TDB Vol. 3 No. 3: The Ins and Outs of Taiwan’s Landmark Vote on Same-Sex Marriage

TDB Vol. 3 No. 3: The Ins and Outs of Taiwan’s Landmark Vote on Same-Sex Marriage

After years of battling in the legislature and on the streets, a watershed ruling by the Constitutional Court and referenda victories by conservatives, a middle-ground bill was finally passed by the Legislative Yuan on May 17 giving same-sex couples most, though not all, of the same rights as heterosexual couples. But the campaign isn’t over, not for those who oppose marriage equality, and not for members of the LGBTQ community who argue that there is still room for improvement. Alison Hsiao walks us through the issue.

 

More than 500 Taiwanese same-sex couples registered their marriage on May 24, two years to the day after the Council of Grand Justices issued the historic Constitutional Interpretation No. 748, which required the country’s legislative body to make amendments to existing laws to guarantee marriage equality within two years. Since then, controversies abounded as to which laws were to be tweaked or implemented for same-sex couples. Referenda opposing any changes to the Civil Code and calling for a separate law were held, and passed, on Nov. 24, 2018. The Tsai Ing-wen administration came up with a creatively named bill that aimed for the middle ground on the issue, and used its legislative majority to secure its passage. Thus, on May 24, marriage equality was finally achieved in Taiwan…almost.

20 couples attended the collective wedding ceremony held by the Taipei City Government after registering their marriage at Xinyi Household Registration Office on May 24. (Olivia Yang/TFD)

Recognized progress

Marc and Shane were among the couples who had registered their marriage at Taipei’s Xinyi District Household Registration Office on May 24. In a relationship with his partner for the past 12 years, a highly emotional Shane said after registering that in the past he had not dared to display his rainbow flag on his way home despite waving it prominently during his first pride parade. “Today I’m here standing in front of so many people to say outright that I’m getting married, that I’m gay. I feel blessed and really proud of my country for being so progressive.”

Marc and Shane registered their marriage the first day after the same-sex marriage law went into effect.

But many had actually felt despair over the country’s conservativeness just six months ago, when the referenda proposed by anti-same-sex-marriage groups garnered overwhelming public support — with a bit of help from confusing questions.

Referendum Question No. 10 rejected the possibility of the country changing the wording of the Civil Code to include same-sex marriage. And Referendum Question No. 12 said that same-sex couples’ right to “live permanently together” should be governed by a separate law. (Note that although the referendum question deliberately avoided mentioning “marriage,” the explanatory note accompanying the question said the groups believed “marriage equality” should be upheld.)

The twist was that in order to comply with Judicial Interpretation No. 748, which demands “marriage equality,” the groups asked in the referendum questions not whether one approves of same-sex marriage (which would have been a direct challenge to the Interpretation, whose legal status is equivalent to the Constitution), but whether one agrees that the Civil Code should remain unchanged and that same-sex unions should be governed separately.

► See: TDB Volume 2 No. 8 The Anti-Same-Sex-Marriage Referendum Questions and their Implications

The referendum that called for a separate law for same-sex unions — which many in the LGBTQ community regarded as discriminatory — passed on Nov. 24. In response, the government proposed a separate bill and had parliament endorse it before the May 24 deadline.

The Tsai administration, which was not of one mind on the issue, had sought to avoid antagonizing conservatives through using the language of “same-sex marriage” while keeping its promise and the spirit of “marriage equality” enshrined in Interpretation No. 748.

The expedient but clever move, proposed by the Executive Yuan, was a bill titled “The Enforcement Act of the Judicial Yuan Interpretation No. 748.” It was ostensibly in full compliance with Interpretation No. 748, and the words “same-sex marriage” did not appear in the title. This also explains why it was considered a concession to the opposition within the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) caucus, when Premier Su Tseng-chang agreed to remove “same-sex marriage” in Article 2 of the original bill and instead insert “register marriage” in Article 4, a day before the legislative vote.

The vote on Article 4 of “the Enforcement Act of the Judicial Yuan Interpretation No. 748” bill, which included the wording “registering marriage,” decided the nature of relationships for same-sex unions. Of the 113 lawmakers in the Legislative Yuan, 93 were present and 66 voted yes, including 54 from the DPP, seven from the Kuomintang (KMT), and five from the New Power Party. The seven KMT lawmakers, mostly of the younger generation, are reported to have had a heated exchange with the KMT caucus leadership in the caucus meeting before the vote, and some party members have called for them to be punished following the vote.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know now that the passage of the bill was not a foregone conclusion. Local reports revealed that the Tsai administration was still tallying and anxiously calling DPP legislators to talk them into casting a yes vote mere hours before the vote in the legislature. According to many DPP lawmakers, Premier Su Tseng-chang’s powerful message to the DPP caucus, in which he compared the historic moment to the Kaohsiung Incident 40 years ago, when only 15 lawyers, including Su himself, defended political activists against an authoritarian regime, was the game changer.

‘Disinformation’

When the bill was being debated on the legislative floor on May 17, anti-same-sex-marriage lawmakers urged the Legislative Yuan to “respect the referendum results,” which they contended represented the “new public will” and superseded Interpretation No. 748. Even if that were true (and it is not), the bill in no way violates the referendum results.

