Lin Chinxuan, left, 29, feeds Austin Haung, 32, a dessert in Taipei, Taiwan, Nov. 11, 2018. Lin Chinxuan and Austin Haung are a couple and together they run Hiwow studio photographing LGBTQ couples, who they say mostly come from overseas.
Lin Chinxuan, left, 29, feeds Austin Haung, 32, a dessert in Taipei, Taiwan, Nov. 11, 2018. Lin Chinxuan and Austin Haung are a couple and together they run Hiwow studio photographing LGBTQ couples, who they say mostly come from overseas.

TAIPEI, TAIWAN - Taiwanese voters will decide three ballot initiatives Saturday, among them two asking whether they support the legalization of same-sex marriage. A show of opposition would turn back last year’s tide of official support that LGBT activists called a first for Asia.

The tersely worded ballot measures asks whether voters believe the civil code should let men marry men and women marry women, or whether their unions should be protected by a different “process.” LGBT couples support the civil code change so they can share assets, legal custody over children and insurance benefits as other married couples do.

Supporters gained ground in May 2017 when Taiwan’s Constitutional Court ordered that parliament change laws within two years to legalize same-sex marriage. People in the vibrant Taiwanese LGBT community celebrated that ruling as a first for Asia, where religion and social mores normally limit marriage to one man and one woman.

John Sugden and Kao Shaochun have their pre-weddin
John Sugden and Kao Shaochun have their pre-wedding photos taken by Austin Haung, 32, as Lin Chinxuan, right, 29, stands by, in Taipei, Taiwan, Nov. 11, 2018.

?Advisory vote

An initiative passes in Taiwan if at least 25 percent of eligible voters cast ballots and most of them are in favor. About 19.1 million people qualify to vote.

Taiwan’s legislators should use the referendum results as a “direction” when they consider how to change laws, a justice ministry spokesman told Voice of America. But lawmakers are not legally bound to honor them. Courts will consider local marriage licensing offices in violation of the law by May 2019 if they refuse same-sex couples, he said.

Many in the ruling party-dominated legislature already advocate same-sex marriage and members of opposition parties have indicated qualified support.

“My view of this referendum, it’s more about a survey or a poll that tries to understand (how) the regular Taiwanese public sees this issue,” said Shiau Hong-chi, professor of gender studies and communications management at Shih-Hsin University in Taiwan. Regardless of the outcome Saturday, he said, “one way or another, in the end, you have to go back to the supreme court.”

Supporters of the ruling Democratic Progressive Pa
Supporters of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party react during a campaign rally for the local elections, in Taipei, Taiwan, Nov. 21, 2018.

?Rise of Taiwan’s opposition

Opposition became obvious after the May 2017 ruling. Churches and NGOs that advocate traditional family values argue that same-sex marriages would hurt the development of those couples’ children. Others worry it would strain social welfare when one partner in a childless couple dies. Adult children often care for their aging parents in Taiwan.

Those groups, including a faith-based minor political party, have held public demonstrations or campaigned online to urge a show of opposition.

Men should marry women, according to Catholic tenets, but young voters don’t always agree, said Chen Ke, a pastor in the 300,000-strong Catholic group Taiwan Regional Bishops’ Conference.

“I can believe most young people might be liberal and support this special law, but some truths you can’t use a majority to decide,” Chen said. “The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, 99 people can’t come out and say we oppose it, most of us voted that it rises in the west and sets in the east.’”

Opponents support a ballot measure that says a “process” should protect “same-sex couples who live together permanently.” This proposal is considered an alternative to changing the civil code.

Youth vote

Proponents of same-sex marriage are pushing young people to the polls because they are likely to be sympathetic but may not know they have the right to vote, said Chang Ming-hsu, project manager with the Taipei-based advocacy group Gender Equity Education Coalition.

“We hope that segment of voters will come out to vote,” Chang said. “Quite a few younger people understand gender equality and gender equality education.”

Two other measures on Saturday’s ballot ask whether LGBT education should be taught in Taiwan’s elementary and middle schools, where it’s optional now. Religious and traditional family-value organizations are urging voters to say no.