with President Tsai, whose successful campaign with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) seemed to promise a bright future for LGBTQ rights. Her decision to leave the issue up to the courts instead of pushing through proactive legislation, however, was interpreted by many as the first sign of her equivocation on what had been a significant part of her campaign.
“If you make a promise as a politician, you have to follow through on it,” said Chi Chai-wei, an activist at the parade whose lawsuit served as part of the foundation for the court’s ruling last year. “If you don’t, you’re just playing politics; you’re a liar.”
Disheartened supporters have accused Tsai of kowtowing to conservative voters rather than pushing forward on the progressive reforms that appeared to distinguish her campaign from the Kuomintang party administration that preceded her. Despite her administration’s progress on labor reforms and recent appeals to young voters (an easing of student loan repayment rules and an increase in government subsidies for people with young children), her disapproval rating has shot up some 15 percent over the course of the year and currently hovers at around 50 percent. Hanging over all of this is the threat of Chinese annexation, and the negative influence it exerts in Taiwan’s political and economic relations with other countries. The pro-China policies of the prior administration have been used to explain, in part, its defeat in the last election.
“A lot of people are disappointed with her because she’s very moderate, very careful, very technocratic,” said Michael Fahey, an expert in Taiwan law with Winkler Partners.
This wasn’t the first political demonstration to grip the island this year. Saturday’s march emerged in the context of increasingly visible political activity in Taiwan, due at least in part to the implementation of the Referendum Act in January. Owing its passage to the DPP’s control of both the legislative and executive branches, the new law significantly lowers the number of signatures required to submit a nationwide ballot question, the minimum turnout required for the vote to be legitimate, and the age of those eligible to vote on the questions. As a result, some 37 separate questions will be voted on this November, many of which – as was the case in the weekend’s parade – have become the focal points of various political demonstrations.
Another protest in Taipei just last Saturday drew thousands demanding a referendum on the name and constitutional identity of Taiwan, aspects of the country which were explicitly left out of the powers granted by the new Referendum Act. “Referendum for a new country! New clothes for Taiwan!” the protestors chanted as they marched through the historic center of the capital city. This time China was the clear object of their ire, whose increasing economic manipulation of Taiwan has fostered more and more public resentment.
Taiwan was where the Republic of China’s government took refuge after the Chinese Civil War of the late 1940s, hence Taiwan’s official name, “The Republic of China,” and its constitutional claim to the entire Chinese and Mongolian territory. While the name was kept to maintain the defeated government’s claims to the Communist-ruled mainland, it has by way of paradox come to serve China’s interest in annexing the island nation. Although Taiwan functions as an entirely self-governing country, China uses its global economic influence to prevent other countries from forming diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
One immediate action supported by the protestors at this earlier rally was a referendum question on whether the country should compete as “Taiwan” or as “Chinese Taipei” in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and other international sporting events. In November, the protestors and other proponents of Taiwan’s escape from China’s outsized influence will vote for the symbolically important act of competing as Taiwan (a demand that will almost certainly be ignored by the Olympic committee).
Beyond marriage equality, there are a number of rights and progressive measures at stake in the referendum questions. Conservative groups have also targeted the country’s laws on gender equity education in schools with a question aimed at rolling back those decade-old standards. This is in addition to the four marriage-equality questions on the ballot: two from rights activists, and two from their conservative opponents. Jennifer Lu, the chief coordinator of Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan, said that the inverse nature of the opposing questions could indeed throw up some obstacles for the government if both sides passed the vote. “We’re trying our best to be positive,” she said.
The sea of marchers on Saturday carried a variety of banners and signs with slogans like “vote for your happy future,” and chanted “defeat discrimination” outside of the Presidential Office in Taipei. “I feel the politicians have not been very effective at getting this done,” said one attendee, Xan Wang. “But I have maintained hope.”