Interview from CIVICUS

When you were appointed back in 2016, you became the youngest minister without portfolio in the history of Taiwan. Do you see yourself as a bridge between generations, and between government and society?

Certainly. My work is primarily as a channel between social innovators and people in the public sector who are willing to co-create toward common goals.

Intergenerational solidarity is also very important, as is the capability to listen to the plurality of cultures on the Taiwan islands.

As Digital Minister, what roles do you think the internet and communications technologies can play in enabling people’s participation in decision-making? How have you worked with civil society from your government position?

‘Broadband as a human right’ is at the core of the government’s policy. Our idea is to bring technology into the spaces where citizens live, rather than expect citizens to enter the space of technology. The government must first trust the people with agenda-setting power; then the people can make democracy work.

Taiwan’s national participation platform has hosted 10.6 million unique visitors — almost half of Taiwan’s population — since its launch in 2015. Anyone can begin an e-petition on the platform. Once a case has 5,000 signatures, the relevant ministries must respond in public.

As Digital Minister, I have established a network of Participation Officers in each ministry. They serve as links between the public and the public sector, and as channels for inter-agency collaboration. Whenever a proposal is raised, a collaborative meeting can be held, with participants from government departments and the public invited to join the discussion and jointly create new policies.

So far we have held more than 50 collaborative meetings. We gathered stakeholders to find solutions, including to improve the experience of filing income tax, the allocation of medical resources in remote towns and balancing fishery and marine biodiversity in national parks.

The Presidential Hackathon is another good example of an initiative that brings Taiwan’s public and private sectors together to solve urgent problems. At the event, the first of which was held in 2018, teams of hackers — composed of either private citizens or government workers — compete to design the most innovative improvements to the nation’s public services. Instead of prize money, the best teams receive a promise from the government that it will apply their ideas.

The legalisation of same-sex marriage in Taiwan was a historic first for the whole of Asia. What role did the government and civil society play in the process?

On 17 May 2019 – the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, the Legislative Yuan – Taiwan’s parliament – passed the Enforcement Act of Judicial Yuan Interpretation #748 after three readings. This achievement, made in Taiwan, was a historic first in all of Asia, and was not fulfilled overnight. It took the efforts of both government and civil society.

In 1986, Chi Chia-wei married his same-sex partner in the USA and held an international press conference. In March 2013, he and his partner went to Taipei City Wanhua District Household Registration Office to register for marriage but were declined. After losing the lawsuit, both he and the Taipei government requested an interpretation by the Constitutional Court to determine whether the provisions of Chapter II on Marriage of Part IV on Family of the Civil Code, which did not allow two persons of the same sex to be married legally, violated the Constitution.

In October 2016, a French professor at Taiwan University, Jacques Picoux, jumped off his apartment building and died. When his partner, Tseng Jing Chao, passed away, many problems arose concerning the medical procedures and real estate transfer before and after his death due to the fact that the two people were not legally married. The death of Jacques Picoux drew great attention to the issue of equal marriage in Taiwan society, and the once stagnated progress same-sex marriage law legislation sped up.

This was not the only driver of change. In April 2000, Yeh Yong Jhih at Pingdong County Gaoshuyuan Middle School committed suicide. He had suffered from school bullying because of his feminine temperament. This unfortunate accident drew much public attention.

The Gender Equity Education Committee of the Ministry of Education formed an investigation team, which issued a report calling on the Ministry of Education to pay attention to gender problems. The draft of the Gender Equality Education Act included clauses on sexual orientation, sexual traits and sexual identity, and was renamed the Gender Equity Education Act and passed by the Legislative Yuan on 23 June 2004. The Act rules that: schools must respect the gender traits and sexual orientation of students and teaching staff; schools must not discriminate on the basis of gender or sexual orientation in their enrolment and admission conditions; students should not be treated differently for their gender or sexual orientation; schools should actively offer help to students in bad situations as a result of their gender or sexual orientation.

As well as this, another relevant legal change came: in order to ensure the right to work of LGBTQI people, the Gender Equality in Employment Law was renamed the Act of Gender Equality in Employment in 2007 to add provisions to protect LGBTQI people from discrimination.

In 2003, the Taipei government gave support to the first LGBTQI protest organised in the whole of Asia, gathering more than 2,000 participants. Ma Ying-jeou, who was then Mayor of Taipei and went on to become President, said that Taipei as an international city should respect individuals from different ethnicities and cultures. The following day, widespread media reporting helped raise acceptance of the LGBTQI community in Taiwan. Since then, this event has been organised regularly on the last Saturday of October every year. In 2018, a total of 137,000 people took part in the demonstration.

In 2015, Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wen, then a presidential candidate, publicly expressed her support for marriage equity on the eve of the annual LGBTQI demonstration. On 20 May of the same year, the Kaohsiung government accepted the registration of same-sex couples; Kaohsiung was the first municipality to accept registration. Following that, all special municipalities and some cities and counties accepted registration one after another. After the announcement of the Judicial Yuan Interpretation #748 in 2017, the Ministry of the Interior announced the opening of registration for same-sex marriage nationwide, and allowed administration across cities.

