“In the face of love, everyone is equal. I am Tsai Ing-wen, and I support marriage equality.” In a short 15-second campaign video, Tsai became a symbol of progressive change in a region tainted by repression of queer rights. She and her party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), later won the 2016 elections, taking the presidency and a majority in the legislature. Marriage equality was imminent.
But she failed. Last year, the DPP was unable to pass its marriage equality bill due to the fierce backlash from Taiwan’s Christian minority. The party looks set to repeat its mistakes this year, delaying the bill’s passage until 2018, or as some fear, 2019.
Seven months ago, the Taiwanese constitutional court found Taiwanese marriage law unconstitutional. The court chose not to immediately grant marriage equality, instead ordering the legislature to amend the law within two years. Failure to do so and the court will then finally abolish the law.
Yet, the DPP prioritised other legislation, squandering the “6-month golden window” to amend the law. The government promised to debate the marriage equality proposal during the current legislative period. But they have not announced the details of the bill, with many doubting it will be passed on time, if at all.
Debate over the bill centres on two proposals. Some legislators demand the government amend the civil code to grant all couples the same rights. Other legislators want a special law that allows for marriage equality, but does not grant equal rights.
Tsai’s administration hinted that it may propose the latter bill. Writing on her Facebook page, Tsai said: “We are obligated to design a legal framework in line with the spirit of the grand justices’ interpretation, but we are also responsible for ensuring unity in society.”
A majority of Taiwanese support marriage equality. Yet, Taiwan’s Christian groups, who make up less than 5% of the island’s population, threatened to oust lawmakers who support the bill. Their bullying tanked the 2013 and 2016 attempts to bring marriage equality to Taiwan. The recent court ruling has not deterred them.
A Taipei lawmaker, Huang Kuo-chang, faces a recall campaign by Sun Chi-cheng, chairman of the Greater Taipei Stability Power Alliance, a group opposed to marriage equality. Sun detests Huang’s support for amending the civil code, stating it will destroy Taiwanese family values.
Such pressure may explain Tsai’s lack of commitment to marriage equality. With local elections scheduled for late 2018, Kuomintang legislator Jason Hsu suggests that if Tsai cannot pass the bill before January, the DDP will shelve it until 2019 to focus on campaigning.
Many believe Tsai will wait until May 2019, when the court’s ruling will strike down the law. While it would save her from Taiwan’s evangelical backlash, it would create logistical problems and further harm to Taiwan’s queer community.
If the law is struck down, many government offices will need to process marriage claims without clear guidelines. Hsu explains that “[t]he municipal registration office will not know what to do with their certificate and their IDs; hospitals will not know how to process them. A lot of contingency plans must be put in place.”
Meanwhile, the government will still deny queer couples marriage equality for the next 17 months. Some cannot afford to wait. The partner of Nelson Hu, a famous queer rights activist, is diagnosed with a rare form of hemangioma and could die. Hu has no legal say over his treatment.
Many in the queer community now feel betrayed by Tsai and the DPP. In an interview with the News Lens, Nelson Hu criticised the DPP for “[backtracking] on their promises”. Another disappointed couple lamented that “the politicians supported gay marriage as a way to win votes, but now it feels like we have been fooled.”
Desperate to avoid evangelical ire, Tsai may risk angering the queer community she sought to support. Hsu and commentators have urged the DPP to pass the bill by this session or to hold a special session in early 2018. The journey for many in the queer community to be treated as equal partners in society would be painfully prolonged otherwise.