Three reasons why same-sex marriage is still a no go in Taiwan and Hong Kong
- Anson Au says demographic and political barriers, like Taiwan’s low fertility rate and voter unhappiness, are blocking the legalisation of same-sex marriage
- There are lessons here for Hong Kong, and the rest of Asia: more has to be done to lay the groundwork for progress
The recent referendum results in Taiwan signal a major setback in the fight for marriage equality in Asia: in the latest elections, Taiwanese voters also supported the removal of gender equality content from schools; approved of limiting marriage to heterosexual couples; and, rejected same-sex marriage. Human rights groups are lamenting that Taiwan, once seen as a progressive society, has regressed. How did this happen?
From the perspective of political sociology, there are multilayered reasons for the referendum outcome, and important lessons to be learned about the political instruments needed for the passing of groundbreaking legislation like same-sex marriage laws in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Altogether, there are three factors that influence the legalisation of same-sex marriage.
First, there are demographic factors. Same-sex marriage legalisation is more likely in societies with low marriage rates and high fertility rates, where the importance of marriage as a social institution has declined and cultural shifts have deepened the recognition that love is expressed and bonds are formed even without marriage. In the case of Taiwan, the island’s marriage rate was 6.29 per 1,000 people in 2016, low enough for acceptance of civil unions to take root. However, its birth rate is the world’s third-lowest, at 1.13. This adds fuel to the conservative discourse on gay marriage, and inflames irrational fears that the institution of marriage and the continuity of the human race are somehow under threat.
Second, there are institutional factors. Authoritarian states maintain their power by controlling all important social institutions: they say what marriage is and what it isn’t, and people fall in line with state regulations. Democratisation, by contrast, increases the likelihood of same-sex marriage legalisation. Power is shared, and public opinion is allowed to shape policy.
Although Taiwan is famously democratic – and although homosexuality has been decriminalised on the island since 1896 – it lacks a history in building LGBT-friendly policies: the groundwork that has to be laid to improve LGBT rights, establish social tolerance and achieve marriage equality. Here, the Scandinavian countries offer an illuminating example. Norway and Sweden introduced marriage-neutral family policies long before both legalised same-sex marriage in 2009. Baby steps matter. The fight for the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Asia could take years and activists in Taiwan and Hong Kong should start with smaller targets and more immediate issues, like combating discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in the workplace.
Social movements, political action and timing also matter. In Canada, same-sex marriage was legalised under the Civil Marriage Act in 2005, with support from the centre-left Liberal Party, the moderate New Democratic Party and the separatist Bloc Québécois. In Taiwan, the youth-driven sunflower movement in 2014 would not have succeeded without the support of the then opposition Democratic Progressive Party; DPP lawmakers joined the students who occupied the Legislative Yuan during a protest against the Kuomintang’s trade pact with China. Of course, the balance of power was already shifting and the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen, who called for same-sex marriage legalisation as a presidential candidate, would rise to power in 2016.
With regard to same-sex marriage, however, there has not been an equally powerful social movement in Taiwan. Moreover, the KMT have turned the tables on the DPP. This time, contempt for the DPP bred sympathy for the KMT. And, just as voters had chosen the independence-leaning DPP to spite the China-friendly KMT the last time, they tilted back towards the conservative KMT this time, to spite the progressive DPP, and turned their backs on alternative causes like same-sex marriage.
Third, there are cultural factors at work. Same-sex marriage legalisation is a morality policy: something the public is aware of and has strong opinions about. This means that factors such as how religious or patriarchal a jurisdiction is can impede same-sex marriage legalisation. Taiwan is both religious and patriarchal, and Hong Kong is quite similar. Moreover, Hong Kong activists should expect challenges when even the chief executive has indicated that, as a Catholic, she does not personally support gay marriage.
Ultimately, the road ahead for marriage equality in Asia is long: activists must soldier on despite public hostility and wait for the right time to pursue their political strategy. A victory will not depend on who is in power, but how power is harnessed. A more equal society won’t arrive tomorrow, but it will when we realise that giving other people rights takes nothing away from us – and that a progressive society benefits all.
Anson Au is a scholar and writer whose work covers culture, health and politics. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Seoul National University Asia Centre and at Yonsei University, as well as a PhD student in sociology at the University of Toronto