Political activist Ann recounts her experience of the failed gender equality referendums in Taiwan. She is convinced that Taiwan’s LGBTQIA+ community will come back even stronger after the setback.
Taiwan recently held its midterm elections on November 24, 2018, along with five referendums relating to same-sex marriage and sex education. Three of the referendums were proposed by a Taiwanese Christian right group called “The Alliance for Next Generation’s Happiness” (下一代幸福联盟). Between them, they were designed to consolidate the notion that only a man and a woman can enter into marriage, while proposing a different set of rules for same-sex couples.
The other two referendums were in favour of same-sex marriage. They specifically demanded that same-sex marital rights should be protected in the Civil Code, and that all students nationwide should be educated on gender equality, and also receive emotional as well as sex and same-sex education. This drive for equality and education followed a Constitutional Court ruling in 2017, which called on the government to legalise same-sex marriage within two years. The Alliance for Next Generation’s Happiness, on the other hand, were hoping to use the referendums to overturn this decision. And with months of using their money and power to spread misinformation and propaganda to the public, they succeeded.
Having been a civil rights campaigner for years, I was incredibly disheartened to see the referendum results: not only did all three of the referendums proposed by the Alliance for Next Generation’s Happiness pass, but neither of the referendums supporting same-sex marriage or inclusion of LGBTQIA+ in sex education did. As Taiwan is considered one of the most progressive countries in Asia, I always thought that homophobia and discrimination of LGBTQIA+ was a thing of the past. We were the first country in Asia to have a Pride Parade, and the one in Taiwan is the most frequented in all of Asia. Especially with the backing of the Constitutional Court, it felt like we were on the fast track to becoming the first country in Asia to implement gay marriage, and thereby setting an example to our neighbours. It turned out to be an illusion.
This was my first time voting in Taiwan, and I cannot say how excited I was on that day. I was riding on a wave of confidence, because virtually all the people around me are also pro-LGBTQIA+. But as I settled in at home to watch the live voting count, it dawned on me that Taiwan may not be as progressive as I had thought. I genuinely had no reason to think there would be such a huge discrepancy between those in favour of same-sex marriage and those against it. Having gone to the past three Prides and constantly being surrounded by fellow social and political activists, I do not remember the last time I came across someone who was overtly homophobic. But now I was confronted with the sad reality that I was only speaking with people who are like-minded, comfortable in my liberal bubble.
There were moments of second-guessing. A few days before the election, my peers at a Women’s March meeting told me that some people they had talked to believed the lies that the Christian right group had been spreading. Really? Their campaign said that sex education would turn children gay and that sex education was teaching children how to help others masturbate. Yes, they said, they intended to vote against same-sex marriage. I was aware that many Christians would be anti-LGBTQIA+, but Christians only account for 6% of the population. So after my initial surprise at my friends’ experience, I did not think this group would pose much of a threat.
But the baseless claims and fear-mongering tactics of our political opponents seemed to work. For months prior, everyone I knew, myself included, have been promoting and reminding our friends and families to go vote, more importantly, to remind them which referendums to vote for and against. Maybe not surprisingly, my social media feed kept showing me reminders to vote pro-LGBTQIA+. But on the streets the pro-voices were also clearly more visible. With the Pride Parade turning the city into a sea of colour just a month prior to the referendums, it was all anyone talked about. Nobody needed convincing to vote otherwise.
Alive as ever
I cried three times on the night of the election. I was in despair every time I saw the numbers grow farther and farther apart. If Taiwan claims to be progressive, how are there still so many people who can’t seem to be able to truly embrace the human right of non-discrimination?
In the days after the referendums, I was not alone in showing my disappointment. Almost all of my friends have expressed the same anger and anguish, many have shed tears more than once, and some have showed signs of hopelessness and depression. For us, this result was a huge setback for our society. To be sure, it is still uncertain how much of an effect the result will have on the Constitutional Court ruling. But the knowledge that the majority of your fellow countrypeople do not think kids should be taught about LGBTQIA+ in school, and that people who identify in this way should not have the right to marry, is extremely disheartening in itself.
Before the election, Women’s March and our fellow activist groups were making such good progress that the whole community felt as though our goal was in imminent reach. Now we can’t help but feel that we’ve been set back by bigots. On the upside, however, I believe the referendums were a trigger for many people to become active. I now strongly hope that our newly won supporters will fight alongside us to see Taiwan legalise gay marriage and achieve so much more. We need to remember that progress is not linear, that there is light at the end of the tunnel even if it doesn’t feel like it at the moment, and the LGBTQIA+ community and its allies will continue their struggle until we achieve true equality.
Cover image © Ann Tseng