There are 25 countries in the world where same-sex couples can get married. Taiwan is not yet one.
On May 23, I visited Taipei at the invitation of Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan. I met with activists campaigning for equal marriage rights, but also with Vice President Chen Chien-jen, members of the national parliament from various political parties, and the counsellor and executive secretary of the City of Taipei government. Some jurisdictions, including the city of Taipei and other large cities in Taiwan, as well as nine other counties in Taiwan, allow same-sex couples to register as partners. But partnership provides less rights than marriage.
For years, Taiwanese activists have pushed for marriage equality. In May 2017, Taiwan’s constitutional court struck down the legal definition of marriage “between a man and a woman” as unconstitutional. This landmark decision paved the way for marriage equality. The court gave the Taiwanese legislature a limited time frame of two years to provide for same-sex marriage in law. The Taiwanese legislature could simply amend the definition of marriage in the civil code or introduce new legislation on same-sex marriage. If the legislature fails to deliver within two years, the court ruled that same-sex couples will automatically be able to marry.
The week I visited Taiwan was the one-year anniversary of the ruling. I urged the vice-president and his government to use the period that is left to introduce marriage equality. He acknowledged that the court’s ruling is a milestone on the road to equality for LGBT people in Taiwan, who face social and cultural stigma and discrimination. However, he said that things have become more complicated because three national referendum proposals were initiated by the anti-gay marriage group, the Happiness of the Next Generation Alliance. Two of these proposals aim to block same-sex marriage.
In April, Taiwan’s Central Election Commission (CEC) reviewed and okayed these proposals. The second stage of the referendum drive began, during which the anti-gay marriage group would need to collect about 280,000 signatures per question equalling 1.5 percent of the eligible voters. If they get those signatures, Taiwan will hold a national referendum on whether to allow same-sex marriage.
A referendum on a fundamental rights issue like marriage equality in effect submits the human rights of same-sex couples to a popularity contest, putting them in a vulnerable position. The lives and identities of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people will be open to public debate, scrutiny, evaluation and sometimes abuse. But in a democracy, the majority of the population should not be able to block or take away fundamental rights from a minority. Part of the responsibility of the legislature and the judiciary is to uphold and protect minority rights.
In my conversations with the vice-president and the members of parliament I suggested that politicians in Taiwan should demonstrate leadership and propose an amendment to the civil code allowing same-sex couples to have the same marriage rights as different-sex couples. If they choose the route of specific legislation, they should not present a watered-down version of the civil code but provide same-sex couples the exact same marriage rights as different-sex couples have in the civil code.
The politicians should not hide behind the fact that there may be some in Taiwanese society who are reluctant to see progress on this issue. Experience from countries that have already introduced marriage equality shows that once same-sex couples can get married, the debate dies down and people become more open to the rights of same-sex couples.
There is another year left in the two-year time frame the constitutional court allowed. By doing its job, the Taiwanese legislature has a unique opportunity to demonstrate that equal rights and non-discrimination are not empty words in the Taiwanese constitution. The legislature can make Taiwan the first Asian country where same-sex couples can get married and make Taiwan a beacon of inspiration for the rest of the region and the world.