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Taiwan's LGBT communities face backlash to marriage victory

Education policy targeted as conservatives fear teachers will turn kids gay

The LGBT communities of Hualien, about 120 km south of Taipei, show that Taiwanese outside the island's capital can raise the rainbow flag, too.

TAIPEI -- Taiwan, which hosts one of Asia's largest Pride parades every autumn, has long been known for its progressive attitudes toward LGBT communities.

But now that the island has legalized same-sex marriage, it might come to be known for a conservative backlash against the gay community.

Since May, when Taiwan became the first in Asia to grant marriage equality, conservative groups have been targeting the Gender Equity Education Act of 2004, which originally called for upholding human dignity and gender equality but in recent years has also been used to implement anti-discrimination and LGBT sex education courses.

As a result, LGBT rights activists, who spent years campaigning for marriage equality and were still celebrating their court-mandated victory, have had to campaign for unity all over again.

In late September, more than 500 people, some hoisting large rainbow flags, marched in Hualien, about 120 km south of Taipei. The parade, in its ninth year, is meant to show that Taiwan has LGBT brothers and sisters far away from the capital, too.

The theme of this year's parade -- "We were originally grown from the same root" -- is a verse by Cao Zhi, a poet of China's Three Kingdoms period (220 AD to 280 AD). The poem it came from was Cao Zhi's answer to his jealous brother Cao Pi, who feared the popular Cao Zhi had designs on his throne. Cao Pi ordered Cao Zhi to use poetry to prove otherwise. Cao Zhi did so, using simple but descriptive metaphors for the brothers' biological relationship.

Yang Yong-qing, a 20-year-old college student who served as a secretary of the parade's organizing group, said discrimination against the island's LGBT communities is intensifying.

In May 2017, Taiwan's constitutional court ruled that not allowing same-sex marriage violates constitutional articles pertaining to equality and freedom to marry. It gave the island's legislature two years to legalize same-sex marriage.

That is when the backlash reared up, with some conservatives arguing that traditional families might feel threatened and that gay partners' rights should be guaranteed by a special law, not by revising civil law.

In a referendum last November, conservatives' proposals won 72% of the vote. Then, six months later, President Tsai Ing-wen's administration followed through by enacting a special law legalizing same-sex marriage but falling short of altering the civil law's existing definition of marriage.

The name of the new law does not even include the word "marriage," out of consideration to conservatives and in recognition that voting for Taiwan's president, vice president and legislators takes place in January.

With an eye on upcoming elections, Taiwan's government in May legalized same-sex marriage but stopped short of altering the civil law definition of marriage.

Indeed, there is reason for Taiwan's incumbent politicians to worry. Rather than be mollified by the compromises, the conservative forces are pushing to roll back the LGBT communities' gains.

Lai Shyh-bao, a lawmaker of the Kuomintang, Taiwan's main opposition party, has vowed to repeal the new law if the KMT takes back the presidency in January.

Also, the anti-LGBT Stability of Power party in September announced it will field 10 candidates in the legislative elections (the legislative Yuan has 113 seats). A party official said it wants to gain enough political leverage to have one of its members named minister of education. From that perch, it would peck away at education policies aimed at deepening students' understanding of LGBT citizens.

But few expect conservative groups' extreme views to prevail. Many Taiwanese, particularly young people, are fine with their LGBT friends' desire for equality.

Still, the anti-gay movement is having a profound impact on teachers and others. Liu Ke-ting, who participated in the Hualien parade, volunteers for a counseling hotline for LGBT youths. Every time news organizations cover the conservative backlash, the hotline is flooded with calls from teens fearing there might be something wrong with them or that they are not wanted by society, Liu said.

And a 36-year-old teacher in the midwestern county of Yunlin said many teachers are becoming increasingly cautious about teaching LGBT sex education courses. He said they fear the ire of vocal parents who accuse them of turning their kids gay.

Taiwan began charting a progressive course after 1987, when it emerged from 38 years of Kuomintang-maintained martial law. Ever since, it has been enacting laws to protect not only its democracy, now one of Asia's strongest, but also human rights.

Yet this progressive democracy is still new to many, said Chen Yi-chien, a professor at Shih Hsin University in Taipei.

Lin Xuan, a 31-year-old resident of Taipei, married his partner on May 24, the first day the government allowed same-sex couples to register their unions. Although the island's LGBT communities have taken a big step forward, Lin said many challenges lie ahead.

He and his husband own a bakery that is famous for its wedding and special event cakes. They have made friends with many people through the shop as well as outside of work, and many of these friends, gay and straight, joined the newlyweds for a lavish wedding reception in June.

Lin thinks it might take time but eventually more Taiwanese will come to accept and respect one another regardless of sexual orientation.

In fact, Taiwan has been sending this message of inclusion throughout Asia every fall since 2003, when Taipei began hosting what has grown into a major Pride parade. This year's event, on Oct. 26, will be about being good neighbors.

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