Interview with Michael Cole: Observations About Taiwan's Same-Sex Marriage Opponents
Taiwan is poised to become the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. Michael Cole, Canadian journalist and Editor-in-chief at Taiwan Sentinel, is one of the few foreign journalists that has covered Taiwan’s marriage equality movement from both the supporters’ and oppositions’ viewpoint. Read below to hear what Cole has to say about Taiwan’s marriage equality opposition groups.
Question: Can you talk about how long you’ve been following the marriage equality opposition?
There was a resurrection of momentum for marriage equality in 2013. That was a year of extreme vibrancy for civil society in Taiwan. Primarily, over land expropriation issues. It kind of snowballed and revitalized other elements in civil society. So we start seeing momentum on that subject, and soon afterwards the usual suspects that have been opposed to legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan started making a little bit more noise. They have always been around. They also became more vocal. My first take on them was straight up opinion pieces on the virtues of legalizing same-sex marriage. I started looking at the kind of language that opponents were using. Then in November 2013 I went to my first protest organized by the opponents to same-sex marriage on Ketagalan Boulevard. There were a few thousand people gathered there. That’s when it became very evident that these people were bent on escalation; there were a number of infractions committed by organizers. First off, as a journalist it was my first time in Taiwan that civilians prevented me from moving around and even checked my credentials upon arriving at Ketagalan Boulevard. That’s when they started chasing around homosexuals and prevented them from moving, circling them, pushing them to the ground, screaming at them. There were definitely potentials for conflicts, and law enforcement was failing to do what was necessary. That incidence left a deep mark on me and it really pushed me to start looking at the actual organizations and the people behind this.
That meant primarily scanning Chinese language media of a Christian nature. It was very clear from the onset that while not all opponents to same-sex marriage in Taiwan are Christian, the efforts are very much spearheaded by Christian groups. I started looking at the actual churches. It wasn’t hard to identify them. I did a bit of link analysis and looked at these individual biographies. A lot of them had passed through certain theological schools in the United States, chief among them International House of Prayer. There were clear indications that Taiwan was now part of that campaign launched by conservative evangelicals to counter progressive forces globally. Once you look into what IHOP was doing in Africa, like Uganda, where they were working with the local government pushing for the death penalty for homosexuals, you realize that some preachers in Taiwan went through that same indoctrination in the US before coming back to Taiwan. To me that raises certain flags. I started looking even more into the other churches that opened houses of prayer in Taiwan. If you look at the nature of their religious beliefs, the language they are using, you realize that for all intents and purposes, they are replicating what we saw back in the United States.
The fact that they would find traction in Taiwan, that they would be active in recruiting individuals, and that they were very good in, notwithstanding their small numbers in Taiwan (Christians don’t account for more than 5 or 6 percent of the total population), they were able to recruit or position themselves within the government in ways that gave them the ability to block something that should have been relatively easy. At the time the Control Yuan Minister was himself a preacher at the Bread of Life church at Dazhi. Then you look behind that church and you realize that some of the wealthiest individuals in Taiwan, who are also born again Christians, have been donating millions of dollars to the cause. Basically you have a really activist Christian group that has an ability to tap into a then KMT administration. Historically if you wanted to climb the ranks in the KMT, being a Christian would help because Chiang Kai Shek himself had converted. Then throw in money and media available to them. That’s why, in my opinion, these small groups were able to hold hostage a country that was ready to move on to the next step in legalizing same-sex marriage.
Question: Was the public sympathetic? Did they have alliances with other domestic or international churches?
To be fair, not all media were receptive to their views and ideology. But, when some of the wealthiest individuals in Taiwan are donating millions of dollars to certain churches, and are themselves born-again Christians, and acquire media outlets in Taiwan, the discourse changes. Those were individuals closely aligned with the KMT. In election time, they gave a certain momentum against some of the things that the DPP was pushing, including marriage equality. In terms of recruitment, they were quite active in the streets. They were distributing pamphlets in schools. Not only were they opposing same-sex marriage, but there was a drive promoting abstinence. That was one of the issues that runs parallel. All of a sudden you see pamphlets being distributed in high schools or Seven Elevens. In terms of how successful that campaign was at recruiting people, I’m not certain. Their actual impact, in terms of support rates, within Taiwanese society, seemed to be rather marginal. Most young people who saw that propaganda didn’t seem to be swayed one way or another. Primarily, because around that time, there was a push back on social media. That was the era of pre-Sunflower movement. That’s where the action was - on FB. Often times, the propaganda that was being spread by the Christian organizations would in a matter of hours be countered on social media. If you want to convince young people to change their views, it’s not through distributing pamphlets, but by being savvy on the internet and on Facebook. That’s why they probably lost that battle for hearts and minds in 2013.
