In May 2017, Taiwan’s constitutional court ruled that existing laws stipulating that a marriage must be between a man and a woman were unconstitutional. Taiwan’s Legislature was given two years to change the law.
Opponents of same-sex marriage pushed back against the changes with three referenda in November 2018 on gay marriage. In this election, voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposal for same-sex marital rights to be protected in the country’s Civil Code by 67% to 33%. Taiwanese citizens also voted for a motion stating that marriage defined in the civil code should be restricted to union between one man and one woman. Another proposal concerning the national education at all levels about the importance of gender equality, emotional education, sex education, and same-sex education was also rejected.
Nevertheless, the referenda could not overrule the constitution. In May 2019, therefore, a Government’s bill legalising same-sex marriage in Taiwan, via legislation that did not alter the civil law’s definition of marriage, was passed, making Taiwan the first country in Asia to legalise gay marriage.
While the decision was much lauded by the international community, our polling suggests that there is still not necessarily mass popular support for the change within Taiwan itself. 38% of respondents expressed their approval for the measure while 30% expressed disapproval, suggesting that majority support for same-sex marriage has still not developed, although the existence of plurality support already is notable. Interestingly, a further 29% neither approve nor disapprove.
By May 2020 Taiwan had recorded 4,021 same-sex marriages. This number is comparable to the 6,538 marriages Australia saw in its first year of same-sex marriage legalisation. However, this number still means that the likelihood of an average Taiwanese citizen interacting with a same sex married couple remains low.
There is much higher support for same sex-marriage among those aged 18 to 34. Our poll found that 64% of 18-to-24-year olds support same-sex marriage in Taiwan, whereas only 11% disapprove. Meanwhile 56% of 25-34 year olds approve and only 15% disapprove. Support is far lower among older voters. For example, among the 45-54 age category, only 27% approve of the legalisation while 41% disapprove.
There is a clear partisan element to the results as well. There is higher support from 2020 Tsai voters, among whom support stands at 54%. President Tsai spearheaded the reform making their higher average support understandable. However, the 46% of her voters who disapprove or do not actively approve shows how the legislation has been a complex political subject for her to navigate. Even among Tsai’s more progressive voting base, there is by no means unanimous support for the reform.
Among those who voted for Kuomintang candidate Han Kuo-yu in 2020, disapproval of same-sex marriage is far higher at 50%. This result can be explained by the KMT’s generally conservative leanings. However, opposition from KMT voters might also stem from the feeling that the legalisation of same-sex marriage ignored the democratic views expressed in the 2018 referenda. In its defence, the Government could argue that the constitutional court ruling compelled them to act, and that by changing the law outside of the civil code they did not go in direct contravention of voters’ wishes.
Our poll nonetheless suggests Tsai made a politically correct decision in going ahead with the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Taiwan. While 30% of the country disapprove, 70% are either supportive or do not have an active view for or against. Given the pressure from younger voters (on whom the DPP heavily depends on), it seems that in the long run their approval for the measure will bring Tsai more support than another decision would have done.