On October 17, National Taiwan University lecturer Jacques Picoux committed suicide. His death was a rallying call that led to a social movement that was bolstered by the 2016 Pride Festival in Taiwan just weeks later. His death galvanized members of both the LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ community to call for same-sex marriage to come into law. Legalizing same-sex marriage, the argument went, would prevent further suicides in the LGBTQ community. Picoux’s apparent suicide was the result of current laws in Taiwan not granting gay partners the same rights as married couples.
Although the Pride Festival is always an important event that showcases a high level of citizen participation in civil society, the 2016 Pride Festival in particular was hugely significant for engaging citizens to participate heavily in protests and activities directed toward changing Taiwanese law. Pride in 2016 has greatly affected civil society by creating democratic protests both for and against same-sex marriage. It was not until October 29, when the festival was in full swing, that the media fully recognized its importance for civil society.
In effect, Pride 2016 is the focal point that has led to civic engagement because it is making a difference in the civic life of Taiwanese communities. This has been done by developing a mixture of knowledge, skills, values, and motivation. This civic engagement can improve the quality of life in communities, through both political and non-political processes. In the case of Pride 2016, non-political activism turned political. It is essential to grasp the historical context behind the LGBTQ community in Taiwan before fully understanding what is happening today.
The History of LGBTQ Issues in Taiwan
Throughout history, in different civilizations at different times, openness toward the LGBTQ community has varied greatly. From ancient Greece to modern Taiwan, the history of LGBTQ has seen periods of acceptance, as well as long periods of persecution. One of the earliest common laws written on the issue of “sodomy” was the British Buggery Act of 1533 (buggery meaning sodomy), in which Henry VIII’s Parliament made the act of sodomy a criminal act punishable by death. Such legal persecution went hand-in-hand with religious persecution, as both Islam and Christianity have influenced society’s view of homosexuality.
However, Taiwan is different. It is important to note that although Taiwan has been historically and culturally detached from China in the last number of decades, Chinese history and culture is still relevant in explaining the norms and conventions that exist in Taiwanese society today. As such, much of the early history of LGBTQ issues is found within Chinese history. Taiwanese-based LGBTQ contemporary issues have been affected by this past.
Europeans travelling to China during the 16th century came into contact with a broadly new culture. They admired China for its sophistication and its well-defined culture. However, they were disgusted by one aspect of Chinese society: homosexuality. Galeote Pereira described China’s “greatest fault” as the “commonality” of sodomy. Matteo Ricci was shocked by the presence of male prostitutes openly offering their services on the street. China was far more liberal than Europe in its openness toward homosexuality. Chinese culture silently allowed — or rather, ignored — the prominence of homosexuality in its society. As long as men fulfilled their fealty to their parents and society by rearing children, their homosexual activities were seen as nothing more than a person satisfying their sexual thirst. Emperors were not exempt from their sexual urges and the Han dynasty is recorded as to having the most emperors (10) who kept male lovers. Even in high society, homosexual activities were still commonplace.
It is the idea of bloodline that has most affected the present-day Taiwanese LGBT community. Traditionally, preserving the bloodline was a male’s paramount duty, lest ancestors have nobody left to worship them. A similar law to the British Buggery Act of 1533 was enacted by the Qing Dynasty in 1740, making consensual sodomy between two men a punishable offense with one month in a cangue and one hundred blows of heavy bamboo. It is important to note that the law was not enforced widely and it was selective in nature. In other words, despite a direct edict from the Qing court, homosexuality was still able to exist in society, albeit further in the shadows.
It was not until 1912, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, that the decriminalization of homosexuality occurred. But the stigma associated with homosexuality still persisted in Taiwanese culture. Following the Chinese Civil War, Kuomintang (KMT) rule dominated Taiwanese society in the 1950s and 1960s and could be described as pointedly heterosexualized. Family values were regarded as deriving directly from Confucian and Chinese tradition. Public discourses of same-sex desire were viewed as almost non-existent.
During the period from 1970 to 1987, there was a flourish of change toward the LGBTQ community. This period coincides with the grip of the KMT lessening on Taiwan. Civil society campaigned for more political openness and the right to have other political parties. However, yellow journalism still reported news stories about raids in Taipei New Park (today called 228 Peace Memorial Park) in which homosexuals were arrested for violating “good mores,” as there were no laws against homosexuality in Taiwan. The AIDS scare also had a damaging effect on the image of same-sex relationships.
