Legislator Hsu in his office in front of a wall of letters supporting his marriage equality efforts
In recent months the same-sex marriage debate in Taiwan has become a hotly contested issue. Queerious team member Hannah had the privilege to sit down and talk with marriage equality advocate and KMT Legislator, Jason Hsu. Take a look!
Hannah Fazio: Can you please introduce yourself and talk about your legislative role in the KMT?
Jason Hsu: I was nominated by the KMT as a non-constituency legislator before 2016. Before joining parliament, I didn’t really have any political affiliations. I didn’t participate in any party, and I was running TedXTaipei. I figured that it was a good opportunity to do something regardless of the party. Once I assumed this role, I put a few things on my priority list. Number one is education. Number two is environmental sustainability. Number three is entrepreneurship and technological innovation. These are the three things that I care most about. That’s my background and strength as well. It’s about one year into my job as a legislator. I’m learning a lot and I’m happy that I can make use of my past experiences, especially my network and connections with the startup community. As well, during my years as a TedXTaipei organizer, I got to see a lot of social issues that need to be addressed. I’m very happy that I’m now at a role and place where I can really assert an influence and impact.
HF: How and when did you first get involved with the marriage equality movement?
JH: Growing up I always had gay friends around me. Even when I was in high school or college, I had gay friends. When I started my business, I also employed gay and lesbian employees in my companies. During my conversations with them, I realized that the LGBT community faces a difficult situation in Taiwan. When I became a legislator, during my first session last year, I was in the committee of law and justice. It happened to be the committee where the same-sex marriage bills were reviewed. I realized that it was time for me to take action. I made it my priority as a member of the committee of Law and Justice to propose the [marriage equality] bill. On October 21st last year, I actually made a speech to parliament to urge the Taiwanese government to pass the bill to legalize same-sex marriage, and to become the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. After that, one thing led to another. It’s a snowball effect. That’s basically how I got involved.
HF: Could you talk a little bit about what inspired you to introduce the marriage equality bill on behalf of the KMT?
JH: Although I’m in a conservative party, I want to demonstrate more progressive and liberal values in a conservative camp. I realize with my role as an opposition legislator, I can monitor the government and project values that have not yet been conceived in this party... I chose this timing because we had just completed the presidential election, and in our first parliamentary session there [was] not much political agenda, or there is no election in sight. It’s the best time to move forward with such an agenda. We also have a new congress where the makeup of the legislatures is more modern and more progressive. I realized this could be a good opportunity to propose such a bill.
After I made the speech in parliament, I initiated a version of the bill and article amendments. Together with [the] NPP and DPP bills, we have close to 58 legislators sponsoring same-sex marriage on broader terms. This means that almost half of the legislative body supports same-sex marriage. We didn’t know at the time that same-sex marriage would be such a divisive topic. It literally cuts the society in half. We came upon really strong resistance from anti-LGBT groups. There are a lot of rumors that are really negative …I realize that I’m not just waging the war between the yes and no [camps], but I’m waging the war against a society that is easily manipulated and does not spend the time to deeply think about an issue…
HF: How do you deal with the opinions from the opposition and their arguments? How do you recommend moving forward?
JH: I go into the nay sayer’s camp and talk to them to address the points that they care about. They care about education and whether or not they will lose the ability to call their parents “mom” and “dad”... I’m trying to assuage their fears. The impact of the article amendments (once it’s passed) can be openly discussed. I think it’s important as a legislator and as a public servant to understand that your role is to build bridges, not to segregate one side from the other. I think all of us play certain roles in that. Also, our social media makes us have the ability and accountability to be responsible for the things we said and the information we spread.
HF: Do you think Taiwanese society is ready to accept same-sex marriage? What makes today’s Taiwan different than 2006 and 2013 when marriage equality bills were being discussed?
JH: I don’t know if Taiwan is ready or not. I think it’s a question subjective to everyone’s interpretation. There isn’t a 100% readiness to be honest. I think with something like this you can look at a historical point of view. Our first openly gay case was 40 years ago, [so] you can see a forty-year march into this long journey. You can also continue to argue that we are not there yet, that we need to wait for another three or four years and that we should set up a partnership law, special law, or civil union law... If you look at same-sex marriage, it’s not a blue or green political issue, but it’s more of a generational issue. People over the age of 40 mostly oppose same-sex marriage, and people who are younger generally support it. As a legislator we are setting the law for the future, not for the past. If we were to create a law that will project what Taiwan can be in 10 or 15 years, then we should work towards that. We shouldn’t make compromises just because in a year or two we have an election and we have to [worry about] upsetting a certain group of people. When a law can project a long-term progressive value, then our minds and our system will work towards moving in that direction. I think that’s the direction we should take, that which projects a progressive social value. It maybe not be immediately effective, but then, we are seeing [potential for] the society in 10 or 20 years, two or three generations’ time.
HF: You mentioned setting the law for what you envision for Taiwan in the future, and not compromising. What about a civil partnership bill? What are your thoughts on that versus an equal marriage bill?
JH: When people look at this issue, there are schools of thought that think we should set up the civil union and partnership law, [and] there is a direct approach to the civil law amendment, which is my approach. If you look at some of the European countries that went through [with] the partnership law and then they went to the civil law (in two steps), you realize that they’ve already taken the time to really understand the issue...Why don’t we look at this law as a basic law that will treat everyone as equals.