“Two years ago there was still discussion in the legislature over different versions of the same-sex marriage bill, which included the Civil Code-amending version and a separate-law version. So it is exactly because we respect the referendum results that we have only this bill [of a separate law] today,” the New Power Party’s Freddy Lim told the legislature before the vote.

Lim also denounced several lawmakers, who said of the bill that it “polarized society and manufacturing social conflicts.”

“You know very well that it is not the case, but you decided to go along with those distorted views and disinformation,” he added.

Lim’s denunciation did not prevent the spread of this narrative. On its front page the following day, the Chinese-language China Times headlined its top article, “Slapping the referendum [results] in the face.” Anti-same-sex-marriage groups staged a protest on May 25, in which they accused the Tsai administration of “trampling on the popular will” and declaring that “democracy is dead.”

KMT Legislator Lai Shyh-bao (left) makes remarks at the Legislative Yuan with a placard asking his colleagues to “respect the new popular will of 7.65 million votes.” Anti-gay groups including one that calls themselves “Taiwan Citizenship Solidarity Organization,” staged a protest (middle and right, photo credit: TCSO) a day after the Act went into effect, driving a hearse lamenting “the death of democracy.”

‘Not over’

For anti-same-sex-marriage groups, the fight is not over. They have called on the public to take lawmakers and parties who supported same-sex marriage “off the shelves” in the next elections. On the day the Act coming into effect, anti-same-sex-marriage groups announced they were forming a new political party containing the name “stable power” and would field candidates in the 2020 legislative elections.

For its part, the LGBTQ community is also determined to deal with the unfinished state of the country’s marriage equality. Victoria Hsu of the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights (TAPCPR) said on May 25 — the day the alliance organized a traditional Taiwanese-style wedding banquet for same-sex couples on Ketagalan Boulevard — that since the law initiated by the referendum results can be amended or rescinded two years after its implementation, they will continue to push for the inclusion of same-sex couples in the Civil Code.

The Taiwanese traditional roadside wedding banquet held on May 25, which the TAPCPR said was the realization of a promise made in 2013 when the organization held the first wedding banquet at the same location to campaign for a then-proposed marriage equality bill. Organizers said they will come back to this spot when same-sex marriage is achieved. (photo credit: TAPCPR)

“We understand there was immense pressure on the administration, and this separate law is the best we can have so far,” Hsu said. However, the inability of a same-sex spouse to adopt his or her partner’s non-biological children, the inability to register transnational same-sex marriages in cases where a partner is from a country where same-sex marriage is not legalized, and the non-applicability of in-law relationship to same-sex couples, show that there is still discrimination in how same-sex marriage is treated, she added.

“After May 24, 2021, legislators will have the right to include what is now governed by the separate law into the Civil Code. The reason we have a separate law is exactly because the referendum results are being upheld, so those spreading the rumor about the legislation flouting the referendum results should just stop,” Hsu said.

Chi Chia-wei with the pen: Chi, regarded by many as the godfather of the country’s gay rights movement, received the pen that was used by President Tsai Ing-wen to sign the same-sex marriage law into effect as a gift from the president.

 

TDB Vol. 2 No. 8: The Anti-Same-Sex-Marriage Referendum Questions and their Implications

TDB Vol. 2 No. 8: The Anti-Same-Sex-Marriage Referendum Questions and their Implications

Taiwanese voters will be asked on Nov. 24 to make a call on a series of questions pertaining to same-sex marriage in Taiwan. Convoluted language, misplaced expectations and the government’s middle-ground approach could cause problems down the road. Alison Hsiao looks into the matter.

 

On May 24, 2017, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Civil Code provisions prohibiting marriage between two people of the same sex are in violation of the Constitution that guarantees people’s freedom of marriage and right to equality. The landmark ruling also stated that the concerned authorities (i.e., the Legislative Yuan) shall amend the relevant laws within two years from the issuance of this interpretation. On Nov. 24 this year, exactly six months to the day away from the second anniversary of the court ruling, Taiwanese will vote on referendum questions asking whether they agree with the statement that marriage regulated by the Civil Code should be limited to a union between a man and a woman, and whether they agree to protect the right of same-sex couples to form a permanent union by means other than marriage as stipulated in the Civil Code.

Soon after the Central Election Commission (CEC) approved the said referendum questions in March, people began asking how they did not contradict the Interpretation and whether the result of this referendum could upend what the Constitutional Court has granted. Now with the referendum in the offing, a more pressing and determining question is: how will the result of this referendum, binding in the sense that it is “a proposal of initiative of the legislative principles for law” (Referendum Act, Article 30), affect the country’s prospects on the same-sex marriage issue?

► See: TDB Volume 1 No. 5 Constitutional Interpretation No. 748 Paves the Way for Marriage Equality in Taiwan

Taiwan’s gay pride parade is the largest in Asia. (photo credit: J. Michael Cole)

Wordplay

The CEC approved the referendum questions concerning the definition of marriage and same-sex couples’ right to form a union (along with a question about gender equality education) on April 17. This came after several hearings and criticism from pro-same-sex-marriage groups who argued that since the Judicial Interpretation was equal to the Constitution in status and effect, referendum proposals that attempt to sustain what has been ruled unconstitutional is in itself unconstitutional.

