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Taiwan shows LGBTQ-friendliness doesn’t mean equality for all

In Taiwan, public attitude towards LGBTQ citizens are non-violent, at best. The rate of hate crimes is relatively low compared to other countries. Be that as it may, there are still a lot of tweaking to do when it comes to having a truly respectful and empowering environment for LGBTQ citizens.

Photo courtesy of Ketty W. Chen

Taiwanese society, in general, is pretty accepting of diversity. The country is known to have the largest Pride Parade in Asia and leads in LGBTQ rights in the region.  Some queer-centric hang-out spots can be seen around its capital, Taipei – from gay-friendly clubs and cafes, a weekly social activity for LGBTQ folks to the existence of a welcoming Christian church and, presently, being home to the only Taoist temple in the world that hears the prayers of LGBTQ individuals seeking romantic love.

Public attitude towards LGBTQ citizens are non-violent, at best. The rate of hate crimes is relatively low compared to other countries. Be that as it may, there are still a lot of tweaking to do when it comes to having a truly respectful and empowering environment for LGBTQ citizens.

Working on SOGIE (mis)education

At face value, the Taiwanese government endorses LGBTQ rights through its public announcements, bills and policies. But actual implementation is another story. In the same way that the Ministry of Interior fails for years to deliver on its promise to do away with discriminatory requirements on legal gender change, the Ministry of Education (MOE) also disappoints with its crude implementation of the Gender Equity Education Act, which supposedly should promote comprehensive SOGIE awareness and education in schools.

Wayne Lin, consultant for Taiwan Tongzhi (LGBT) Hotline Association, shared that, In year 2004, Taiwan passed a very advanced, pioneering Gender Equity Education Act. So conceptually, schools need to teach [gender equity education] 4 hours every semester, supposedly. But what’s ‘gender equity education’? That has been the battlefield for the past years… When the government or some professional teachers try to draft a guideline for the teachers… the opposition tries to manipulate fear with misleading information [about gender equity education], and the government doesn’t really take a strong and clear stance [on this policy]… But some teachers still want to do that [impart SOGIE education] so the hotline is [sometimes] invited to schools to talk about gender equity education.”

Wayne added, “I think the MOE doesn’t want to take any political risk… It’s always asking the two sides to fight each other, and the government doesn’t make any decision.”

Anti-LGBTQ groups continue to figure out ways to get into the school system in order to influence policies. For example, they run for the head positions in the parent groups/associations in schools while hiding their identity as anti-LGBTQ. There are organizations dubbed as “parent groups” but are actually an offshoot of conservative religious groups opposing LGBTQ equality. Moreover, anti-LGBTQ groups spread misinformation that schools are teaching students how to have sex and converting them into homosexuality. They would stop at nothing to get Gender Equity Education off of schools’ curricula.

“Several years ago, one Christian legislator asked MOE to let anti-LGBTQ people to get into the Gender Equity Education Committee. They said that anti-LGBTQ opinion is also part of the diversified opinion; therefore, they can get into the committee… So now the Gender Equity Education Committee has a few seats for anti-LGBTQ members, which is very ironic,” Wayne lamented.

Presbyterian Church in Taipei offering its support for LGBTQ+ rights
Photo courtesy of Ketty W. Chen

Establishing an LGBTQ-inclusive environment isn’t only needed in educational institutions. Aside from empowering queer youth, Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association works on providing support to the elderly demographic as well. Wayne shared, “The other thing we also pay quite a lot of attention to is the Long-Term Care Policy Taiwan is forming at this moment… For example, in Taiwan, some long-term care institutions actually are religious, like Muslim or Christian, so we already know some people are so afraid of going into that institution because they don’t know how they will be treated.”

The indifference towards LGBTQ issues, which is also why their rights are not taken seriously enough to be prioritized, can also be felt in the workplace. For example, even though there are work regulations against discrimination, in reality, a lot of queer employees are still not that comfortable to be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity for fear of it affecting their career development. Sexual harassment or discrimination cases are also not properly addressed. Basically, as Wayne put it, “You probably would not hear really harsh discrimination, but typically you are ignored. LGBTQ’s are kind of invisible.”

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Much ado about marriage equality

Currently, Taiwan lets LGBTQ couples have civil unions, but which is evidenced only by a piece of paper that brings zero spousal protection or benefits. They are not granted medical visitation rights, joint property rights, parental rights, adoption rights or any of the hundred or so rights given to married couples under the law. Surprisingly, even their national ID cards would still state their status as being “single”, not married. However, according to Reese Li, Secretary of Taiwan LGBT Family Rights Advocacy, although such civil unions are only done symbolically without any substantial partnership rights, one goal of this is to let government realize that there is actually a mass of LGBTQ couples who yearn for the right to marry. Hence, they must be given this basic civil right as citizens of the country.

