Taiwanese same-sex couples can get married since 24 May 2019. Taiwan is making history because it is the first country in Asia where that is possible. Taiwan is known as one of the most LGBTI+ friendly countries in Asia and yet the opening of the marriage was not easy here either. In 2017, the Constitutional Court of Taiwan declared that the existing marriage settlement discriminated against people of the same sex and that a solution had to be found. But instead of getting a quick solution, the LGBTI+ community of Taiwan was confronted with a referendum that wanted to prevent that same-sex marriage. I talk about this with Joyce Teng (Deputy Coordinator and Lobbying Manager) of the Marriage Equality Coalition in Taiwan.

Bruno De Lille: On 24 May 2017, the Constitutional Court of Taiwan declared that same-sex couples should be able to marry and that the existing marriage law was therefore not sufficient.  How is it possible that after that decision a referendum to prohibit same-sex couples from getting married could still be held?

Joyce Teng: You should know that the Constitutional Court of Taiwan can state that a law is unconstitutional, but it cannot make another law itself. Only parliament can do that. And so the Constitutional Court has given the parliament 2 years to change the rules.

Coincidentally, at the end of 2017, it became a lot easier for citizens to demand a referendum. The ‘Alliance for Next Generation’s Happiness’, a group of people who opposed the opening same sex marriage, seized this opportunity with both hands and wanted to ask the parliament and the government to stop same-sex marriage after all. 

Now their plan didn’t quite work out. The question they wanted to ask was very simple and left nothing to the imagination: “Do you agree that marriage should be restricted to the union between one man and one woman?”. But because the Constitutional Court had already said that the right to ‘equality’ and to ‘the freedom of marriage’ as stated in our Constitution meant that same-sex couples should also be able to marry, their question was rejected. 

They then used a trick and changed the question to “Do you agree that marriage defined in the Civil Code should be restricted to the union between one man and one woman?”. The Central Election Commission (CEC) did accept that question because the question was limited to this particular law and what was in that law and did no longer attacked the principle of freedom of marriage.

B.D.L.: Couldn’t you stop the referendum? 

J.T.: We tried. We said that the Constitutional Court had ruled in favour of same-sex marriages anyway and that a referendum on this would turn people against each other and could have a very negative impact on the position of LGBTI+ people in society. Anyway, we found a referendum in which the majority is allowed to decide how many rights a minority gets, not ok.

But the CEC considered that we were not an involved party and therefore did not even want to invite us to one of the hearings. Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights (TAPCPR), another LGBTI+ association even went to court but unfortunately without success. 

It was the first time that a large referendum was asked by a group of citizens, so clearly they didn’t know how to stop it. Our government wants to prove that it is very democratic and listens to the people and could not afford to be criticised for being a sham.

B.D.L.: Was it perhaps possible to influence the questions?

J.T.: That was also very difficult because the CEC didn’t want to hear us or other LGBTI+ groups anyway. When it was clear that the referendum would go on, a group of people who support LGBTI+rights decided to launch a counter-referendum as ‘Vote4LGBT’ to fight back.

I had a hard time with that because it would oblige us to run two campaigns at the same time: a campaign in which we called on people to vote YES for the questions of ‘Vote4LGBT’ and a campaign in which we would encourage people to vote NO for the questions of the ‘Alliance for Next Generation’s Happiness’. I thought this would confuse people. But ‘Vote4LGBT’ very quickly got thousands of support signatures and so some questions were added to the referendum.

B.D.L.: Who was behind the ‘Alliance for Next Generation’s Happiness’?

J.T.: They were mainly conservative Christians. They were supported by the churches and the evangelical communities. For example, they received training from representatives of evangelical churches in the USA. They came to Taiwan or they made videos to train our opponents. We have seen videos of well-known U.S. lobbyists campaigning in the U.S. against same-sex marriage and explaining which tactics were most successful there. 

Both major political parties kept a low profile. It’s a matter of generations: in both parties, the young are more likely to support us and the older politicians are more reluctant. This means that they are also divided internally on the theme. Moreover, there were local elections and people were afraid that open support for one of the two camps would have a negative impact on the results. A group of supporters of the ‘Alliance for Next Generation’s Happiness’ eventually founded their own political party.

B.D.L.: How did these opponents try to get the population on their side?

J.T.: They did so in three ways. First of all, I have to admit that they were very well organized. They reached a lot of people through the churches and associations that are active in that milieu. When people you look up to and trust ask you to support them, you do so. So their basis was very strong.

Moreover, they had a lot of money. There are about ten TV news channels in Taiwan and on each of them there was an advertisement of their campaign every hour. 

And finally, they were spreading lots of lies and fake news. Like,Taiwan would become the AIDS island because everyone with AIDS would come to our country to get married and be taken care of at the expense of the state. And our president would support this because her family had shares in medical companies and would benefit from it.

A second question in the referendum was about the application of the Gender Equity Education Act which would teach school children about e.g. gender equality or LGBTI+discrimination. And so they frightened the parents by saying that this would also make their children LGBTI+. 

