Taiwan is set to become the first Asian government to recognize same-sex marriage. Now voters could halt that

A young man waves a rainbow flag outside the parliament in Taipei, Taiwan, in November 2016.
A young man waves a rainbow flag outside the parliament in Taipei, Taiwan, in November 2016.
(David Chang / EPA)

More than a year after a landmark legal ruling cleared the way for Taiwan to become the first place in Asia to recognize same-sex marriage, Taiwanese voters could reverse that distinction if they approve a ballot initiative declaring that marriage should be limited only to people of opposite sexes.

The initiative, one of three LGBTQ-related measures on the Nov. 24 ballot, could slow, or even halt, implementation of a court ruling that ordered the island to change its civil code by removing a provision that effectively banned same-sex marriage. The Constitutional Court ordered the change be made by May 2019.

A second ballot measure asks whether a process other than the civil code should protect same-sex “long-term communal living,” while a third seeks to eliminate any classroom lessons on the island about same-sex marriage.

Analysts in Tiawan said the measures are too close to call.


LGBTQ rights activists had hailed last year’s court ruling as a milestone for Asia, where no other government recognizes same-sex marriage, despite efforts in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. Religion and conservative values throughout the continent have slowed the advance of same-sex marriage proposals in other countries.

Now, if voters approve the measure to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples, lawmakers and government officials would be forced to reconsider how, or whether, to change the civil code as ordered by the court.

“As a gay parent and individual, I will have less confidence in the government and legislature to enact marriage-equality protections” if the one-man, one-woman measure passes, said Jay Lin, who works with Asia’s largest online movie service. “It’s been such a long fight and no guarantee what May 2019 might ultimately bring for Taiwan.”

The Taiwan political action group Coalition for the Happiness of our Next Generation, which questions same-sex marriage, is pushing the two primary measures. “What the law must protect is public order and good customs, and same-sex marriage is actually not love for Taiwan,” coalition member Yu Hsin-yi said on his Facebook page.

Protesters chant anti-same-sex marriage slogans during 2016 protests outside parliament in Taipei, Taiwan.
(Sam Yeh / AFP/Getty Images)

Opponents of same-sex marriage had kept largely quiet before the Constitutional Court ruling last May, but mobilized quickly afterward. Some opponents said that same-sex marriage runs counter to their Christian beliefs, while others said it violated traditional Chinese family values. The island’s political leaders have largely side-stepped the issue.

“This is a bipolar issue in our society — both sides have very strong support and sponsorship,” said Joanna Lei, chief executive of the Taiwan-based Chunghua 21st Century think tank.

The ruling party majority in parliament has yet to discuss how it would handle last year’s court ruling if the ballot measure opposing same-sex marriage passes. Experts expect legislators to leave the civil code as is if the measure passes, but explore other means to help same-sex couples.

“The legal implications would be that a separate law is made to address same-sex marriage — not in the name of marriage, perhaps same-sex union or something like that — instead of just modifying the civil law,” said Shiau Hong-chi, professor of gender studies and communications management at Shih-Hsin University in Taiwan.

Initiatives that gather about 280,000 signatures qualify for elections in Taiwan. An initiative passes if a majority of 25% of eligible voters cast ballots in favor.

Jennings is a special correspondent.