Question: Was there competition between these churches? Unified goals? Who was granted a mainstream voice?
There was an attempt at an united front, which became known as the Protect the Family Alliance. They tried to give the impression that it was a multi denominational front as well. They had the token Buddhist at their conferences. I’ve gone to all the protests. I was raised as a Catholic, and I recognize a Christian song when I hear one. At the protest, there was no attempt to hide the fact that it was a Christian endeavor. Even within the different Christian churches in Taiwan, there are a constellation of those, and within the Catholic churches as well, there was and still is disagreement of what is and isn’t permissible. The mainstream view among the hard-line churches, the ones who have been the most activist, is that homosexuality is a sin [and] would be their baseline. It can be cured, and that allowing it would destroy society as we know it. It would lead to an AIDS epidemic, bestiality, you name it. There is a whole litany of ills that would befall Taiwan according to them, if we were to legalize. It’s verbatim the kind of language that we have seen in the US, France, Africa, and Australia. They’re not reinventing the wheel. They have injected some local elements like protecting the bloodline which is a very Chinese thing. There was a notion about being filial, about being able to reproduce (as if homosexuals cannot have children). It was an utterly unscientific view of the world. That being said, there were more mainstream churches that were probably amenable to some sort of a compromise, maybe a separate bill that would allow for civil unions between individuals of the same gender but still firmly opposed to changing the language in the constitution whereby a marriage is strictly between a man and a women. There was an attempt at meeting the other camp halfway. The problem I’m sensing is that the internal battle has been lost by those churches because they’re a lot less vocal than the hard-line ones for lack of a better term.
My sense is that at some point when we were close to some sort of agreement or accommodation, the hardliners would come out again and try to derail the negotiation and drag it indefinitely because of their deeply held beliefs that ultimately, this is sinful and will destroy society as we know it. The government has said we need to sit down together and find common ground. I’m not convinced that it’s even possible because the [Christian] activists […] cannot be reasoned with. The activist ones have hijacked the whole talk. The problem with them is because they are part of what we call dominionism, which is a battle being waged globally where you need to turn everyone into a Christian. It’s difficult to find accommodation with people espousing this kind of ideology. I think they would be losing ground in Taiwan if the more moderate churches in Taiwan had come out and said enough is enough, this does not represent our religion. But, we haven’t seen that and it’s been 3 or 4 years. We have rarely seen pastors, preachers, and churches come out and say this is preposterous or this is not what we believe in. The few people who have tried to do that were immediately bullied and threatened by the more radical churches in Taiwan, and were silenced. Until we see that counter movement within the larger church establishment in Taiwan, the radicals unfortunately will be able to maintain that position of authority as leaders of the movement against same-sex marriage.
Question: Do you think marriage equality will be achieved during Tsai’s first term?
A lot of what happens is contingent on how vocal the opposition camp will remain. [For example], if they continue to succeed in convincing the government that they stand to lose if they embrace marriage equality. Conversely, it’s also contingent on what the pro-LGBT movements do and their ability to convince the DPP that there is a price to pay for not delivering on a promise that was made during the lead up to 2016. My sense is that this is the direction that LGBT groups are going now. Just appealing to common sense is not good enough. I worked with Tsai for 2.5 years. I know most of the people who are part of her cabinet right now. Their reluctance to embrace same-sex marriage right now is not a moral position, none of them are homophobes. None of them are fundamentally opposed to it, it’s pure political calculation. These people are politicians. The goal of the LGBT groups, whose principle approach so far is to appeal to morality (human rights, justice, equality, and all that). Now they are realizing that this is politics and they need to appeal to the calculations of politicians and strike fear into their hearts. That there will be hell to pay if they fail to deliver on their promises. They have the advantage of having much wider appeal to young people. The very young people who helped propel the DPP to where it is today. The lead up to and following the Sun Flower Movement phenomenon, they are much more internet savvy. Their ability to mobilize and come up with creative artwork, websites, songs, slogans, videos, you name it is light years ahead of what we have seen so far by the Christian evangelical organizations.
Question: On one hand this is a voting issue. What about funding though? How does funding for the DPP influence this issue?