In the past year, Taiwan’s Constitutional Court has declared that banning same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. It was ruled that marriage equality would be implemented after 2 years from May 2017. The options involve amending the Civil Code or, the less appealing route, by crafting a separate law for same-sex marriage. Despite the past media hype, Taiwan’s road to marriage equality is still actually stagnating in legislation. Without a clearly defined law protecting LGBTQ couples’ right to marry, as well as guaranteeing all their rights and benefits in marriage, the future for same-sex matrimony remains vague.

Taiwan’s prominent gay civil rights activist, Chi Chia Wei (祁家威), waves a rainbow flag atop a building.
Photo courtesy of Ketty W. Chen

While the government is being lax on this issue, anti-LGBTQ groups are continuously devising ways to block the progress of marriage equality. Early this year, opposing groups have passed a referendum proposal diluting multifaceted LGBTQ issues into 3 questions: (1) Should homosexuality be taught to primary and high school students? (2) Should marriage be defined as solely between a man and a woman? (3) Should same-sex couples have a different kind of union from marriage?

“Same-sex marriage must be implemented since the Constitutional Court already proclaimed it. It should not be overruled by the referendum. But the main question is ‘How?’… The aim of the anti-gay groups is for legislation to make a ‘special’ law for same-sex marriage, instead of amending the Civil Code [for marriage] because they believe that the Civil Code is theirs”, said Reese Li. “Special laws are written for disadvantaged people in society- for example, indigenous people or children. The purpose is to provide special protection… But the purpose behind anti-gay groups wanting a special law [for same-sex marriage] is from blatant discrimination, not to protect a minority group.”

Anti-LGBTQ protestors in Taiwan join hands as they stand menacingly.
Photo courtesy of Ketty W. Chen

In response to this, a pro-LGBTQ referendum was initiated by Social Democratic Party member Miao Po Ya. They are fighting against well-funded, threatening attempts to trash both the Gender Equity Education Act and marriage equality ruling. Reese shared that the coalition of opposing groups are quite strong since, aside from getting financial and mobilization support from local political and religious organizations, they are also backed by conservative groups in the US and Hong Kong.

At the end of August, the opposing groups’ referendum proposals have been submitted to election authorities. The last stage would involve placing the referendum on ballot in the coming local elections in November 2018. If anti-LGBTQ sentiments were to succeed, government might take this as a sign that Taiwanese society is not yet ready for the progress of LGBTQ rights; and thus, such atmosphere of discrimination could lead to the continuation of curtailing their civil rights.

The sign reads, “In Canada, we are a married couple. Under Taiwanese law, we are mere strangers.”
Photo courtesy of Andrea Toerien

Indeed, same-sex marriage stirs a lot of discussions not just in Taiwan but also in different parts of the world, which can be a good thing for advocating less discrimination for a minority group. However, it’s also getting slammed as a bourgeoisie movement that has strayed away from its roots, furthers inequality and ignores the struggles in structural intersectionality (the same goes for exorbitant celebrations of Pride parades) especially when, at times, it takes a huge slice of attention and funding at the expense of other important socio-politico-economic struggles experienced by LGBTQ’s (e.g. poverty, disability issues, homelessness, HIV-related issues). All this mainstream focus on marriage rights as the helm of LGBTQ advocacy can be rather dismissive and shortsighted.

In a nutshell, critics assert that since the flawed neoliberal institution of marriage tends to emphasize the gap between the privileged and less privileged, between those with a family and those without a family, not to mention its historical subjugation of women, “marriage equality” then comes off as a misnomer that is not really pushing for equality in its truest sense.

Reese Li gave her two-cents on this particular critique.  “I think we have to look at the situation of each country. First, do the poor in Taiwan not think about marriage? Actually they still look for marriage, and this might be passed down from the conservative thinking in the past of need to marry to have children for manpower. I think many Asian country are like this… advancing marriage equality is not to oppress people or pressure gay people to marry. It only offer an option, a choice…When our organization supported marriage equality, it’s not because a lot of us want to have a wedding, but because a lot of same-sex couples already have kids…. A lot of protection, benefits, rights in society can be obtained through being registered as family. When it comes to single parent, there are less resources provided… Right now, we can only at least make baby steps to deal with the current situation. Personally, I, myself, don’t have any desire for marriage. But marriage can change our legal status and this can guarantee relevant rights and provide more resources. This is our reality now. We can’t just make a gigantic jump and demand government to provide subsidy on an individual citizen basis. That is impossible at this time.”