On 24 May 2017, the Judicial Yuan Interpretation #748 ruled that the restriction of marriage as being between a male and a female was in violation of the Constitution. The authorities were requested to amend or enact the laws as appropriate within two years. The president of the Executive, Yuan Su Tseng-chang, communicated with ruling party legislators personally and went through countless discussions and compromises to see the Enforcement Act of Judicial Yuan Interpretations #748 finally pass the third reading on 17 May 2019 and come in force on 24 May.

However, before this, in 2018, people opposing same-sex marriage launched a referendum to prevent an amendment to the definition of marriage in the Civil Code. Civil groups who support same-sex marriage organised volunteers to give out leaflets and deliver short speeches on the street.

The 2018 referendum drew wide support. This caused anxiety in the LGBTQI community. As cases of self-mutilation and suicides were reported, supporters of same-sex marriage worked to provide support and deliver political speeches.

To what extent do you think public opinion supports same-sex marriage in Taiwan? Has the issue been divisive, and if so, how can the two different points of view be reconciled?

Taiwan has gone through more than 30 years of LGBTQI campaigning since 1986. The issue of same-sex marriage aroused many different opinions in society, and caused cracks and intense discussions within families, generations and even religious groups.

In 2015, the Institute of Sociology of Taiwan, Academia Sinica, published the Basic Survey of Social Changes in Taiwan, which showed that the percentage of supporters and opponents to the question that ‘homosexuals should have the right to marriage’ was 59 per cent and 41 per cent respectively, while among people with higher education and young people, the support rate was higher than 80 per cent. In November 2016, the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation published a poll that found that 46.3 per cent of citizens were in favour of the legalisation of same-sex marriage, 45.4 per cent were opposed and 8.2 per cent were neutral.

During the 2018 referendum, opponents and supporters not only debated vehemently at referendum explanation conferences that were broadcast live, but also launched information ‘wars’ via social media. They raise funds to buy commercial advertisements to express themselves through print media, loudspeaker vans, radio and magazines. As the referendum attempted to delay the progress of same-sex marriage, debates and clashes were ubiquitous in society. The divergence lies in the fact that same-sex marriage was an issue of human rights, as the Judicial Interpretation indicated, but the referendum meant to remind people to consider the thoughts of traditionalists and religious people.

On the day of the third reading of the Enforcement Act, president Tsai Ing-wen said: “I know that passing this Act does not mean there won’t be disputes any more. But I invite the opponents to look at supporters, and supporters to look at opponents. Our faces are not so obnoxious.” This is a long journey. We have finally reached this point, but this is not the end. I hope it will be a starting point of a more inclusive Taiwan society. Taiwan needs to work hard, learn how to understand and co-exist, to let difference no longer bring divergence.

How have groups opposed to same-sex marriage reacted to the new law?

The Judicial Interpretation meant that the scope of the debate was limited: everyone agreed about respecting the judgement; the focus was on what kind of law – proposing a new law or amending the Civil Code – should be made to protect same-sex marriage, and how far it should go.

Opponents of same-sex marriage proposed a version of a ‘same-sex cohabitation law’, defining people in same-sex relationships as ‘same-sex family members’ and allowing them to form a family without getting married or having the right to adopt. Other rights of family members such as property relationships and legacy distribution could be legalised as long as there were written agreements.

They suggested that the results of the 2018 referendum should be adopted, and raised the question: the referendum reflects the opinions of 7.65 million people but the Interpretations are made by 10. Which one matters more?

They insisted that the Enforcement Act of Judicial Yuan Interpretation #748 was not consistent with the 2018 referendum’s proposal. They believed that proposals for change would destroy the meaning of marriage regardless of the wills of 7.65 million citizens. Therefore, a few protests were organised.

However, after the 2018 referendum, the Legislative Yuan published a news release clarifying that the legal foundation of the referendum launched by groups opposing same-sex marriage could not contradict the Judicial Interpretation #748, stating that: “Two persons of the same sex creating a permanent union of intimate and exclusive nature for the purpose of living a common life is freedom of marriage and right to equality guaranteed by the Constitution.”

Groups opposing same-sex marriage believe that 24 May 2019, the day the Act came into force, was the darkest day of legislation. So on the same day, they declared that they had formed a party to select 10 candidates for legislators to compete with the legislators that supported the Act.

Do you think the implementation of the new law will help change attitudes towards LGBTQI people? What else needs to be done?

