Same sex marriage in Taiwanese elections

It would have been Asia’s first country where gays could legally marry: Almost a decade ago, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) drafted a bill, which would make same sex marriage legal on the island. After eight years in power and almost four years in opposition, the draft has yet to be reviewed by the legislature. Neither the DPP nor the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) seem too eager to promote LGBT rights.

Incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou supported pride parades in Taipei, where he was mayor for two terms. Ma Ying-jeou also stated that homosexuality was natural and couldn’t be oppressed and that gay rights were part of human rights. Since his time in the presidential office, however, his administration has been mostly quiet about same sex marriage.

It was only recently that the government announced it would explore the topic in the national human rights report. Originally it was expected to be released on December 10 to coincide with the international human rights day. The government has, however, announced that the report will be published in February – after the election. Earlier in July, Interior Minister Jiang Yi-hua didn’t give any specific information about the report, but said further study on the topic and a consensus in Taiwanese society were needed before same sex marriage could become legal.

The country’s LGBT organisations critisised the announcement as another move by politicians to draw support from the gay community just before the elections, without actually passing such a law. The DPP’s presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen went a step further and pledged to support civil unions should she be elected. Another promise was offered by the same party that drafted a same sex marriage bill nine year’s ago, which still hasn’t materialized.

Gays still good for slander

Ironically, both candidates have themeselves been “accused” of being gay. Ex-president Chen Shui-bian of the DPP suggested, three years ago, that there was a DVD showing president Ma Ying-jeou having sex with a former radio DJ. What followed was some speculation in the local media, but the failure of the ex-president to present the alleged DVD put the topic to an end.

DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen, on the other hand, was asked by a former DPP chairman to clarify her sexual orientation. Declining to answer, Tsai said that it would make her an accomplice of gender oppression, since everyone had a right to privacy.

Gays absent from this year’s presidential TV debate

During a TV debate in 2008, a representative from the Tongzhi Hotline – an organisation providing phone counseling to LGBT’s and their families – was given the opportunity to ask both candidates about their prospective gay politics. Ma Ying-jeou emphasized his support of gay issues, but fell short of promising same sex marriage. Both he and his then contender, the DPP’s Frank Hsieh cited a lack of consensus in Taiwanese society.

In this year’s official televised debate, there was no LGBT representative among the 12 civic groups that were picked to ask questions, sparing the candidates to justify their own and their parties’ policies regarding same sex marriage.

While the same sex marriage issue in Taiwan is less influenced by Christian beliefs and the concept of sin, this is a society deeply rooted in Confucian values such as filial piety. Hence, the concept of having off-spring is still a very important one, especially for the prospective grand parents.

Anti-gay movements have therefore focused more on traditional family values, and less on religious beliefs. Last April, the “Chen Ai Alliance” (Alliance of true love), for example, started a petition attacking the government’s plan to teach gender and sexual diversity in primary and junior high schools. The organisation spread fear among parents, saying that the proposed reference books could confuse their children regarding their sexual orientation at an early age, implying that they could become gay themselves. The Ministry of Education finally gave in and suspended the distribution of the state-approved teaching materials.

Apparently, politicians in both camps are still cautious about same sex marriage, obviously fearing a too progressive stance that would translate into less votes – despite the fact that Taiwan is widely seen as one of – if not the most- gay-friendly nations in Asia. A lack of influential religious opposition compared with western countries and a fairly open and tolerant society, however, could still make Taiwan the first country in Asia to allow same sex marriage. Such a move would not only support the nation’s LGBT-community, but also give the island – at least temporarily – more attention in the international media, making Taiwan stand out even more as one of the most democratic societies in the region.

Martin Aldrovandi is a Swiss journalist working for Radio Taiwan International