Supporters of same-sex marriage take part in a rally outside Presidential Office Building in Taipei, Taiwan, December 10, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters

People’s human rights should not hinge on a popular vote. But that’s exactly what is happening in Taiwan, and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people are at risk.

Ironically, the latest threat stems from a huge victory for LGBT people in Taiwan. In May 2017, Taiwan’s Constitutional Court declared as unconstitutional the definition of marriage as being “between a man and a woman.” The court gave parliament two years to amend existing laws or pass new legislation to include same-sex marriage.

But in an attempt to circumvent the ruling, the group Alliance for Next Generation’s Happiness collected sufficient signatures to trigger a referendum on whether to allow same-sex marriage. Fundamental human rights are at stake, and the public rhetoric has been corrosive. “The collapse of the family system will deal a huge blow to society,” said a spokesperson for the alliance. Other groups have gone further by including two additional provisions in the referendum: a separate legal mechanism for same-sex couples to register their relationships; and a proposal to roll back LGBT-inclusive portions of Taiwan's Gender Equity Education Act, which would undermine protections for vulnerable youth disproportionately affected by bullying.     

Taiwan’s referendum has become an international proxy battle for the politics of intolerance.  US-based groups that failed to defeat marriage equality in the United States, including the National Organization for Marriage, are pouring resources into the anti-equality campaign in Taiwan, using familiar tactics that exploit negative stereotypes and provoke fear. 

To complicate matters further, LGBT activists gathered signatures for a separate referendum in support of marriage equality, which may also proceed in November pending a decision by Taiwan’s Central Election Commission. They have launched a campaign, supported by Freedom to Marry Global, highlighting the stories of individuals affected by marriage equality to encourage “no” votes on the first referendum and “yes” votes on their own.

Jennifer Lu, chief coordinator of Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan, says: "Our opponents thought that by pushing a referendum attacking same-sex couples and LGBT youth, they could derail our movement to advance LGBT equality in Taiwan. But they couldn't have been more wrong. Now more than ever, LGBT people in Taiwan are visible – we're talking to our family, friends, and coworkers about the importance of marriage and treating everyone with respect under the law.”