Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG

Same-Sex Marriage Quagmire Tests Taiwan’s Progressive Bona Fides

By Alex Huang and Jerry Zhang

In an exclusive interview with the AFP on Monday, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen cast China as a global threat to democracy and civil liberties and urged the world to stand up to its aggression.

The AFP, however, broke two stories from the interview. In the other, it highlighted Tsai’s refusal to commit to protecting marriage equality for same-sex couples.

She cited fears over the issue dividing generations, suggesting those Taiwanese over 40 years old oppose the move. These discordant narratives reflect an unfortunate reality: When it comes to the LGBTQ+ community, the Tsai administration is failing Taiwan’s brand of democracy and civil liberties.

Supporters wave their mobile phone torches in the colors of the rainbow during a rally after Taiwan’s constitutional court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to legally marry, the first such ruling in Asia, in Taipei, Taiwan May 24, 2017. (Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG)

When Taiwan’s Constitutional Court struck down the Civil Code’s definition of marriage as between one man and one woman on May 24, 2017, the international community cheered. Many heralded Taiwan as a lone progressive country in East Asia taking a brave stand in a region not known for its acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community.

But as the international spotlight moved away from Taiwan after the ruling, the path to realizing the promise of equality has proven treacherous. The Tsai administration, given two years to incorporate the Court’s verdict into law, has refused to address same-sex marriage in parliament directly, citing its potential electoral cost. More troublingly, anti-LGBTQ+ groups have filed national referendum proposals that seriously threaten marriage equality, three of which are currently seeking signatures to qualify for the ballot.The proposals limit marriage to heterosexual couples and relegate same-sex partnership to a “separate but equal” special law. Passage of these proposals in November will compromise marriage equality in Taiwan, with the LGBTQ+ community forced to live under the false promise of “separate but equal” amidst continued fear and discrimination.

These trends undermine Taiwan’s international identity. Among diplomatic circles, Taiwan has developed a reputation as a bulwark of democratic and progressive values in East Asia.

Taiwan’s ideological values are firmly aligned with those of Western liberal democracies, and its identity is uniquely rooted in its pluralism. On the other hand, China has been no stranger to discrimination against the queer community.

Over the years, it has gone to great length to relegate any talk of marriage equality to the margins, banning same-sex relationships from television and dispersing pro-LGBTQ+ gatherings. Chinese authorities responded to Taiwan’s May 2017 ruling by banning Rela, mainland China’s leading lesbian dating app with more than 70 million users. “Taiwan won the right to have same-sex marriage, and the mainland lost its app for lesbians. For the first time I’ve realized that Taiwan is better than us,” wrote a Chinese Rela user that day, highlighting the cross-Strait rift.

However, the Tsai administration’s inaction jeopardizes Taiwan’s moral high ground and the integrity of its liberal-minded political culture. Affirming same-sex marriage would send a strong message to assert Taiwan’s distinct progressive identity, one that values and respects individual human rights and civil liberties rather than ruthless collectivism.

This unique Taiwanese identity strengthens Taiwan’s international position as an independent state, separate and free from China. Embracing marriage equality would remind the international community of Taiwan’s liberal democratic values, lending credibility to longstanding calls among Western diplomats to recognize Taiwan as an ideological ally rather than simply a strategic one.

This makes evident Taiwan’s value to its allies as a partner in defending democracy and human rights, in turn strengthening its case for political autonomy from China.

On the campaign trail, President Tsai pledged to take action to legalize same-sex marriage. Now is the time to make good on that simple promise. Whether or not it can repair her tarnished standing remains to be seen. But it will surely strengthen the nation’s.

This article was originally published in The News Lens International.