Presbyterians are super active in Tainan, and Tainan is the heartland of the DPP and in the South as well. Ironically, for a church that historically has been a staunch defender of human rights, they came out against legalization in Taiwan. The fact that Presbyterians are going after now-DPP legislators in Tainan, threatening to unseat them if they continue to support same-sex marriage, has made people pay attention. That being said, if you look at it purely from an electoral perspective, there is no chance whatsoever that push comes to shove in 2018 and 2020 that traditional Presbyterians in Southern Taiwan would choose not to vote for the DPP and vote for the KMT over that single issue of same-sex marriage. Either they will not vote, or vote for the DPP notwithstanding their disagreement with same-sex marriage. Conversely, the people who oppose same-sex marriage, the great majority are Christian evangelicals and KMT supporters. No matter what you do, they will not vote for you in 2018 and 2020. If you legalize same-sex marriage they will punish you by voting for the KMT, if you don’t legalize it they will still vote for the KMT. This is something else that Tsai and her people need to understand. The actual costs of not legalizing same-sex marriage might be much higher than legalizing it. You could lose a lot of your young people that did vote for you in 2016, or might abstain or vote for a smaller party in 2020. Young people not voting has never been good for the DPP. You need that base. The young people in Taiwan are supportive of same-sex marriage; they’re super progressive.
Question: What do you think about the Supreme Court deliberations?
Constitutional Court was telling. As far as I know, it’s the first time that subject had been brought to the courts. Ultimately, that is not where the decision of marriage equality will be made. There was a symbolic value; we’ll find out eventually what their decision is on the issue. If they rule against it, it will give momentum to the opposition. If they rule in favor, it will give momentum to LGBT organizations. But again, it’s not going to happen until you get that one final push from the executive branch of government even though it is fundamentally a legislative decision. The way parliament works in Taiwan, the caucus whip will not go against the wishes of the executive. Currently, the caucus whip in parliament sounds staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage, not because that’s what he believes in, but because that’s how he interprets the directives coming from the executive branch. If at some point the executive branch decides to make this happen, I bet you the caucus whip will change his language. Then you will see momentum. They have enough seats to make it happen.
Question: Anything else you want to add?
The other element that is quite important is that another means to pressure the government is to internationalize the issue. Here again there is leverage on Tsai primarily because in her election campaign they made it such a big issue. It’s not always the case that international media pays attention to Taiwan, but this time they did. Almost every single global outlet talked about Tsai and her chances of becoming elected. It would also have references to Taiwan likely becoming the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. Entire articles were written on that subject alone in the world’s largest newspapers. Now nothing is happening. This can be leveraged by the pro LGBT organizations to make Tsai look bad in the eyes of the international community. The Taiwanese government pays a lot of attention to foreign perceptions for good reasons or bad, so it can be utilized by one side or the other depending on the context. I haven’t seen this happen much so far, because Taiwanese civil society isn’t very good at reaching out to the international community no matter what the issue is. That has been a handicap of Taiwanese society since whenever. Until they figure out how to completely do it, they won’t be able to leverage international pressure. That could be the next step. There are definitely savvy individuals in the LGBT camp, a number of whom were educated abroad so chances are that this made them a little more worldly. This might become part of their campaign. I have trouble seeing the anti-group finding allies overseas to pressure Tsai in that way unless they form alliances with ultraconservative groups and churches in the US who also feel emboldened by the whole Trump phenomenon. We have recently seen signs of Mass Resistance providing support, language, ideology, pamphlets, and booklets for the movements here in Taiwan opposing same-sex marriage. These are ultimately very fringe organizations in the U.S., not very relevant.
The opposition groups would kick and strangle people. Law enforcement wouldn’t intervene. That is not a way to wage a good PR campaign when this is ultimately a battle for hearts and minds. I don’t know who is in charge of their PR campaign, but they are doing an abysmal job and it’s not improving. The LGBT groups are constantly refining their language. They have committed to nonviolence. Their language is one of acceptance and enlarging the scope of human rights in Taiwan. In the long run, it’s difficult to see how they wouldn’t win that battle. Now the question is if they are willing to be more patient, or have they concluded that it will happen soon…that the stars have aligned, Tsai was elected. Then they will be disappointed again. If in 2020 the KMT would come to power, that means you will have to wait several years still. Historically, the KMT has been a lot more conservative over those issues. There is a window right now in Taiwan at very little cost to society or other willing parties. The closer you get to 2018, the closer you get to 2020, the more difficult it is going to be for the government to pass the legislation. The window is closing as 2018 approaches. You know that the opponents are going to put pressure on local governments, local candidates. The best time to pass it was May 20th last year and I would say the last quarter of this year at which point you will start seeing gearing up for 2018. That’s the thing with election cycles in Taiwan, they’re sequential elections. Every two years you have elections on a national scale. So the periods in which there is no campaigning is pretty short. The other window would be doing well in 2018. At this point we don’t know. The closer we get to 2020 the more difficult it would be. I think people need to realize quickly that they are running out of time.