Despite setbacks and a clear lack of acceptance by greater society, it is obvious that social movements helped end KMT-imposed martial law and the party’s overall political dominance. This also paved the way for LGBT rights in the future, and that future is now. Democracy and the opening of the government were essential in allowing the LGBTQ community to flourish and these factors continue to be important as we enter a new chapter in Taiwan history: the social movement for same-sex marriage rights.
Taiwan’s modern civil society is a far cry from what it was over 20 years ago. Today, Taiwan is no longer under martial law and has a multi-party system of democratic governance, which is mainly dominated by the governing Democratic Progressive Party and the KMT, which is now in opposition. While the KMT leans more toward the right, the DPP is far more progressive in its policies, which supports a distinct identity for Taiwanese society both as an independent entity from China and also in terms of civil liberties. The 2016 election was a decisive victory for the DPP, which picked up a majority in the Legislative Yuan for the first time and brought Taiwan its first female president, Tsai Ing-wen. Within this climate of progressiveness, it is little wonder that LGBTQ issues have become more elevated in their importance since Tsai’s election victory. Tsai has spoken in favor of same-sex marriage and the DPP has been largely supportive of gay rights. Most importantly, as stated before, the DPP holds the majority in the Legislative Yuan.
This political support is also bolstered up by widespread societal support for same-sex marriage. Remarkably, Taiwan is often referred as being the most LGBTQ-friendly country in Asia. Buddhism and Taoism offer little resistance in their doctrine toward the LGBTQ community. The only religious element that opposes issues concerning the LGBTQ community are Christian groups, who comprise just 5 percent of the Taiwanese population. Likewise, Taiwanese society’s traditional emphasis on filial piety, stemming from Confucian doctrine, also plays a role in this opposition.
A November survey conducted by the KMT found that 51.7 percent of the sample group were in favor of amendments to allow same-sex marriage, while 43.3 percent were against it. The survey had a sample size of 1,070 participants with a 95 percent confidence level and a margin of error of 3 percent. Although this survey shows a higher percentage of support for same-sex marriage, it is still not definitive.
It is obvious that same-sex marriage is a contentious issue in Taiwan. The Taiwanese are split nearly down the middle. Our surveys and interviews found that same-sex marriage rights was most often indicated as being important for people from the LGBT community.
Following closely after the death of Picoux, which mobilized supporters, it is no surprise that the attendance for the Pride Festival was upwards of 80,000, sending a strong message on behalf of the LGBTQ community: We want to be heard and we want equal marriage rights. This is reflected in our surveys and interviews of the Mr. Gay Taiwan participants.
What was not reflected in our surveys and interviews was the “against” side of the same-sex marriage debate in Taiwanese civil society. Thousands protested on November 17 both for and against same-sex marriage. Police had to separate the two opposing groups. The anti-camp wore white t-shirts with Chinese that roughly translated to “marriage and family, let the people decide.” They were calling for a referendum to decide on same-sex marriage rights.
A spokesperson for the The Happiness of the Next Generation Alliance said that “we are different from the West. In Eastern culture, we place great importance on filial piety to one’s father and mother… Now they want to amend the law to do away with the ‘father’ and ‘mother’ altogether.”
Although Christian groups are very forthcoming in their opposition, it is greater Taiwanese society which is far more vocal. After all, only 5 percent of the Taiwanese population is Christian, while 43 percent of those surveyed oppose same-sex marriage. It is filial piety that is most important. As stated previously, bloodline in Taiwanese culture is pertinent and to grant equal marriage rights to same-sex couples would be seen as an attack on that cultural convention. The media has focused too much on Taiwan potentially being the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage without seeing the facts: Taiwan is split down the middle on the issue.
The Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights argues that Taiwan’s culture has already changed. “There are many forms of intimate relationships,” TAPCPR says, but “the legal concept of marriage has remained exceptionally rigid,” thus “failing to address the many types and needs of diverse families.” They also found that less than 50 percent of families in Taiwan conform to the traditional image of the nuclear family.
With events moving quickly in Taiwan, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for the same-sex marriage movement that has sprouted so rapidly on the island, along with the opposition to it. Regardless of where one stands on this issue, what everyone in Taiwan can be proud of is the level of democratic civic engagement that is occurring. It is clear that the issues affecting the LGBTQ community in Taiwan have larger implications and influence — they affect both Taiwanese civil society and Taiwan’s image in the international arena.
T.F. Swinburne is a Master’s student in National Chengchi University in Taiwan, currently studying International Communications studies. A longer version of this piece was previously published on the blog Nihao’s It Going.