US-China Today spoke with Yu Mei-Nu, a Taiwanese politician and an advocate for the legalization of same-sex marriage, on the aftermath of a recent referendum and its implications on the development of LGBTQ rights in Taiwan.
Taiwan has been considered the beacon of gay rights and marriage equality in East Asia. Each year, the LGBT pride parade garners international attention and strong attendance. The 2017 decision to rule civil laws that banned same-sex marriage as unconstitutional further filled the hearts of numerous supporters of gay rights with immense hope. As an overwhelming majority voted against the amendment in the Civil Code — which would alter the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman — in a recent referendum in November 2018, Taiwan would now enact a separate law for same-sex couples. As a legislator, Ms. Yu drafted one of the three proposals to amend the Civil Code, which was favored by most supporters of same-sex marriage who wish to be treated in legally equal terms.
The issue of LGBTQ rights in Taiwan is, in fact, a sophisticated one. Not only does the referendum of same-sex marriage challenge the traditional beliefs of what constitutes a “family” but also it is often politicized by electoral candidates in their campaigns. In other words, the tension between gay rights advocates and anti-LGBTQ organizations is also a battle of ideas that has a profound sociocultural impact on Taiwanese society.
Please tell us one thing that left the deepest impression on you on the day of or before the same-sex marriage referendum.
We witnessed, before and after the referendum, the abundant human resource, and materials, as well as immense mobility of the opposite groups. They [the opposition groups] also kept spreading false information mainly via group chats in an app called LINE. This results in an imbalance between the two sides. Though the advocates have been aware that it would not be easy [to win the referendum], they did not expect the opposite side to obtain such a large proportion of votes. On the other hand, while more than 7 million voted against [including same-sex marriage in the civil code], most of the voters did not know what they were doing. This is quite frustrating.
When you mention a state of imbalance, do you mean in terms of the size of the population or the amount of information being spread?
There’s unfairness in terms of the spread of information. Their [the opposition groups] mobility and financial resource played a huge role too. They might be backed by certain religious groups, as well as foreign support, some of which comes from China. All of these factors result in unfair competition.
The referendum is promoted heavily on social media; a lot of the signatures are also collected relying on the word-of-mouth (people sharing posts and encouraging their friends to sign the forms). How do you think the same-sex marriage draft, or the LGBTQ movement in general, has benefited from the social platforms?
The development of social media made the generational differences in viewing the issue of same-sex marriage apparent. The young adults, who typically age below 40, are frequent users of computers and social media. When false information emerges on Facebook, it is usually corrected immediately or covered by some other news. But for people who are older, because they are relatively unfamiliar with the use of technologies or social media platforms, these people are easily blinded by false information, which they would share having been affected emotionally by it. False information spread among Line groups — which are mostly closed groups — pretty fast, making it difficult to make clarifications instantly. Even if some young adults attempt to penetrate those group chats noticing the need to share positivity, they face the risk of getting isolated.
Websites such as Equal Love usually provide abundant information that is usually organized as long texts. For matters regarding same-sex marriage that need to be explained in ample details — for instance, case studies and regulations around the world — do you think there’s any way of simplifying them for the purpose of convincing the elders or breaking the generational barrier?
In Taiwan, is it important to communicate with elders empathetically. You would need to understand that these elders grew up in a radically different environment; they were raised during the Martial Law period, an era of militarism and authoritarianism. Women were educated to be good wives who are obligated to serve their husband and educate the children. Therefore, most of the elders found it unacceptable that their kids, who, if found to be queer, will be unable to be engaged or pregnant. For the conservatives, the inability to bear kids — breeding the next generation of the family — is a great dishonor to the ancestors. Furthermore, most of the information regarding LGBTQ community that these people receive are typically pictures that come from the LGBTQ parades which demonize the image of gays or lesbians. The visual effects that these pictures produce are profound and misleading these elders to believe that society has gone out of order.
Some people believe the acceptance of same-sex marriage indicates a democracy/democratic society is maturing. Do you agree with this (and why)? What are your thoughts on this?
It is impossible to only have a discussion on the rights of a minority after a so-called mature democracy has been developed. Human rights are not inherent. All human rights are evolutionary. It was only until 1921 that we see the Equal Rights Amendment in the United States. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights further acknowledged that all humans are born free and equal. But we all know that, at that time, it prioritized white people, specifically white men, in its application. It was not until later that we see black people fighting for their rights. Slowly and gradually, we paid more attention to the rights of children, the rights of people with disabilities, and the rights of aboriginals. … The issue of LGBTQ people could only be brought on stage once women’s rights movement garnered enough attention. People need to realize queers were deprived of rights; that they would lose their jobs once their sexuality is discovered and treated as an illness. Human rights are realized as civilizations progress.
