Taiwan will vote on same-sex marriage today, but it never should have had to.
Nearly two years ago, Kuomintang (KMT) party lawmaker Jason Hsu called for a bill in the Legislative Yuan which would have made Taiwan the largest municipality in Asia to allow LGBTQ couples to marry. To date, 10 cities in Japan recognize some form of relationship recognition for same-sex partners—including Fukuoka, Iga, Nakano, Osaka, Sapporo, and Shibuya.
That declaration was well-timed. In May 2017, Taiwan’s Constitutional Court paved the way for marriage equality in a historic ruling that claimed that any prohibition of same-sex unions is unconstitutional.
The verdict gave lawmakers two years to pass a bill in the legislature or marriage equality would automatically become the law of the land.
That was easier said than done, according to Hsu. Even though a draft bill had already passed committee review back in December 2016, he alleged that the ruling party—the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which controls the executive and legislative branches—continually delayed any legislative action on the ruling.
Despite campaigning on LGBTQ rights, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen claimed as of June 2018 that society was still too divided on the issue to pass a marriage bill.
By then, Hsu said it was already too late.
“Six months was the golden time frame,” he told INTO, arguing that legislation should have been signed by last November. “But they waited mostly because they were elections coming up, and they didn’t want this thing to affect the elections.”
This is how Taiwan found itself in the position it occupies today. The Happiness of the Next Generation Coalition, a conservative group aligned with the U.S.-based National Organization for Marriage (NOM), momentarily took the issue out of President Tsai’s hands by petitioning for a referendum against same-sex marriages.
Two proposals put forward by anti-LGBTQ forces urge Taiwan to ban marriage equality outright or create a separate law in the Civil Code recognizing same-sex unions. The latter would be akin to domestic partnerships.
In August, petitioners collected enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot. If more than five million votes are cast on Saturday, the referendum will stand.
Given the wide support the opposition campaign has garnered, Hsu predicted that the referendum would cross the necessary threshold needed to be declared a valid reflection of public opinion. When it came to forecasting which way the vote would go, the lawmaker was far less bullish.
“We could lose,” Hsu said.
“We cannot be too confident,” he clarified. “Deep down in my heart, of course, I want us to win, but we have to push everyone together, get out there and vote—because we can never say we have too many votes.”
Opinion on the ground is surprisingly pessimistic given the seemingly wide support for marriage equality in Taiwan. A November 2015 poll found that more than seven in 10 residents (or 71 percent) are in favor of allowing same-sex couples to marry, by far the most favorable result among Asian countries. Thailand and Japan are next, where a respective 57 percent and 71 percent of citizens support the freedom to wed.
But following a months-long campaign in which conservative groups reportedly spent more than $33 million fighting marriage equality, pro-LGBTQ organizers say the odds are more like 50-50. Many in Taiwan—even same-sex marriage supporters—believe equality will be voted down on Saturday.
Hsu stressed that even if Taiwan votes against same-sex unions, it does not mean marriage equality is instantly banned.
“The referendum itself has a symbolic meaning, but it doesn’t really have actual binding effect,” he claimed. “It won’t change the current status quo—which that is same-sex marriage will be effective starting May 29.”
Because the referendum is nonbinding, lawmakers will have three months to respond to the vote. That due date is in February, during the next legislative session.
Given their previous inaction, Hsu predicts the ruling party “will not touch it.”
“My guess is the government might just simply not do anything,” he said. “To vote to create a separate law would trigger the anger in the LGBTQ community. For me, it’s discrimination.”
Despite hailing from one of Taiwan’s more conservative parties, Hsu vowed to do everything in his power to prevent legislation on domestic partnerships—which would likely grant some, but not all, of the same rights that opposite-sex couples enjoy—from being heard in committee.
The Congressman asked that INTO print “every word” of what he said on the subject.
“We should not allow a special law to be sent to our committee for review,” he said, his normally measured voice rising to a defiant howl. “I will do everything I can to tear down that committee. I will fucking block it because it’s not right.”
While Hsu himself is straight, he said advocating for equality became a central issue for him after speaking with LGBTQ friends and employees about the discrimination they face in their daily lives. He spoke eloquently of a gay man who had been urgently awaiting the legalization of same-sex marriage following the death of his partner due to illness. He hoped a “Yes” vote would provide closure.
Hsu described that man’s pain as an “aching in his heart.”
“For me, it’s more than just a piece of legislation,” he claimed. “It’s people and their stories. I’ve personally met them. I shook their hands. I’ve been to their houses, had dinner with them, cooked with them, and attended their weddings.”
Regardless of how Taiwan votes on Saturday, Hsu said the issue is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. While the referendum doesn’t have the force of law, voting down marriage equality is likely to sour what would otherwise be a historic day six months from now—when the constitutional court ruling goes into effect.
In addition, the 2004 Gender Education Act (GEA)—which mandates LGBTQ inclusion in school curricula—is also on the ballot this weekend. An unfavorable result in the referendum may lead the ruling party to gut the 14-year-old legalization.
While Hsu claimed a vote against LGBTQ rights wouldn’t be the “end of the world,” he hopes Taiwan can set a good example for other Asian countries. After his 2016 speech in favor of marriage equality, the Congressman said colleagues in other national legislatures reached out to him to say how much his advocacy meant to them.
“When I fought for the same-sex marriage law, I was shocked to be contacted by several of my peers in Japan, South Korea, and Singapore,” Hsu said. “They cannot discuss this issue in their parliaments right now—it’s not even possible.”
Taiwan has the opportunity to set a “precedent,” as lawmakers told Tsu. “If we can learn from you, we will know how to carry out this process,” they said.
After the dust settles on the marriage equality vote, Hsu plans to continue blazing a trail for Taiwan’s neighbors. High on his priority list in 2019 is a fully-inclusive ordinance banning discrimination against LGBTQ people in “all walks of life.” Just a handful of Asian countries have similar laws on the books, including India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.
But for now, Hsu simply urges supporters of LGBTQ rights in Taiwan to get out to the polls on Saturday: “Call your friends. Call 10 friends.”
“One thing we must recognize is that we are voting for the future,” he said. “Our vote is a representation of the society that we want to leave our children and future generations with. Do we want our future to be a open, diverse, tolerant future or do we want it to be a single conservative culture?”
Note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.