Fear Stifles Discussion for Same-Sex Marriage in Taiwan
Chen Si-hao says the Christian church strangled the same-sex marriage debate in Taiwan. Do LGBTQ groups have any hope of clawing back the discussion space?
By William Kung (孔德廉)
Photography by Tseng Yuan-hsin (曾原信)
Translation by Aaron Wytze Wilson
During last year’s election and referendum, a battle erupted over same-sex marriage and sex education in schools. As vote counting got underway, it was clear that the three referendum bills proposed by the “Happiness of the Next Generation Alliance” — a coalition of conservative Christian advocacy groups — had all passed, with supporters far exceeding dissenters. Meanwhile, the two bills put forward by “VOTE4LGBT” — a coalition of LGBTQ advocacy groups — failed to pick up the necessary one-fourth of eligible votes to pass the threshold.
Christian denominations played a critical role in mobilizing voters to support their referendum bills. Chen Si-hao (陳思豪), a pastor at Guting Presbyterian Church in Taipei, has long advocated for marriage equality in Taiwan, and tried to break the Church’s traditional hold on the issue. We asked Chen to interpret the results of the referendum and its impact on Taiwanese society.
The following interview with Chen is narrated in the first person:
The referendum results had everything to do with the Christian church’s ability to mobilize voters to support their cause; they were handing out materials just 30 metres outside designated voting areas, which directly affected voter intentions. I mean, only five percent of Taiwan’s population is Christian, and they were able to mobilize such tremendous energy. Missionaries aren’t even as serious about evangelizing as they are about this.
But what does the Christian Church's victory represent? I believe this is only a “spiritual victory”. Through massive mobilization efforts, the Church and the Family Guardian Coalition (an alliance of Christian civil society organizations) have shown politicians and financial groups that theirs is the mainstream view in society.
There were only two big projects for Christians in this referendum: sexual and gender education and same-sex marriage legislation.
Taiwan’s supreme court, however, said that the current regulations in the civil code that disallow same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. So legislators either have to create a special law for same-sex couples, or amend Taiwan's civil code. But if there’s an additional special law that stipulates same-sex marriage, but the content of the regulations is completely consistent with hetero-sexual marriage, isn’t this just a meaningless repetition of the law?
Also, on the surface, the results of the referendum indicate the need to restrict the implementation of gender-sensitive sexual education in primary and middle schools. But gender equality education has to be diverse and broad; not letting children learn about the LGBTQ community doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Nor is gender equality education a substitute word for sexual diversity education.
For the reasons above, the referendum is only a battle between the two sides. I don’t think there will be much direct impact on the actual regulations or practices.
Insufficient dialogue, and no logic and facts on public issues
Despite this, the referendum case involved a lot of false and malicious bullying. Like the 10th referendum question, on the surface, it seems to be asking voters whether they agree or disagree that the Civil Code defines marriage between a man and a woman, but the question implies a denial of same-sex marriage. With this kind of confusing question, people can’t figure out the implicit meaning behind it; isn’t that a deceptive statement?
I think the vote reflects lies and intimidation. Why? Because when discussing LGBTQ’ rights issues, Taiwanese society is just seeing false information and maliciousness. No one brings a tolerant or empathetic attitude when exploring their differences.
For example, during the televised referendum debates before voting day, one of the anti-same sex marriage proponents said vaginas don’t have any bacteria. On the Internet, some people spread rumours that gender education would teach children about anal sex, beastiality and various sex positions.
When I debated with others on television, my opponent seemed quite eloquent, but people online soon pointed out more than 20 mistakes they made. I was shocked. Why would anyone spread this kind of false information in the middle of a public debate? Everyone’s just looking to score points in the short-term, regardless of what they say is factual. It’s all about self-satisfaction.
But what about logic and facts? Aren’t these the most important values that a democratic society should pursue? Regardless of their respective beliefs and viewpoints, almost everything I’ve seen is about intimidation; Christians used fear and false information to scare parents into a cold sweat, and vilified the behaviour and views of LGBTQ people. It’s distressing to see people frightened with these lies. If I’m being brutally honest, seeing all these Christians do this makes me sad enough to hit my head against the wall.
Creating a climate for fair discussion from the grassroots to government
In addition to the maliciousness of the proponents themselves, I think that the ruling party’s decision to sit and ignore the issue also added fuel to the fire.
Taiwan is making strides in achieving marriage equality, but the referendum result has led to fear and negative thinking in society. The current climate and direction of dialogue is becoming unreasonable. Whether its sexual diversity education or same-sex marriage legalization, there’s just too much fear, and it’s crushing the space for discussion.
The government could have led the discussion on LGBTQ rights, but it decided to sit out this fight, and wasn’t the champion of reform it should have been. It broke off any opportunity for dialogue, and let conservative groups and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to take advantage of the situation.
In general, the results of the referendum show that Taiwanese citizens don’t have experience in taking about public issues, and are easily persuaded by fear. We’ve let the international community know that Taiwan isn’t a progressive society, and that’s the honest truth.
On the whole, it doesn’t matter if it’s about practicing discussion from the bottom up or establishing a platform for public dialogue, as long as there’s a basis for logic and truth, and some kind of mechanism for fact-checking, then an atmosphere of fair discussion can arise. We need to time to explain our ideas, and we need to drop emotional appeals.
I’m optimistic, because this isn’t just about creating space to discuss LGBTQ rights, but all kinds of other social issues. So now, we need the power of “gentleness and calmness.” Now is the moment when the church stands up, lends a helping hand to take care of the LGBTQ community, and stop venting to the masses.