Despite the adoption of a new law on May 17, campaigns will continue to legitimize the kind of homophobic discourse that has been so prevalent in Taiwan’s traditional and social media in recent years.
Usually I do not accept requests to do live in studio TV interviews. Often these interviews are just a minute or two on air but the preparation, travel, waiting and recovery time mean that they are quite stressful and time consuming. However, when I was asked to appear on the BBC’s World News TV to talk about the legalization of same sex marriage in Taiwan, I could not say no. Over the last few years, many of the participants in this remarkable movement have passed through London as speakers but also as overseas students. I found it hard not to be caught up in the euphoria of the moment on May 17.
In the short interview, I tried to stress the historical significance of the legislation. Taiwan became the first country in Asia to do this, ahead of Japan and South Korea. This puts Taiwan in the same category as mainly West European countries that have legalized same-sex marriage. I also reminded the host that we only passed this legislation five years ago in the U.K. It was also important to note that this had been a long and painful struggle. Many of the activists have been victims of physical and emotional bullying and there have been martyrs. I wanted to stress why Taiwan has been able to move forward faster than its neighbors. Here the role of civil society as well as party politics has been critical. Without the 2014 Sunflower Movement and the change of ruling parties in 2016, I think we would still be some way off legalization. I also reflected on how the news will be received in the region. While it will be a boost to those fighting for LGBT rights in East Asia, it is unlikely others will follow in the near future.
At the end of my interview I was surprised to see the next news item was on a related issue. It was about the sacking of Australian star rugby player Israel Folau for homophobic remarks he had made on social media. In fact, two weeks earlier his remarks had led him to be dropped by a high-profile sportswear company as their brand ambassador. The way that this sports federation but also the commercial sector had dealt with the issue reminded me that there are still significant challenges ahead for those fighting for LGBT rights in Taiwan.
Of course there are many problems with the new law as it stands. For instance, the article not recognizing marriage with citizens of countries that have not yet legalized same-sex marriage seems hard to understand. Naturally much of the legislation was the product of compromises to ensure there were enough votes to get it through parliament. Nevertheless, I would like to mention a few challenges ahead.
Firstly, there will be political challenges. One of the key opponents of same-sex marriage, the Kuomintang (KMT) legislator Lai Shih-pao (賴士葆), promised that the legislation would be reversed once and if the KMT returns to power. The next round of national elections are just over six months away and there is a real possibility of another change of ruling parties. However, the fact that a number of KMT legislators voted in favor of legislation shows that the party is divided on the issue. A new political party has been established by opponents of LGBT rights and it is likely to target those politicians who were most vocal in support of marriage equality. Both the recall vote against Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌) and the 2018 anti-LGBT referendum campaigns show the ability of this Christian-based conservative camp to broaden its reach and to mobilize supporters. Back in 2016 an earlier version called the Faith and Hope Alliance garnered almost 1.7 percent of the vote and it is likely that on the back of its referendum success and ample funding, the new party will do even better. However, one of the biggest dangers of both Lai and the new party is that their campaigns will continue to legitimize the kind of homophobic discourse that has been so prevalent in Taiwan’s traditional and social media over the last few years.
One of the biggest dangers of both Lai and the new party is that their campaigns will continue to legitimize the kind of homophobic discourse that has been so prevalent in Taiwan’s traditional and social media over the last few years.
A further area of contestation will be at the local level. This is something we have experienced in the U.K., where same sex marriage was legalized in England and Wales, as well as Scotland in 2014, but not in Northern Ireland. In Taiwan we are also seeing resistance and anti-LGBT rhetoric in local city and county assemblies in the aftermath of legislation. At the local level a key battlefield will continue to be over sex education and application of the Gender Equality Education Act. As we have seen younger voters at the forefront of the LGBT movement, the conservative camp has been reinforcing its efforts to undermine gender equality education.
The traditional media also represents a challenge. Since legislation I have been alerted to pieces in the China Times and Kinmen Times that look homophobic to me. For instance, the May 27 front page headline in the Kinmen Times was “Male male couples are of no use, Female female couples are of no use” (男男配有屁用 女女配沒鳥用). An alternative translation and the one I guess the headline writer wanted readers to take away is “Male male couples can use the anus and female female couples do not use a penis.” The subheading of the piece warned that “With the passing of the Same Sex Marriage Law More Strange Things will happen in Society and that two Same Sex Marriages have already been registered in Kinmen.” In a country that prides itself as having one of the freest media in the region, there is always going to be a fine line between freedom of speech and what constitutes hate speech. However, it does appear legislation is required to deal with homophobic language in traditional and social media. Similarly, as we saw in the U.K. case on both this issue and racism, it takes time for the required change in political correctness.
A final challenge will be generational. Surveys have revealed the huge gulf in support between those younger respondents and the older generation on LGBT issues. It is likely that many will discover that the dire consequences of same-sex marriage that the conservative camp warned of have not materialized. However, strategies of persuasion will be needed to reduce this generation gap. I am sure inviting more older citizens to same-sex weddings will help convince doubters. In Taiwan economic considerations often can be persuasive. For instance, I am sure that the legislation will be a boost to Taiwan’s wedding photograph and tourism sectors. For older Taiwanese nationalists, they should appreciate how the issue has given Taiwan almost unprecedented positive international media attention and has reinforced Taiwan’s reputation as independent and separate from China.
The Israel Folau case took place about 18 months after Australia legalized same-sex marriage. I wonder how Taiwan would deal with such a case in late 2020.