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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