If you are a same-sex marriage person, or LGBT person, you want to be the same as the person next to you, a heterosexual. There is no difference at all. If there is no difference at all, why do we need a special law? I think for those who side with the special law, they have to understand that we are dealing with a group of people who are not inherently different than us. If they aren’t different than us, why should we segregate? It’s like back in the early 1950s, when black people could only sit in the back of the bus [in the U.S.]. I think that our government has to be bold in making a statement and showing that political will, and really not appeasing both sides. It’s a political will issue, it’s not a right or wrong issue. So much of the debate now is the issue of open-sex education, and what to call parents, these types of things which are ungrounded.
HF: Do you think marriage equality will be achieved during President Tsai’s term?
JH: This is something that I worry about. When President Tsai campaigned, she campaigned on a heroic trail that I think leaves a lot of promises to fulfill. I feel that this young generation wants an answer for same-sex marriage. Unfortunately, since she took office, she hasn’t made any official statements on that; that’s why people are upset and are gradually losing patience and faith in her on this particular issue. I think what she faces is a dilemma where internally there is a certain group of people that say go ahead and pass it; they are her constituency. [However,] the district legislators have to worry about the next election. This last Friday [March 24th] we just had the constitutional debate. We will see how we are going to move to the next stage. I think that we might face a challenge to pass the bill this year. Next year we have mayoral elections which means that the same-sex marriage issue will be much more sensitive. It probably won’t be passed either. But we will see. We have done our job in passing the article amendments, once we move to the chamber for vote, we will decide whether it is a special or civil law.
HF: Do you have any idea when that will take place?
JH: We will have to see how the constitutional debate manifests. It’s supposed to come out in a month’s time [May 24th]. Also, our parliament this session is focused on pension reform. So the DPP, the ruling party, they have decided on 23 bills as priority bills to pass (there is no same-sex marriage bill). We don’t honestly know. I’ve always told the activist groups and the community that they should talk to their legislators and they should continue their work, either lobbying or talking with different groups. But not to further more divisions, but to urge the government to move forward.
HF: Going back to the constitutional deliberations that just occurred, do you have any opinions?
JH: It was really the first time in history that such a sensitive issue was held on constitutional court and was nationally televised. It was a good example for the public. In terms of how I think the result will come out, I hope our grand judges make decisions based on their independent judgment, not as an extension of the political direction of the ruling party. Our grand justices are picked by our president. Somehow they have to also answer to her past campaign promise. If our current President is indecisive and wavering between the two camps, I think our grand judges will also be affected. I hope that they can make their decisions based on independent judgment. Secondly, I think that although there isn’t much we can do but wait during this time, I think the level to which our defenders defend same-sex marriage exhibit a high level of understanding of the depth of this issue. I think society should take this as a good social material. I hope we have more debates like this in the future. I hope that no matter what eventually the result is, that our government will move to let the legislators make final decisions. It’s really an issue of the people. I think if legislators represent all people, it should be left to us to make that vote in the chamber. I don’t want to see it keep getting delayed and all of a sudden [when] we have another election coming up, and this vanishes up in thin air.
HF: What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of pushing for marriage equality in Taiwan?
JH: Obviously, I think the challenging part is that I face very strong internal pressure from my own party. I make myself available to explain to them my thinking behind it, and also I’m quite transparent in terms of why I think this is important and why I believe Taiwan shouldn’t be bogged down by green or blue ideology in fights. There are some issues that the two camps should work together to achieve the goal, same-sex marriage being one of them. Over the course of time I have met a lot of people, also KMT supporters, who are gay and whose voice have never been represented before. I’ve received written letters, which is very heartwarming to me. I also face random criticism or attacks, but I don’t mind those things.
I do feel that an issue like this is like an elephant in the room. People see it, but don’t talk about it. I have friends who have unfriended me on facebook because I support same-sex marriage or send me hate messages. All of these things make me think deeper about humanity, about what kind of legacy I want to leave behind. Am I telling the right stories?
HF: What would it mean for Taiwan, domestically and internationally, if same-sex marriage is legalized?
JH: Number one, we will become the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. I think that really sends a loud noise to the international community, that Taiwan stands for liberal values and that it’s a free democracy that is very progressive. I think once or when it’s passed, it’s also a good example for other societies in Asia to follow. During the last few months, I’ve met with parliament [members] from Japan, South Korea, [and] Singapore. They all shared with me that the same-sex marriage issue wasn’t even possible to talk about in their parliament. Taiwan can really share this experience with our friends in Asia and really become a place for sharing and learning. I think it’s important for Taiwan.
I think it also further solidifies our place in the world as a country that supports freedom of choice and also promotes [the] equality movement for the last 30 years. I think that in the future when I have kids they will understand what is true equality. I think they could have an event they could talk about, it’s something we will all be proud of.
[Also], this will really drive the economy. Taipei has always been gay friendly, and if we pass this law, all the couples will come and get married. I think this is great. I think we need to make plans for those on the other camp to understand that in our schools, nothing will be changed. I think that is also important to figure out as well.
(Editing: Elyse Mark, Cat Jensen, Art M., Mika)