Legally speaking, a referendum is not necessarily a prerequisite of a Civil Code modification that would grant citizens equal rights. What do you think would be the social significance of a referendum? How is it different from direct legalization which does not require the participation of Taiwanese citizens?
I think anything that concerns human rights, especially the infringement on human rights, is not a matter that could be voted on. Countries that have been implementing referendums such as Switzerland, for instance, legislated to forbid referendums that would hinder human rights. So a referendum on same-sex marriage is contentious in its nature. People have radically different opinions on the referendum, which results in chaos; the referendum law could not be amended in time. However, I do believe that the majority does not have any power to decide whether the minority is guaranteed rights.
A lot of young people in Taiwan are disappointed at the political leaders for changing their beliefs/not fulfilling promises that are established before the election. Where do you think the barriers to changes come from, the political system or the individuals (political leaders/ruling party)?
Society is diverse and composed of people who think differently. In Taiwanese society, specifically, we have people who think in terms of middle age and progressives who think ahead and beyond — we are like a spectrum.
Students who occupied the Legislative Yuan during the Sunflower Student Movement declared that the people are the ruler and that former president, Ma Ying-jeou, should listen to the voice of the people, to which Ma replied: you are not the only representative of public opinion.
Young adults often think in their own ways. I am glad that my fellow young friends have grown up in a free and democratic society. Freedom, democracy, rule of law, and human rights are inherent to their lives. But for the elders, human rights mean a long struggle of blood and tears. They are consequently fearful of uncertain things. Their voices are also part of the popular opinion.
In fact, elders vote more than youngsters, whose votes are less unambiguous. Of course, most politicians care about young adults. But who really are their biggest supporters? Not the young adults but those are rather conservative, loyal, and politically engaged. These people, who are the worried and active voters, would pressurize the politicians to advocate in favor of their ideologies and threaten to not support them.
The issue of same-sex marriage is not really a yes-or-no debate but a generational subject. Different backgrounds result in a huge gap in understandings and mentality. Losing power means losing everything to a politician; hence a tension between political reality and the pursuit of ideals emerge. The ambitious young adults are certainly the driving force of society. But inevitably we are confronted by another great source of energy. Those who are in power are who made decisions; they, too, were once young and enthusiastic. But they have lived in a completely different generation. The youngsters can complain about the politicians’ losing their dreams but they would need to understand their situation.
Opinions on the complete legalization of same-sex marriage are not always polarized (in the form of radical opposition vs. passionate advocates); there are people who consider themselves “moderates” and say “I have gay/queer friends too, but I oppose marriage equality” or “I am not against the LGBTQ community, but I would prefer to have a separate law instead.” How do you deal with arguments like these?
There is a difference in the degree to which people really understand LGBTQ folks. Some people who claim to be friends with homosexual folks don’t actually know their lives or their struggles, which could be hidden. They would consequently assume that queers lead happy lives, questioning their intentions to fuddle with the social norms of regular heterosexual marriages. They firmly believe that marriage fundamentally involves only a man and a woman. They also think that homosexual marriage could be fulfilled with cohabitation; that a special law would be sufficient enough for homosexual couples to sign on important papers, to get registered, and enjoy certain rights.
But we proposed including homosexual couples in the Civil Code for a reason: it gives them equal rights as a family unit. Of course, we can also make revisions to the existing laws one by one starting from social rights just as Germany who first granted same-sex couples registered life partnerships then legalized same-sex marriage last year after a series of lawsuits. But we don’t necessarily have to go through the same process.
The greatest fear of the opposition group is a social disorder. However, if homosexuals and heterosexuals abide by the same laws, how would moral standards be corrupted and social order endangered? The only thing that distinguishes queers from heterosexual folks in terms of law is the question of child-bearing, which could be discussed further. A separate law, on the other hand, is like discrimination against a certain group, like in the 60s where Black people were not allowed to take public transportation or only permitted to sit at the back of the bus. A separate law would foster prejudice. Hence, we hope to amend the Civil Code, which supposedly is a simple process.
If the special law is not drafted by the end of May 2019, same-sex couples should be able to get married under Civil Code. What do you think are the next goals of the advocates of same-sex marriage?
The Constitutional Court announced the J.Y. Interpretation No. 748 which declared the rights to marriage basic human rights. So homosexual people can definitely get engaged after May 24th. What people are debating right now is the extent to which this law applies. From my experience of amending laws, no law is passed effortlessly. I believe the Interpretation itself is a result of profound energy that has been garnered by the historical efforts of LGBTQ rights activists. We just need more energy, more support, and more persuasion in order to draft a law that would be satisfactory to most people. We need the support of those who genuinely care about this issue.
Header image by Carrie Kellenberger