The implementation of the Act made Taiwan the first in Asia in terms of guaranteeing LGBTQI rights, but we are only halfway there. Embracing each other, respecting differences and refusing discrimination are still important areas for our government to learn and act on. Yuan Su Tseng-chang said in public after the third reading of the Enforcement Act that in spite of our differences in beliefs and value, he hoped colleagues in the government set themselves as examples, treat everyone equally when providing services, do not make discriminatory comments or actions, and welcome every couple who come for registration with joy and blessings.

Due to the implementation of the Enforcement Act Taiwan has not yet carried out a large-scale effective poll to understand public attitudes; both international and domestic media are reporting positively, but negative news sometimes appears in online media. For example, in September 2019, the Ministry of National Defense announced that three same-sex couples were signing up for the joint military wedding of the National Army. It was the first time that the Ministry of National Defense had allowed same-sex soldiers to participate in the joint wedding. After the news was released, although many people online expressed their congratulations to the LGBTQI soldiers, some discriminatory remarks and personal attacks eventually caused two couples to give up.

What else is the government doing to try to ensure the rights of LGBTQI people?

The implementation of the Enforcement Act marked the beginning of governmental service. There are still challenges that require relevant departments to propose supporting measures. At the same time, establishing a social environment that is gender diverse and free of discrimination is also a goal we must achieve by learning and making progress.

Both Taiwan and the European Union (EU) are committed to promoting gender equality and human rights. Both have kept on conducting close exchanges since 2015, and established a three-year EU-Taiwan Gender Equality Cooperation and Training Framework in 2018. With Taiwan as the platform, other countries in the region covered by the Taiwan government’s New Southbound Policy and Japan and South Korea as the core, together with the EU as a learning partner, we are conducting a wide range of exchanges on gender equality policies and experience.

In 2019, the EU-Taiwan Gender Equality Cooperation and Training Framework was initiated. Working with the European Economic and Trade Office, we organised an exchange seminar on marriage equality and the protection and promotion of LGBTI human rights before the LGBTQI demonstration in October 2019.

By bringing together EU and Asian government officials, civil society figures and experts and scholars for substantive exchanges and discussions, we hope to expand Taiwan’s international perspectives and building gender-diverse human rights in Taiwan by sharing current EU and Asian same-sex marriage equality policies and learning about experiences, progress and challenges in establishing gender-friendly measures and promoting the human rights of LGBTQI people.

We hope that with the experience of other countries as a mirror, we will have closer exchanges and cooperation with the international community in promoting the human rights of LGBTQI people and supporting each other. This will stimulate the promotion and implementation of gender-diverse human rights in Asian countries and spread the seeds of hope of having zero discrimination.

In addition, the Executive Yuan has set ‘eliminating gender stereotypes and prejudice’ as a priority between 2019 and 2022, guiding ministries to promote people’s recognition and acceptance of gender diversity and gender-diverse families. Further, through a gender equality performance counselling and assessment mechanism, the promotion of rights to gender diversity and of gender-diverse families will be incorporated into the assessment indicators of ministries and local governments, so as to actively promote gender equality.

In order to promote the understanding of and respect for LGBTQI people by public officials and the public, so that they can understand and respect different genders, sexual orientations and gender identities, Taiwan has also developed digital teaching materials on the protection of rights to gender diversity, which include themes on understanding LGBTQI people, gender equality law in employment and discrimination cases recognised by the Gender Equity Education Act. This is a digital reference for people becoming public servants, and for experts and scholars.

There is more work to do on same-sex marriage. At present, when a Taiwanese citizen wants to marry a foreign same-sex partner in Taiwan, because the foreign country may not recognise same-sex marriage, we will not be able to issue valid marriage certificate documents and verify the documents by our resident office to prove their marriage relationship and its legal status. It is still necessary for the court to further explain how same-sex marriage applies the Foreign-related Civil Law Application Act.

Further, article 20 of the Enforcement Act of Judicial Yuan Interpretation #748 only stipulates that one of the partners in a same-sex marriage can adopt the child of the other partner. However, at present, many same-sex couples in our society use methods such as adoption and surrogacy to have children, establish families and have a common life. Even if one of them is not a biological parent, they bear the responsibility for caring for the children. If the biological father dies, based on the best interests of the child, the partner is still subject to overall consideration by the authorities, in order to comply with the principle of equal rights and to protect the rights of same-sex families and their children.

What else needs to be done to strengthen the role that civil society plays in Taiwan? And how can civil society and other stakeholders outside of Taiwan better assist Taiwanese civil society representatives to have their voices heard in international and multilateral arenas?

The adoption of civic innovations in the public sector requires a system for regulation, maintenance and accountability. It is imperative that the government, civil society and private sector organisations come together to form a collaborative ecosystem to amplify our collective impact.

The United Nations report, The Age of Digital Interdependence, outlines a practical roadmap for such partnerships that aligns with our values of ‘norm-first’ architecture.

As for highlighting Taiwan social sector’s contributions to international community, I’d encourage more people make use of the #TaiwanCanHelp hashtag — see the recent clip A True Friend for one example.