What Same-Sex Marriage Referendum Failure Says About Taiwan

LGBT march in Taipei, Taiwan
LGBT march in Taipei, Taiwan
Lisa Lane

The referenda that rejected marriage equality in Taiwan last month was not only a huge blow to the country's LGBT community, but also a political setback to the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Two years ago, It was the DPP that had originally taken to Parliament the proposed amendment of Taiwan's Civil Code to allow same-sex marriage.

No less important was the May 2017 decision by Taiwan's Constitutional court that ruled the ban on same-sex marriage was "in violation of both the people's freedom of marriage, as well as right to equality guaranteed by the Constitution." This ruling was accompanied with a two-year time frame for parliament to amend the existing law, or to create a distinct new law according same-sex couples equal rights.

So why the referenda?

Like in all countries, homosexuality and same-sex marriage are controversial issues. The proposals to favor same-sex marriage encountered immediate and massive opposition in Taiwan, in particular among the conservative Protestant groups, even though Christians, including Catholics, make up only 6% of the Taiwanese population.

Taiwan's religious opposition to the gay rights movement has learned a lot from America's conservative church organizations. The Apple Daily reported that the Protestant groups' anti-homosexual efforts are pushed through churches and schools, and often backed by Taiwanese business conglomerates.

As the investigation conducted by Apple Daily pointed out, Cher Wang, one of the founders of HTC, a Taiwanese high-tech group, has used her two foundations to donate some 100 million Taiwanese dollars ($3.25 million), inviting to Taiwan preachers from the Kansas City-based anti-gay evangelical church, the International House of Prayer (IHOP), to organize large events and lobby leaders.

Knowing that their appeals to refute same-sex marriage couldn't override the constitutional ruling, the anti-LGBT forces aimed to mobilize public opinion via three referenda:

- Do you agree that stipulations about marriage in the Civil Code should be restricted to the union of a male and a female?

- Do you agree that, during the primary and junior high school stages, the Ministry of Education and schools at all levels should not implement homosexual education as defined in the implementation rules of the Gender Equality Education Act?

- Do you agree that the protection of rights for same-sex couples for leading a permanent couple's life should be carried out in forms other than in Civil Code?

The central objective of these referenda questions was to form a social atmosphere discriminating against LGBT, so that even when they are granted equal marriage rights they remain alienated. Even though celebrities like the Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee, the film star Shu Qi, and many famous writers, actively campaigned against the referenda, the avalanche of hostility and malicious attacks from the rival camps was decisive.

Same-sex marriage in Taipei in 2014 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons

What remains to be seen now is whether a referendum can take precedence in a question of human and constitutional rights. As Wang Dan, one of the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protest leaders, who lived and taught in Taiwanese universities between 2009-2017, lamented, "Not all social differences about rights are to be resolved through votes in parliament or by a referendum. We live in a pluralistic society in which not everything should be decided by a referendum," he said. "When certain people advocate that a referendum can resolve whether or not same-sex marriage should be allowed, their understanding of democracy is limited to the idea that "the minority is to obey the majority."

Sadly, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen failed to come through in her promise to push forward a change to the Civil Code to protect the rights of same-sex couples. Not only was the draft for amending the code shelved, the ruling DPP also allowed the three anti-gay referenda to take place. During the campaigns for the local elections and the referenda, which took place at the same time, DPP politicians largely ducked the issue.

There are signs of hope.

I spoke with Tang Guanghua, a renowned journalist and father of Taiwan's first transgender government minister, Audrey Tang, after the results of the referenda: "That Taiwanese people are not progressive enough owes largely to the fact that our intellectuals, politicians, and elites haven't taken up their responsibilities," Tang said. "Concepts of freedom, equality and fraternity must go deeper."

Still, there are some signs of hope. In Taipei, the capital city, two young lesbian municipal counselors, Miao Poya and Lin Ying-Meng, were elected.

As a Taiwanese native living in Paris, who reads the press in French, English and Chinese, it is disheartening not only to see Taiwan's LGBT face discrimination, but to have our country lose an opportunity to move forward in its image around the world as a place of progress. One commentator writing in French on Twitter after the referenda called Taiwan "a shit country."

But Chi Chia-wei, Taiwan's first prominent gay-rights activist who burst on the scene back in 1986, found cause for optimism. That 3 million people voted in favor of gay rights is "a huge victory considering that I was all on my own 30 years ago."

I agree. Taiwan has only one place left to go: forward.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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