CEC Chairman Chen In-chin, in defense of the decision, said the proposals were no longer unconstitutional after the groups proposing the questions made the necessary revisions.

The questions, before revisions, were, “Do you agree that marriage should be union between a man and a woman,” and “Do you agree that the rights for two persons of the same sex to form a permanent, common life should be protected by a separate law under the premise that the definition of marriage — union between a man and a woman — is not changed?” During hearings, legal experts and officials at the Ministry of Justice deemed those unconstitutional and in contradiction of Judicial Interpretation No. 748, and for this reason they very likely would have been rejected by the CEC.

To avoid such an outcome, anti-same-sex-marriage groups replaced “marriage” in the referendum questions with “marriage as regulated by the Civil Code,” which for the CEC meant that the proposers of the two referenda “clearly recognize that their referendum proposals do not preclude same-sex couples from exercising the ‘freedom of marriage’ cited in Judicial Interpretation No. 748 in the form of other laws” and “recognize the equal protection of same-sex couples’ freedom of marriage.”

In other words, the underlying statement was that, even if the two referenda passed, it by no means entails that same-sex couples would be deprived of the right to marriage as guaranteed by Judicial Interpretation No. 748.

In the Referendum Bulletin (emitted on Oct. 24 and again on Nov. 2), the Executive Yuan also explicitly stated that the right of same-sex couples to get married is protected by the Constitution, as stipulated in Judicial Interpretation No. 748, and would therefore not be affected in any way by the results of the two referendums. The Executive Yuan added that if the two referenda passed, the government would “propose to amend the same-sex-marriage-related regulations on the basis of both the referendum results and Judicial Interpretation No. 748 and submit the amendment proposals to the Legislative Yuan for review” (emphasis added).

 

On November 18th, a week ahead of the referendum, a rally of more than 100,000 people gathered on Ketagalan Boulevard in Taipei in support of same-sex marriage, calling on voters to vote yes to pro-same-sex-marriage groups’ proposals. (Photo credit: Li Sihwei)

Questionable Intent

Anti-same-sex-marriage groups railed against the Executive Yuan’s opinions as stated in the Referendum Bulletin, accusing the government of distorting the meaning of their referendum questions, which they maintain do not advocate for same-sex marriage but rather aim to propose same-sex civil partnership. The groups again emphasized their stance during a TV debate held earlier this month, arguing that Judicial Interpretation No. 748 had not granted unions by same-sex couples marriage status.

The anti-same-sex-marriage groups never imagined, as the CEC said they had, that replacing “marriage” with “marriage as regulated by the Civil Code” in their referendum questions would in any way make them recognize same-sex couples’ freedom of marriage. Notwithstanding what they told the CEC, they believe that if there is to be a separate law, it can only be a same-sex civil partnership law, not a same-sex marriage law.

Weighing in, National Taipei University Law professor Kuan Hsiao-wei has argued that the content of the proposals by the anti-same-sex-marriage groups makes their intentions “not understandable,” which under the Referendum Act would have given the CEC sufficient grounds to reject their proposals in the first place. Kuan called on the CEC to investigate whether the clarifications given by the groups for the controversial referendum proposals during the review process may have been insufficient — and if so, whether approval of their questions by the CEC may have been inappropriate.

The implications of unclear referendum proposals could be serious. If they pass on Nov. 24, for those who falsely believed they were voting against same-sex marriage of any kind, legislation permitting a separate same-sex marriage law could stoke up radical responses and political outrage. A same-sex-civil-partnership law, on the other hand, would betray the spirit of Judicial Interpretation No. 748 and the expectations of liberal groups. And if pro-same-sex-marriage groups want to challenge the constitutionality of the (possible) same-sex-civil-partnership law, the process would take years before the Constitutional Court makes a final ruling.

Political Will

Earlier this month, the New Power Party said that based on an opinion poll it conducted on the referenda, 26.7 percent of respondents said they would vote “yes” to the questions proposed by the anti-same-sex-marriage groups, which was the highest among all referendum questions, save for the 56.5 percent of those who either had no clue or had no comment (the pro-same-sex-marriage proposals received only 13.1 percent). The numbers appeared to reflect social conservatism. Many respondents may have been won over by the “traditional family values” trumpeted by the anti-same-sex-marriage groups, and by the power of religious mobilization.

There is however a possibility that none of the questions will pass the threshold. Still, the number of ballots each camp garners could serve as an indicator of public sentiment, which politicians could not ignore without incurring political costs. The results of the referendums will therefore pose a great challenge to the government.

After the Constitutional Court ruling in May last year, the administration deferred final decision to a popular vote, which will likely boomerang. A political decision will have to be made after all, and it is very likely that neither camp will be able to reconcile their expectations with the government’s middle-ground approach.

 

Feature Photo Credit: Hsiang-wei Wang

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