Taiwan seemed

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY EMILY RAUHALA emily.rauhala@wash­post.com

on the verge of mar­riage equal­ity, but a back­lash against same-sex mar­riage is test­ing its rep­u­ta­tion for gay rights.

taipei, taiwan — The gay rights ac­tivists raised sticks of in­cense and ap­pealed to Taiwan’s most popular de­ity: Mazu, God­dess of the sea, pro­tect us.

Or rather, Mazu, God­dess of the sea, pro­tect us, too.

Just months ago, Taiwan ap­peared to be on the verge of le­gal­iz­ing same-sex mar­riage. It was to be­come the first country in Asia to do so, so­lid­i­fy­ing its sta­tus as a bea­con for les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der rights.

For years now, these islands have been at the fore­front of Asia’s gay rights move­ment. While Sin­ga­pore crim­i­nal­izes gay sex and China cracks down on LGBT or­ga­niz­ing, Taiwan has moved to­ward in­clu­sion: Gays and les­bians serve openly in the mil­i­tary, text­books ex­tol equal­ity, and Taipei’s an­nual gay-pride pa­rade draws tens of thou­sands from across the re­gion and around the world.

Tai­wanese of­ten credit this open­ness to Taiwan’s range of cul­tural in­flu­ences, from in­dige­nous groups to Dutch and Ja­panese col­o­niz­ers, to sea­far­ing set­tlers from the Chi­nese main­land — and their sea­far­ing gods.

But the groundswell of sup­port that spurred hope for mar­riage equal­ity has spurred a bit­ter back­lash that has ex­perts and ad­vo­cates won­der­ing when or whether the law will move ahead.

Over the past year, mostly Chris­tian com­mu­nity groups have mo­bi­lized against the mar­riage-equal­ity move­ment, warn­ing, con­trary to ev­i­dence, that same-sex part­ner­ships are a threat to chil­dren and that giv­ing LGBT fam­i­lies le­gal pro­tec­tion will hurt Taiwan.

They have also claimed — again, con­trary to ev­i­dence — that pro­tect­ing the rights of gen­der and sex­ual mi­nori­ties is a Western idea, that be­ing gay is some­how not “Chi­nese.”

Taiwan’s gen­der and sex­ual mi­nori­ties are now fighting harder than ever to re­mind Taiwan’s peo­ple — and govern­ment — that they, too, are Tai­wanese, im­bued with a full slate of rights and an equal stake in what “Chi­nese” and “Tai­wanese” cul­ture means.

So, on a re­cent spring morn­ing, as they waited for news about a key ver­dict due next month, a small group gath­ered to seek sup­port from Mazu, who com­forts so many here.

“Please pro­tect gay peo­ple and their chil­dren,” they said.

Taiwan’s gay rights move­ment was forged in the fight for democ­racy.

From the end of the Chi­nese civil war, in 1949, to 1987, the peo­ple of Taiwan lived under mar­tial law, a pe­riod of po­lit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion now known as the “White Ter­ror.”

Yu Mei-nu, the leg­is­la­tor be­hind Taiwan’s most re­cent mar­riage-equal­ity bill, was one of the hu­man rights lawyers who strug­gled against one-party rule. She helped re­vise laws to guar­an­tee the rights of women and, in 1986, rep­re­sented a gay man su­ing for the right to marry.

“Tra­di­tional cul­ture is not a stone,” she said. “It changes.”

Taiwan has changed rel­a­tively quickly, thanks in part to coverage of touch­stone cases.

In 2000, Taiwan was rocked by the ap­par­ent murder, at school, of a 15-year-old who was bul­lied for be­ing ef­fem­i­nate. In the wake of the case, which was never re­solved, the govern­ment adopted leg­is­la­tion de­signed to fight gen­der-based dis­crim­i­na­tion, start­ing in the class­room.

The leg­is­la­tion helped build grass-roots sup­port for gay rights. In the run-up to the 2016 elec­tion, Pres­i­dent Tsai Ing-wen’s cam­paign head­quar­ters was awash in rain­bows. She also pub­lished a Face­book mes­sage pledg­ing full sup­port for mar­riage equal­ity.

“In the face of love, ev­ery­one is equal,” she said.

