Taiwan Insight is the online magazine of the University of Nottingham's Taiwan Studies Program.
If 2017 saw the rise of marriage equality in Taiwan, then the backlash in 2018 suggests many observers held an overly optimistic view on just how much Taiwanese public opinion had shifted. With the March 2017 Constitutional Court deeming the existing civil code that limited marriage to heterosexual couples as unconstitutional, the expectation was that legislative action would soon follow. Yet, despite the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) controlling the legislature and holding the presidency, no meaningful effort was made to push legalization through. Meanwhile, in roughly 18 months, public opinion polls shifted from a majority in Taiwan supporting legalization to a majority opposing it. The results of five referendums in the 2018 local election further indicated a shift in public opinion, suggesting that claims of Taiwan’s broader embrace of liberal ideas were less accurate than previously predicted.
So what happened? After all, the Taiwan Social Change Surveys of 2012 and 2015 found a slight majority of Taiwanese in support of legalization, with marginal differences between supporters of the Kuomintang (KMT) and the DPP. Most other surveys prior to the Constitutional Court decision found similar results. Yet the results of the five referendums related to LGBT issues in November were unambiguous, with Number 10 the clearest: 72.5 percent agreed that the Civil Code should remain restricted to heterosexual couples.
One common argument is that conservative groups effectively organized opposition against legalization similar to that seen previously in the United States, which took off shortly before Taiwan’s Constitutional Court decision. However, this explanation undervalues the extent to which voters in Taiwan had fixed positions on issues like same-sex marriage, as many remained indifferent or had weak preferences at best. If positions on same-sex marriage were fixed, either supporting or opposing, then not only would we not have seen such dramatic changes in polling results, but conservative groups would have had to rely primarily on mobilizing turnout.
In other words, the success of conservative opposition was likely due in no small part to many Taiwanese remaining indifferent or, at best, weakly supportive of legalization. Still, these individuals could have been persuaded to support either side. While many DPP supporters of same-sex marriage and LGBT rights more broadly (e.g. legislator Yu Mei-nu, 尤美女) spoke out in favor of legalization, in large part they lacked a clear message that would appeal to the otherwise indifferent, making the job easier for anti-LGBT groups.