The Guardian / Hannah Summers / Sat 24 Nov 2018 09.00 GMT
The news in May 2017 that Taiwan was to legalise same-sex marriage was a watershed moment for Vivian Chen and Corrine Chiang, who could finally look forward to sharing legal guardianship of their daughter, Zola, now three.
But 18 months on from the landmark victory, their hopes have been overtaken by anxiety and fears about the future as the island votes in Saturday’s local elections and a referendum on marriage equality mounted by anti-gay rights opponents.
When the country’s highest court ruled the civil code’s definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman was unconstitutional, it gave parliament two years to legislate on same-sex unions and set Taiwan on the path to become the first nation in Asia to legalise gay marriage.
However, progress on implementing the law stalled following inaction from the ruling Democratic Progressive party and a groundswell of opposition by an anti-gay movement driven by huge financial support from conservative and Christian backers.
“The ruling of the grand justices was such a progressive decision and that was a big joy for us,” says Chen, 34, a civil servant living in Taoyuan. “But I did not expect the anti-gay opposition to propose a referendum or for the proposal to be passed because it is unconstitutional.”
Her partner Chiang, 36, who works for a software company says: “The whole referendum is incredibly stressful. We feel our human rights are in the hands of others. The majority will vote on the rights of the gay community instead of those rights being universal and that, to me, is very upsetting.”
Taiwanese voters will determine the outcome of 10 referendums alongside local government elections, with five of them addressing same-sex marriage, one of three major issues.
In an attempt to derail the ruling by the constitutional court, the group Alliance for Next Generation’s Happiness collected enough support to trigger a referendum against amending the existing civil code to allow same sex-couples to marry.
Other groups have mounted a referendum proposing a separate legal mechanism for gay couples to register their relationships.
In response, pro-LGBT campaigners have put forward their own referendum stating that the code should be amended. Confusingly, the public will therefore be asked to vote on contradictory proposals.
Chen says: “I’m not feeling very positive about the result because the opposition has used its financial resources to gain support by spreading fear, misinformation, lies and rumours via social media, TV adverts and print media.
“Our concern is the government will use the results as the basis to modify the law and may come up with watered down legislation that does not fully protect our rights.”
Same-sex couples want the civil code amended to give them the same rights as heterosexuals, rather than new legislation being introduced in the form of a same-sex marriage act.
Chen, who is Zola’s biological mother, says: “For us the most important thing is to see the civil code amended so we share the same rights as heterosexual couples. Our concern is a a separate law will be passed to give us the right to civil partnership but not adoption rights. Then my wife would not be able to exercise her legal parenting rights of our daughter.”
Under Taiwan’s Referendum Act, if more than 25% of the country’s estimated 20 million eligible voters are in favour, and “yes” votes surpass “no” votes, then a bill must be drawn up to reflect the results before a parliamentary vote is held.
However, analysts say current law does not specify what the process would be if two conflicting referendums passed.
Pro-rights campaigners say this scenario could have been avoided if President Tsai Ing-wen and her party had taken action sooner to adopt the 2017 ruling. Tsai campaigned for gay rights before her election as president in 2016. But her party has remained divided on the issue in the face of fierce opposition from the church.
“Our court ruled parliament has to amend the civil code or introduce a new law to legalise gay marriage by 24 May 2019,” explains Victoria Hsu, who was the lead lawyer in the marriage equality case that led to the 2017 ruling.
“Because our government did not respond quickly the Christian churches in Taiwan have proposed three referendum questions that were approved by the central electoral commission.”
They include an attempt to ban LGBT-inclusive education in primary and junior high schools, despite Taiwan passing a gender equality act in 2004 requiring schools to teach gender equality and diversity.
Hsu, co-founder of the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights, says the leading party has been largely silent on the issue of same-sex marriage in order to protect its votes from the conservative right in these local elections.
“They fully understand they can’t postpone this issue forever, but have been hesitant as part of a political calculation. They have allowed the referendum to go first to serve as some kind of public opinion survey.”
She says the administrative cabinet of Taiwan’s government has recently clarified its position, stating gay marriage will go ahead regardless of the referendum result.
“The only difference would be to amend the civil code or introduce a separate law called the same-sex marriage act. However, anti-gay groups have led their supporters to believe they can stop gay marriage, which is ridiculous.
“They have spent a lot on spreading fear, misinformation and homophobic rhetoric. If they are successful in getting more votes, they will try to push our government to pass a lightweight act compared with the civil code.”
Ying-Chao Kao, assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, says the conservative forces have roughly 10 times more money and resources than the pro-LGBT campaign.
“In the past six months, the conservative campaigns have produced fear, anxiety, depression and moral panic,” he says. “There were two LGBT members who committed suicide before the referendum. LGBT friends around me, including opinion leaders on Facebook, are trying to save lives. They are saying: ‘Even if we lose the campaign please stay with us, there is still hope.’
“If you look at the available finance and infrastructure to mobilise each side, the gap is huge – but the support rates are relatively similar. However, the most important determinant factor will be voter turnout.”
The issue is divided along generational rather than political lines and, with Taiwan lowering the voting age for the first time in a referendum from 20 to 18, the LGBT campaign will be looking to the urban youth to come out in force.
According to a July survey conducted by the Marriage Equality Coalition, more than 80% of the population below the age of 35 supports same-sex marriage, compared with 30% of over 45s.
Kao says: “These young people have been educated about LGBT issues and have greater exposure to the community. If marriage equality wins, Taiwan will make another huge leap towards a mature democracy with a commitment to human rights.”
In the meantime, Chen and Chiang are holding off on planning the celebrations for their big day. “Having a wedding is a wonderful idea but we are really disappointed by the government and have lost confidence,” says Chiang.
“If the civil code is amended, we will rush to register as a married couple and adopt our daughter to establish our legal parenting rights. We want her to feel free to be herself and realise her dreams, because her mothers have fought for her rights.”
The Guardian approached the Alliance for Next Generation’s Happiness for a comment but has not had a response.