Question: Do you feel hopeful?
For personal reasons, I’m much closer to the side of civil society that supports marriage equality than opposes it. I think they have made it pretty clear that they want to be treated as equals, so a separate bill is non viable. In my opinion, it’s justified. Why would they be different? If you look at analogs in civil rights movements in the US, African Americans were mistreated and discriminated against for so many years. Then they didn’t invent separate laws to regulate their lives as citizens of the United States. Now their opinion is why should we be treated any different. It makes accommodation a lot more difficult on the other side. Will the majority of LGBT supporters be willing to adopt the longer-term strategy by saying that we might not get everything we want immediately, but it’s a stepping stone. My sense right now is this is not what the majority of LGBT supporters want. Their hopes were so high because of the language on marriage equality Tsai used in her campaign. So many videos for Tsai’s campaigns had same-sex couples kissing, holding hands; why wouldn’t they they be convinced that it was the direction the government would take if they were elected. If there had been more uncertainty of what would be accomplished under [the] DPP government, I don’t think we would have this high number of people in the LGBT camp who think we can get the maximum that we want. She definitely created false expectation. Whether these people can deescalate and accept half measures remains to be seen. If I were in those shoes I don’t see why it would be acceptable to be treated as a second-class citizen. Personally, I tend towards a maximalist position that they should be treated as equals, but I’m not Taiwanese and I don’t make laws in Taiwan. Ultimately, it’s their decision. But we can draw examples from other countries and realize that marriage equality won’t destroy society. My role as a foreigner who has made Taiwan his home, and who has a lesbian mother that is married, I know for a fact that I’m not screwed up. My country is doing pretty well and we were able to pass laws at a time when opposition was high. Opposition in Canada was probably higher than it is in Taiwan. Actually, if you look purely at the numbers, it should be easier in Taiwan.
An ad against same-sex marriage published on the front page of a Taiwanese newspaper by marriage equality opposition groups
Question: Have you noticed, following this issue in the US and Canada, that the pro or opposition side have altered the movement to fit Taiwan culturally?
The irony is that opponents have often referred to the fact that Taiwan is a Confucian or post-Confucian society. But the Christians don’t give a damn about Confucians. They’re using it because they believe this is terrible for Taiwan. They’re using something that they ultimately don’t believe in. The bloodline is a very Chinese way of looking at the world. I’ve seen references to Taiwan already having the lowest birth rates on the face of the planet, and if we legalize same-sex marriage, nobody will supposedly make children. It’s also a communicable disease. If we legalize same-sex marriage, we will have more and more homosexuals. Again, you look at it scientifically, and it’s disconnected from reality. Those are attempts at localizing the discourse. The notion that homosexuality is a foreign import is something that has been repeated over and over again. Or that support for same-sex marriage is part of a global conspiracy either by Western liberals who are seeking to impose their values on the East, so that speaks a lot to the supposed clash of civilizations. I’ve heard conspiracy theories that ultimately it’s pharmaceutical companies in the West that support same-sex marriage in foreign countries because it will contribute to the spread of AIDS and they can sell more expensive retroviral medicines to countries like Taiwan. That argument first reared it’s ugly head a couple of months ago. I believe it was a preacher in Kaohsiung. Does that have wide traction amongst those who oppose same-sex marriage? I don’t know. Again, this speaks to fear of the unknown, fear of external influences, imperialist powers that are trying to dictate what people can do in their own backyards. Taiwan, for all its many virtues, is still inward looking. When it comes to values and notions, there is still a resistance to outside forces. There is an anti-US streak in Taiwan. The US being the sole guarantor of its survival as a sovereign state. So there is a lot of contradictions as well in that regard. Some groups opposed to legalization have tried to tap into that fear of the other, fear of the outside. On the other side, obviously LGBT groups have tried to position Taiwan as a bastion of human rights, freedom of expression, an example for Asia. What’s next? It’s gender equality. Having the ability to emulate things that have successfully been implemented elsewhere. Ultimately, Taiwan is not in a vacuum so it will be affected by global trends. If there is a shift in the other direction, it could make the lives of LGBT activists in Taiwan a little more difficult. Conversely, the lives of the opponents a lot easier. These are all contingencies. Right now, it’s difficult to foresee. I don’t know what the contexts will be two years from now. We’ll see!
(Editing: Mika, Art M.)