Wayne Lin is of the same tune with Reese. “Actually even within Hotline we have this kind of debate as well before we decide to work with other groups and the legislators to propose our bill. Yes, we all know that marriage cannot solve all the issues for LGBTQ. Of course, it’s better for everyone to enjoy the rights without getting married under certain circumstances… In the short-term, there’s no way for us to break the current marriage system in Taiwan… So for me it’s [marriage equality advocacy] more practical, just step-by-step… As long as this policy-making can benefit someone in our community, we should do that.”

According to Wayne, marriage equality can be a good talking point for society to start thinking about LGBTQ rights, as well as the concept of marriage and family. “I think majority of society probably doesn’t know LGBTQ that much, especially for the elder group. But this is an opportunity, you can talk to them, you can come out and showcase some story, so that they can better understand… I still believe the movement is really about how you make others understand our situation, and marriage equality is one easy way to open a dialogue. [If] They understand what’s the meaning, benefit or drawback of marriage,…as a beginning, then get a feeling of LGBTQ issues… it’s a methodology or way of doing public education… not everyone can still get married even if [same-sex marriage is] legalized due to economic status or not coming-out to family. So there are still so much work to be done.”

Anti-LGBTQ groups protest against amending Civil Code 972 on marriage.
Photo courtesy of Ketty W. Chen

What makes a family

Another human rights organization known as Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights (TAPCPR) is working on advocating a multi-family system that aims to provide, not only a legal option for marriage for the LGBTQ community, but also the proper rights and protections for different family structures in Taiwan.

TAPCPR has 3 different proposals which include marriage equality. The second proposal pertains to a partnership system whereby two individuals can enter into a civil contract that customizes the obligations and rights that they would mutually agree on, such as those relating to inheritance, property and so forth. The third one proposes a multi-member family system that allows individuals to have a contractual option to live and be registered as a family with friends.

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However, opposing groups argue that the multi-family system proposal would be dangerous to society as it would destroy traditional relationships and families. It is too radical of an idea to be discussed as of now.

Photo courtesy of Ketty W. Chen

Just with same-sex marriage alone, the voice of opposition can be virulent. While marriage equality advocates are merely fighting for LGBTQ’s right to enter into a monogamous married life and to build a family, anti-LGBTQ groups stretch the imagination beyond ridiculousness. Now, rather than posturing as messengers of God and using battlecries based on subjective interpretations of Bible verses, opposing groups – in an attempt to extend their influence – have rebranded themselves to be ordinary parents or citizens concerned about the future of families in Taiwan.

Aside from the usual conservative religious rhetoric, opponents are also operating out of misguided fear that marriage equality’s agenda is to erode monogamous relationships and family values, as well as to cause people into marrying animals or inanimate objects. They also posit that marriage equality would only worsen the country’s declining birth rate. Another extremist view is that same-sex marriage will lead to the eventual extinction of the human race. Unfortunately, the power of fear-mongering and misinformation over human emotions can never be underestimated.

Such antagonistic perspectives against same-sex marriage cannot be further from the truth. On the contrary, Reese explained that one crucial aspect of the legalization of same-sex marriage is for the protection of children under the care of same-sex parents.

“In legal papers, a kid raised by same-sex couples is indicated as being raised by a single parent only even though the kid is raised by a couple. This can lead to a lot of issues and insecurity when it comes to raising the child as a couple because the other ‘parent’ is considered a stranger under the eyes of law… Even with artificial reproduction done in other countries, when the gay couple comes back to Taiwan, they are not recognized as both parents.”, said Reese.

There are already a huge number of same-sex couples in Taiwan who encounter several issues when it comes to raising their child. A task as simple as taking their children to the doctor or fetching them from school already proves to be such a hassle if the not-legally-recognized parent is the one doing the job. How much more when heavier parental responsibilities must be done for the children’s well-being?

Reese continued on to explain, “Worse comes to worst, if the legally recognized parent dies, the surviving partner can’t continue to take care of the kid. The kid will be separated from the surviving parent because s/he is not recognized by law as parent. By law, the child has to go with blood-related relatives of the deceased parent. But we have to consider that not everyone can still be in good terms with relatives… It will be a bigger problem for the child.”

Photo courtesy of Ketty W. Chen

LGBTQ rights are universal rights 

While Taiwan is an LGBTQ-friendly destination, there are still undoubtedly a lot of obstacles to hurdle through and conflicts to sort out on the ground. Neighboring and distant countries need to keep a close watch and offer an intimate support to the Taiwanese LGBTQ+ community’s clamor for widespread equality – not just for the sake of marrying the person they love, but also to advance SOGIE awareness and education, to foster legal protection for diverse families that exist beyond the outdated concept of a traditional family, as well as to address the myriad of less talked about yet similarly important issues that affect LGBTQ+ folks. After all, their fight is also the fight of every LGBTQ+ and human rights movement around the globe. Even as a small Asian island, its wins could still pack a punch and contribute to putting an end to discrimination and hate crimes against people of different SOGIE.

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