Since 24th May 2019, Taiwanese same-sex couples have had the right to get married. Taiwan is making history because it’s the first country in Asia where this has become possible. Taiwan is known as one of Asia’s most LGBTI+ friendly countries, and yet, the opening of the marriage wasn’t 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 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 24th 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 inadequate. 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 by itself. Only the parliament can do that. And so the Constitutional Court gave the parliament two 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 of same-sex marriage, seized this opportunity with both hands and decided to ask the parliament and the government to stop same-sex marriage once and for 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 it was limited to this particular law and its contents, and 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 marriage 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. In any case, we found a referendum in which the majority is allowed to decide how many rights a minority gets, not OK.
But the CEC didn’t consider us an involved party and therefore didn’t even want to invite us to any of the hearings. The Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights (TAPCPR) – another LGBTI+ association – even went to court about this, but unfortunately without success.
This was the first time that a large referendum had been requested by a group of citizens, so clearly they didn’t know how to stop it. Our government wants to prove that it’s very democratic and listens to the people, and it couldn’t 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 became clear that the referendum would go on, a group of people who support LGBTI+ rights decided to launch a counter-referendum as ‘Vote4LGBT’ in order 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 received 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 U.S. They came to Taiwan in person, or they made videos to train our opponents. We’ve seen videos of well-known U.S. lobbyists campaigning against same-sex marriage in the U.S. 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 likelier to support us and the older politicians are more reluctant. This means that they’re also divided internally on the subject. 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 this in three ways. First of all, I have to admit that they were very well organised. 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 it. So their basis was very strong.
Moreover, they had a lot of money. There are about ten TV news channels in Taiwan each one of them was running an advertisement of their campaign every hour.
And finally, they were spreading lots of lies and fake news. Lies such as: 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 things like gender equality and LGBTI+ discrimination. And so they tried to scare parents by telling them that this would also make their children LGBTI+.
B.D.L.: And what did you do to win the referendum?
J.T.: Unlike 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 who ran the referendum campaign in Australia.
To run a campaign you also need funds and this wasn’t so easy for us. Religious groups in our country don’t have to explain where their finances come from; we, on the other hand, 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 project. At first it was difficult – it took us three months to collect 5 million Taiwanese Dollars (about 150,000 EUR). But when the campaign really ran, people woke up. At a certain point, we needed extra money for commercials, so we started a second crowdfunding project. 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 didn’t have much money or manpower, we had to use our resources in a very targeted way. We first did our research on why people would or wouldn’t support us. Respect turned out to be the key concept. So we built our campaign around it.
Due to the limited number of volunteers, we weren’t able to set up a door-to-door campaign like they did in some other countries. That kind of thing would also have been very difficult because people here usually live in apartment complexes that strangers can’t enter. That’s 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 these are seen by many different people.
On TV we couldn’t afford to play an ad every hour so we chose a very focused target audience. For example, we hoped to convince older women and so we showed our clips during the commercial breaks of the most popular TV soaps.
One of the videos that worked best was with the parents of a lesbian girl. They were a mixed couple – this was a sensitive subject in Taiwan for a long time but has finally been accepted – who shared how they themselves had fought for their marriage. The idea was that if people now think it’s ridiculous that we were ever opposed to mixed-race marriages, they might draw a parallel with the rejection of same-sex marriage.
And then, fortunately, we found 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 actors who even mentioned Marriage Equality in their speeches.
We didn’t invest too much time in debunking fake news. The lies were quick to follow each other so it wasn’t doable anyway. We did organise a press conference to denounce the deliberate use of fake news, but the fact is that we didn’t really want to give them any extra attention. It’s the media’s job to expose fake news, but unfortunately they didn’t do it. 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 forbade our government from changing 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 work on staying closer to our own message and translating that message into an even more ‘human’ language. All too often we’ve used concepts like ‘equality’ and ‘human rights’ despite feeling that they didn’t actually 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 opponents because that way we only give 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 favour of a same-sex marriage law. Often, these people said it was the first time they had seen us or heard our views, while our opponents had been in contact with them 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 fewer rights than the hetero-Taiwanese. For example, we’re only allowed to marry someone from a country where same-sex marriage exists, and it’s 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 didn’t win. But it’s a sign that we must remain vigilant.
This text is a translation of a text originally written in Dutch. The original can be found here: http://brunodelille.eu/joyce-teng-referendum-huwelijk-koppels-zelfde-geslacht/