B.D.L.: And what did you do to win the referendum?

J.T.: Unlike in Ireland where the LGBTI+ movement with Yes Equality had made one joint organisation to campaign, we were more fragmented. I worked for the Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan. Then there was the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights (TAPCPR) which advocated a more legal approach, the Taiwan LGBT Family Rights Advocacy (TLFRA) and the oldest LGBTI group in our country, the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association (TTHA). But despite the slightly different approach, we had the same objective.

I went to Ireland myself to see how they won their referendum and to learn from their approach. And we also invited the people from the referendum campaign in Australia.

To run a campaign you also need funds and that wasn’t so easy for us. Religious groups in our country don’t have to justify where their finances come from while we were subject to strict rules. For example, we were not allowed to accept money from abroad. That again put us at a disadvantage, of course. 

We set up a crowdfunding. At first it was difficult: it took 3 months before we had collected 5 million Taiwanese Dollars (about 150,000 EUR). When the campaign really ran, people woke up. At a certain point, we needed extra money for commercials, so we organized a second crowdfunding. This yielded 10 million Taiwanese Dollars (300,000 EUR) in less than a month.

B.D.L.: What exactly did your campaign look like?

J.T.: Because we had less money and fewer people, we had to use our resources in a very targeted way. We first researched why people would support us or not support us. Respect turned out to be the key concept. So we built our campaign on it.

Due to the limited number of volunteers, we were not able to set up a door-to-door campaign like they did in some other countries. It would also have been very difficult because the people here usually live in an apartment complex, in which people they don’t know can’t enter. That is why we chose to send volunteers out on the streets with flyers. 

We also had to place our advertising thoughtfully. We bought advertising space on buses and taxis because they are seen by many different people.

On TV we could not afford to play an ad every hour so we chose our target audience very focused. For example, we hoped to convince older women and so we showed our clip during the commercial breaks of the most popular soap series on TV. 

One of the videos that worked best was with the parents of a lesbian girl. It was a mixed couple, something that was sensitive for a long time in Taiwan but now has been accepted, who told how they themselves had fought for their marriage. The idea was: if people now think it’s ridiculous that we were ever opposing mixed marriages, they might make the link to the rejection of same-sex marriages. 

And then, fortunately, there was the support of famous Taiwanese actors. During the Golden Bell Awards, the Taiwanese Emmys, some of them wore a rainbow pin or a rainbow scarf. There were even people who mentioned Marriage Equality in their speech.

We didn’t put a lot of time into debunking the fake-news. The lies followed each other too quickly so it wasn’t doable anyway. We organised a press conference to denounce the deliberate use of the fake news but actually we just didn’t want to give them extra attention.  In fact it’s the job of the media to expose fake news but unfortunately they didn’t do so. If there were any fact checks, they came from concerned citizens.

B.D.L.: You didn’t make it. Were you very disappointed?

J.T.: Of course I was. At first, we thought it was possible to win because the polls showed that about half the population supported our demand for same sex marriage. But our opponents were in a better position to motivate their supporters to vote, and we couldn’t go against the bombardment of TV ads just before the ballot. 

The result was about 70-30 and therefore very clear. But following the interpretation of the Constitutional Court, even if the referendum would forbid our government to change the civil code, they must still allow same-sex couples to “marry” to respect our rights.

B.D.L.: If you had to do it again, what would you do differently?

J.T.: The fight was very uneven and yet I know I would go for it again. I think I would argue to stay closer to our own message and translate that message even more into “human language”. Too often we have used concepts like ‘equality’ and ‘human rights’ when we actually felt that this didn’t convince people. During the campaign we were aware of this and we tried to make adjustments but we should have gone all the way. I would also stop responding to attacks from the opponents because we only gave them more attention.

Moreover, I think we should invest in our member and volunteer work anyway. During the campaign we got more and more help from volunteers who had never been active in the LGBTI+ movement before. We have to keep these people. After the referendum campaign we encouraged our people to visit their local politicians to ask them to vote in favor of a same sex marriage law. Often these people said it was the first time they saw us or heard our views while they had often been in contact with our opponents several times.

B.D.L.: In the end, a separate law was adopted that made a kind of marriage possible for same-sex couples. What’s the next step?

J.T.: We still have work to do because as LGBTI+ people we clearly have less rights than the hetero-Taiwanese. For example, we are only allowed to marry someone from a country where same sex marriage exists and it is difficult for us to co-adopt children.

But at the moment we are protecting what we have won. After all, our new rights are by no means definitively acquired yet. We recently had elections and during the campaign some politicians announced that they would reverse our marital rights if they came to power. Fortunately, they did not win but we must remain very vigilant.

This text is a translation of a text originally written in Dutch. As the translation is generated by machines, not all translations will be perfect. The original can be found here: http://brunodelille.eu/joyce-teng-referendum-huwelijk-koppels-zelfde-geslacht/