The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Taiwan was supposed to be the first place in Asia to legalize gay marriage. Then things got complicated.

Participants take part in a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) pride parade to support same-sex marriage in Taipei, Taiwan, on Oct. 27. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

A little less than a year and a half ago, Taiwan seemed to be on the verge of allowing same-sex marriage. In May 2017, the island’s Constitutional Court ruled that its civil code, which stated that only a man and a woman could marry, violated constitutional guarantees and gave the legislature two years to amend it or pass new legislation.

The move seemed certain to cement Taiwan’s status as a haven in Asia for LGBT activism — indeed, it could not have happened without decades of activism. Taiwan looked set to become the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex unions.

However, things have not worked out quite so simply. This Saturday, the island will vote in a referendum on whether to amend the civil code to allow same-sex marriage. And despite accusations of misinformation and propaganda, conservatives have mounted a powerful campaign against Taiwan’s LGBT movement, raising the real prospect that same-sex marriage could fail n the island.

Indeed, though Taiwan is considered one of the most open to LGBT rights of all Asian countries, polls suggest that it may well vote against same-sex marriage. One recent survey from the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation found that 77 percent of the island’s population was opposed to amending the civil code.

To many activists, a large part of the problem lies with the government of President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). With her party’s popularity falling because of a stagnant economy and political pressure from China, the president has been hesitant to push the potentially divisive issue of same-sex marriage.

Tsai once spoke in favor of marriage equality, but she has taken a neutral stance ahead of the vote, apparently hoping to appease both the young voters who largely support gay marriage and the older voters who largely oppose it.

“Same-sex marriage is also a reflection of the generational gap,” she said in an interview this summer. “We will bridge the differences society holds on this issue in order to propose a comprehensive bill.”

Saturday’s referendum will take place on the same day as a midterm election that could be a key test of Tsai’s political leadership. And there will be a total of 10 different referendums held on the day, including a geopolitically contentious vote on using the name “Taiwan” rather than “Chinese Taipei” in international sporting events — a move that could provoke anger from China.

Notably, civic organizations spearheaded the same-sex marriage referendums, rather than the government. In fact, there are four separate same-sex marriage ballot issues organized by opposing organizations — two proposed by conservatives and one proposed by pro-LGBT rights groups — as well as two separate questions about the teaching of LGBT issues to children in Taiwanese schools.

Ahead of the vote, there has been an avalanche of advertisements in Taiwanese media. Conservative groups have been accused of spreading misinformation about LGBT rights, running homophobic advertisements ahead of videos aimed at children on YouTube and using chat apps such as Line to spread false rumors stating that same-sex marriage will prompt a wave of HIV-positive gay men to move to Taiwan to take advantage of the island’s health-care system.

Taiwan has had referendums before, though none have passed. But changes to the law mean the threshold for approval has dropped from 50 percent of eligible voters to 25 percent. There’s certainly a possibility, however remote, that both pro- and anti-gay marriage referendums could pass, providing a contradictory result for LGBT activists.

While the referendum result can’t negate the Constitutional Court’s 2017 decision or the May 2019 deadline for implementing it, it could well influence what the government does next — in particular, whether it amends the civil code or proposes a new law.

For many LGBT activists, the fear is that they will end up with legal same-sex unions but without full marriage equality — and that what once seemed like a great leap forward will not mark a real step in the right direction after all.

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Taiwan votes on 10 referendums this week. Here’s what you need to know.