by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Brian Hioe

WITH THE RULING of the Council of Grand Justices, Taiwan’s highest court, that not allowing same-sex couples to marry is unconstitutional, marriage equality has taken a dramatic step forward in Taiwan. As a result, international news outlets have dubbed Taiwan the first country in Asia to make a landmark ruling in favor of gay marriage, clearing the way for legalizing gay marriage in China. But this is not victory just yet, seeing as this means the Legislative Yuan will need to decide on the means by which Taiwan’s Civil Code is to be changed. And it remains to be seen how long it will take to do so, although this must take place within the next two years.

It was widely expected by marriage equality advocacy groups that the Council of Grand Justices would rule in favor of marriage equality. But if the Council of Grand Justices ruled against marriage equality, this meant the ball would be back in the court of the Legislative Yuan. The battlefield for attempts to legalize marriage equality would then return to the Legislative Yuan, in pushing for changes to Taiwan’s Civil Code through the legislature. With the ruling of the Council of Grand Justices in favor of marriage equality, the battle to realize marriage equality again returns to the Legislative Yuan, but with far stronger backing, seeing as it is necessary for some change to be made in the next two years to allow same-sex couples to marry. The Council of Grand Justices released the ruling in both English and Chinese, likely cognizant of the international attention focused upon it.

Photo credit: Brian Hioe

What will again be of concern, however, is whether the Legislative Yuan will attempt to legalize same-sex marriage through adding new laws to the Civil Code or amending existing laws in Taiwan’s Civil Code. Adding new laws to Taiwan’s Civil Code is seen by many LGBTQ activists as not substantially different from “separate but not equal” civil partnerships, rather than full marriage equality. It is feared by some that new laws added to the Civil Codes may not grant same-sex couples the full rights that heterosexual couples enjoy, such as the right to adoption, to make medical decisions for their partners, or inheritance of property.

Anti-marriage equality groups, however, have continually raised that their opposition to gay marriage stems from fears that changing the definition of the family or the definition of marriage by law will lead to the breakdown of society, seeing as they view the heterosexual family as the basic building block of society. Taiwanese legislators have at times attempted to placate anti-marriage equality groups by suggesting that they would adding new laws to the Civil Code to legalize some form of same-sex marriage rather than change the definition of the family in the constitution or the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.

Celebrations breaking out as the court ruling is made. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

At times, this takes the form of attempting to pass off civil partnerships for full marriage equality, seeing as legislators recalcitrant on the issue of full marriage equality may still have their eyes set on raising Taiwan’s international profile as the supposed first country in Asia to realize marriage equality.  This is particularly true of DPP legislators, who may hope for this to be a way to distinguish Taiwan from China, but do not wish to see full marriage equality pass in Taiwan.

Namely, while Tsai Ing-Wen of the DPP rode into the presidency promising to legalize marriage equality with the view that marriage equality was widely supported by Taiwanese society and that this would not be very hard, surprisingly large showings by anti-gay Christian groups provided the justification for DPP legislators to backslide on the issue and in some cases to reverse course entirely. The Presbyterian Church, which is divided on the issue of gay marriage in Taiwan and internationally, has a strong presence within the DPP and very likely Tsai did not have the full agreement of the party before she made marriage equality into part of her campaign platform. Tsai eventually washed her hands of the issue altogether, probably with the view that gay marriage was no longer a safe political issue for her to endorse, although this obviously leaves Tsai open to the accusation that she was only seeking to use members of the LGBTQ community and their allies for political gain in a hypocritical manner.

Photo credit: Brian Hioe

As such, the next challenge for marriage equality advocates will be to force Taiwanese legislators to realize marriage equality in a speedy manner, to ensure that same-sex couples receive the same legal rights as their heterosexual counterparts, and to be wary of attempts to pass off civil partnerships as full marriage equality. While the international press attention that Taiwan is receiving at present may be beneficial in attempts to speedily pass marriage equality into law, the DPP could also continue to drag its feet on the issue. Likewise, anti-marriage equality groups will probably renew efforts to dissuade legislators from supporting marriage equality, as perhaps best observed in the recall vote organized by anti-marriage equality groups against Huang Kuo-Chang of the NPP, a staunch supporter of marriage equality, something which could further the split between the NPP and DPP, fellow parties within the pan-Green coalition.

Taiwan society will need to forced to remember that gay couples being denied the full rights of their heterosexual counterparts is something which has led to deaths in Taiwan, as observed in the suicide of French professor Jacques Picoux in October last year. Moreover, if the DPP stalls too long on the issue, it remains possible that another country in Asia could steal a march on Taiwan and abruptly legalize marriage equality before Taiwan does. Two years could prove far too long a period of time in which legislature has to make chances, dragging on the fight to legalize marriage equality long, and allowing for further backsliding.

Photo credit: Brian Hioe

A rally in support of marriage equality took place today in front of the Legislative Yuan, as hundreds gathered to await the Council of Grand Justices’ decision. A rally organized by the Social Democratic Party also took place earlier this morning in front of the Taipei City Council, in protest of proposed regulations that all textbooks concerning sexual education must be reviewed by the parent’s committee of every school before students are allowed to use them as classroom materials.

This earlier rally serves as a reminder that marriage equality is not the only issue at stake, but so, too, is the fact that education about sexuality in Taiwan remains woefully inadequate and continue to teach social attitudes which treat LGBTQ individuals as pathological or deviant. In particular, the Joint Committee of Primary School Parents in Taipei has been strongly opposed to any form of sexual education in schools. Moreover, many of the anti-marriage equality groups active in the past year began as groups opposing sexual education in schools before the possibility of marriage equality led them to switch focus.

Photo credit: Brian Hioe

On the other hand, anti-marriage equality demonstrators were largely not present today. About half a dozen individuals protested in front of the Judicial Yuan with a song and dance routine, flanked by pro-China demonstrators hoping to latch onto the marriage equality issue for publicity. But there seems to have been little protest from the anti-marriage equality side otherwise.

Although a sudden downpour of rain broke out earlier, prompting the quip from Jennifer Lu of the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association that without rain there cannot be rainbows, the rally outside the Legislative Yuan will continue into the night. Despite the apparent victory of the Council of Grand Justices’ ruling, of course, the fight is not over yet, and the battlefield next moves to the legislature. The rally will go on into the night, to allow those who are currently working to also attend, with plans for demonstrators to all hold up their cell phones to “Light up Taiwan”, the election slogan of the Tsai campaign last year, as a way to hold the DPP to its promises.

Photo credit: Brian Hioe

What took place today was historic step forward for marriage equality in Taiwan, but there is still some ways to go before marriage equality is legalized in Taiwan. What comes next may be, in fact, be harder than what came before. Furthermore, as seen in the issue regarding sexual education in Taiwan’s schools, marriage equality is not the only issue facing the LGBTQ community. Marriage equality would not be the finish line either, as many issues still need to be fought for. And so while today may be cause for celebration, the fight is not over yet.

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