The View from Taichung: Gay marriage and the Tsai Administration - a potential political trap

Tsai's first year in office may be defined by the same-sex marriage debate rather than other vital issues

Overhead shot of supporters of same-sex marriage rally in Taipei on Dec. 10. (Image by aloha55688 on PTT)

This month Taiwan experienced two sets of protests from radically different worlds, the protests for and against gay marriage, and the labor protests. The gay marriage protests generated huge crowds, with 100,000 to oppose gay marriage, and over 200,000 turning out to support it. The labor protests? Not so much.

The gay pride parade, begun formally in Taiwan in 2003, has now become an annual fete, attended and enjoyed by thousands. It is heartening for this writer, who is old enough to remember when homosexuality was treated as a mental illness, to see all the fun. Public attacks on gayness are increasingly rare. It is notable that despite longstanding rumors about their sexuality, both Ma Ying-jeou and Tsai Ing-wen won presidential elections. 

Why the progress in Taiwan? Scholars such as the brilliant Hans Huang have long observed that in Taiwan public acceptance of homosexuality is a way to demonstrate that one is modern. Beginning with the 2004 gay pride parade, held before a legislative election, politicians of all major parties have shown their support for eradication of outdated laws and other tokens of acceptance, thus associating themselves with modernizing forces.  

One aspect of this “modernization” is that Taiwan is slowly shifting from a development state to a post development state economy, with an enormous service sector. Taiwanese now experience themselves as consumers rather than workers: working is primarily about acquiring money to buy things, not making things. Identities have become flexible and related to what can be purchased, not to one’s labor.

This can be seen in the gay pride parades, which display homosexuality as a form of consumption identity, a kind of cosplay of sexual identity. The gay movement’s radical sexual and social politics are removed from public view. Gayness is presented entirely in western (“modern”) modes – traditional Taiwanese representations of gayness are not present, even in parody. This makes it acceptable to middle class modernizing consumption proclivities, much as the marketing of blackness by the NBA carefully removes any social critiques black identities might produce. This sanitized form of gayness is publicly acceptable, accessible to all, green, blue, communist, capitalist, whatever, meaning that support for gay marriage has little social or political cost.

Meanwhile, the labor movement dreams of such widespread public support. Even as the Tsai Administration performed the quadrennial DPP ritual of spurning labor movement demands after courting its votes, the public failed to turn out for labor protests. Taiwanese at work suffer abuses and indignities of all kinds: low pay, stagnant wages, brutally long hours, scant vacation days, forced unpaid overtime, and unsafe working conditions. A strong labor movement could help rectify some of these problems. Yet public support for the labor movement appears to have dwindled over time, because people in Taiwan are starting to view themselves primarily as consumers, not as workers. Moreover, demonstrating for labor remains highly political, and thus carries social and political costs.

Gay marriage presents some serious problems for the Tsai Administration. First, it has come under fire from social activists for not moving more quickly on gay marriage. On the one hand, there is no excuse for activists to attack the Tsai Administration over that issue. It wastes energy more usefully applied elsewhere, and creates enmity where none is necessary, especially given that the public is already pressuring the Administration. Social activists need to remember that attacks on the DPP for largely symbolic issues like gay marriage which are important only for a tiny fraction of the population may result in the DPP responding less on issues that impact the entire population, such as urban renewal, land seizure policies, or labor policy. 

On the other hand Tsai, as both President and Chairman of the DPP, should have sent down orders to the legislature to get this done weeks ago, with the threat of punishment if legislators do not fall into line. That is, after all, what they were elected for. Someone in Tsai's office needs to start taking heads. It is nearly 2017, and there is a real danger that the public takeaway from the first year of the Tsai Administration going into the 2018 local elections is going to be… gay marriage, not something on living standards or the economy. The DPP does not need voters to be asking themselves why they keep hearing about gay marriage when their salaries have regressed to 1998 levels.

The gay marriage debate also points to messaging issues. The Administration needs to start loudly pointing out successes to an impatient public. Else voters may conclude that the gay marriage debate is dragging simply to distract people from the Administration’s labor and economic policies, and that the Tsai Administration is playing games with them. In the final weeks of the election campaign Candidate Tsai did a brilliant job of getting out to press the flesh, kiss babies, and mingle with her people. Now it appears to many observers that Tsai is choosing a Ma Ying-jeou-like remoteness. The President needs to be seen getting out among the people more.

Changing attitudes among the under-40 cohorts mean that gay marriage will sooner or later be a done deal. Activists might consider letting the Administration quickly pass a separate civil unions bill to end the public debate. Once the public discovers that gay marriage has not destroyed civilization, the government will be able to quietly amend the civil code and give full and equal marriage rights to all who love.