The video helped bur­nish her pro­gres­sive cre­den­tials at home and turned her into a hero to LGBT peo­ple through­out the re­gion. But as pres­i­dent she has been less pub­licly sup­port­ive of same-sex mar­riage, leav­ing some won­der­ing where Tai­wanese “tol­er­ance” ends and full rights start.

Though only 5 per­cent of Tai­wanese iden­tify as Chris­tians, well-funded and well-or­ga­nized church groups have com­man­deered the con­ver­sa­tion, pri­mar­ily by play­ing on parental fear.

In re­cent months, con­cerned groups have reprised ho­mo­pho­bic tropes about ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, cast­ing same-sex mar­riage as a gate­way to in­cest, bes­tial­ity and AIDS. One group warned that new mar­riage laws could lead to a fu­ture where “it’s pos­si­ble to marry a Fer­ris wheel.”

“Few say, ‘We don’t want to give gay peo­ple pro­tec­tion,’ but they focus on so-called fam­ily val­ues, im­ply­ing gay mar­riage will make moth­ers and fathers dis­ap­pear, that schools will start teach­ing chil­dren to have sex,” said gay rights ad­vo­cate Lin Shih-fang.

Re­al­iz­ing, per­haps, the power and limits of such rhetoric, the “anti” move­ment has broad­ened its mes­sag­ing to focus on “tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture.”

At a hear­ing on mar­riage equal­ity last month, Jus­tice Min­is­ter Chiu Tai-san ar­gued, in a court of law, that same-sex re­la­tion­ships are a “newly in­vented phe­nom­e­non” un­like “so­cial norms and mech­a­nisms formed by the peo­ple of our na­tion over the past thou­sand years” — leav­ing many peo­ple won­der­ing what na­tion and norms he was re­fer­ring to.

He also mused that same-sex mar­riage could com­pli­cate the rites of an­ces­tor wor­ship. “What are we go­ing to write on the an­ces­tral tablets if same-sex mar­riage is le­gal­ized?” he asked.

Victoria Hsu, a hu­man rights lawyer who spoke at the same hear­ing, was shocked to hear the jus­tice min­is­ter talk about tra­di­tion, not law. “He’s say­ing: ‘ This is from Western cul­ture. It’s not our tra­di­tion.’ But this is not some­thing from the West, and it’s not about tra­di­tion — it’s about jus­tice,” she said.

What wor­ries ac­tivists is that some os­ten­si­bly pro-LGBT fig­ures in govern­ment seem to have gone silent on the mat­ter, talk­ing about so­cial di­vi­sion and the need for di­a­logue, rather than throw­ing their full weight be­hind the leg­is­la­tion.

At stake are the liveli­hoods of LGBT fam­i­lies who want le­gal pro­tec­tion, as well as Taiwan’s rep­u­ta­tion as a re­gional leader on gay rights.

“I’m so afraid Taiwan will go back­ward,” said Wayne Lin, chair­man of the Taiwan Tongzhi Hot­line As­so­ci­a­tion, an in­flu­en­tial LGBT group.

Ja­son Hsu, a law­maker from the op­po­si­tion Kuom­intang, agreed that what hap­pens will help de­fine what it means to be Tai­wanese now and shape Taiwan’s re­gional role in the years to come.

“There are some ways we can never com­pete with China, but this is a way we can com­pete, set a good ex­am­ple for them, use soft power,” he said, adding, “If Taiwan is to con­tinue to be a bea­con of lib­erty and democ­racy in Asia, these are the things that can re­ally make us stand out.”

Like many who sup­port mar­riage equal­ity, he was frus­trated by the back­track­ing, but he was con­fi­dent Taiwan’s in­clu­sive spirit would pre­vail.

“When we pass this law,” he said, “other na­tions in Asia will be watch­ing.”

“Few say, ‘We don’t want to give gay peo­ple pro­tec­tion,’ but they focus on so-called fam­ily val­ues, im­ply­ing gay mar­riage will make moth­ers and fathers dis­ap­pear, that schools will start teach­ing chil­dren to have sex.” Gay rights ad­vo­cate Lin Shih-fang

Luna Lin in Bei­jing con­trib­uted to this report.

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