The scene on the ground floor at the Stonewall Inn on Friday night was like that of any gay bar on a typical weekend, but upstairs a packed crowd of more than 100 people gathered to raise awareness and money ahead of a crucial election in Taiwan on November 24 that could determine whether that nation becomes the first in Asia to win marriage equality.
Taiwan’s constitutional court ruled last year that same-sex couples should have the right to marry, and lawmakers were given two years to amend the constitution or else it would become law. Yet, anti-LGBTQ forces, with support from American groups like the National Organization for Marriage, have put these plans in jeopardy by pushing referenda on the ballot that could not only prevent marriage equality but also curtail LGBTQ-informed sex education in schools. LGBTQ activists have responded with a ballot effort of their own in favor of same-sex marriage.
Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan, along with American groups including Freedom to Marry, the Human Rights Campaign, and others showed up on Friday night determined to push back against that conservative wave.
Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson, a veteran proponent of marriage equality, is sharing advice based on his years of experience in the fight for marriage in the US.
“Everything you do now really will make a difference, whether it’s calling and writing and encouraging your friends back in Taiwan to vote,” he told the crowd. “That makes a difference. Don’t kid yourself. That’s how we won, by having those conversations.”
One of the main hurdles facing LGBTQ activists in Taiwan is an advertising blitz by wealthy conservative groups. Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan chair Jennifer Lu appeared Friday night via a recorded video and discussed the on-the-ground work her group has been carrying out during the time leading up to the vote. Lu’s team has utilized digital marketing and education to spread the word, but she said they need more money to begin on-air advertising.
Lance Chen-Hayes, a Taiwanese-American activist who said he has been back and forth between Taiwan and the US in an effort to fight for marriage equality, has seen firsthand the negative impact of the anti-gay advertisements.
“They have more than $33 million and they are financing everything,” he explained. “I’ve seen banners hanging from storefronts, I’ve seen banners on buses, I’ve seen people handing out flyers in cities and rural areas. It’s horrible.”
A television advertisement currently airing in Taiwan was shown at the event to underscore the overt fear-based messaging used by conservative groups. The ad featured ominous music and showed parents horrified at the notion of same-sex marriage.
“I want to be very clear that these ads didn’t just come out of nowhere,” said Freedom to Marry’s Cameron Tolle, who also has traveled to Taiwan twice since the summer. “That ad is nearly a carbon copy of the same exact ad that we had to fight against here in the US… Tonight, we’re letting anti-LGBT groups in Taiwan know that we are watching you.”
The crowd at Friday’s event started off with a couple of dozen attendees, but soon it grew to the point where there was no room to walk. Tolle announced that $3,800 of the $5,000 they hoped to raise for Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan had been raised in the event’s first hour. He returned to the podium shortly after that to reveal that the night’s fundraising goal was met, leading to loud cheers from the crowd.
People from all over Asia and elsewhere around the world flocked to the Stonewall to show their support. Tommy Chong, who is from Hong Kong, said he wanted to attend because of the impact the vote could have on other parts of the region.
“It’s an historical moment for gay rights in Asia,” he said. “Other cities and countries in Asia could follow them as a role model.”
A 27-year-old Taiwanese-American lesbian named Jessica, who opted not to share her last name because she is not out to her family, is worried that progress that has been made in Taiwan could be scaled back. The status quo, she said, is not enough.
“Even though I’m not technically there right now, it’s important to be here tonight,” she said. “I just hope that we can be married like any other couple. I don’t want there to be some weird separate but equal thing going on.”
Underscoring one of the main themes of the night — voter turnout — Taiwan native Chin Chia Li said he believes that voicing support for gay rights to family and friends is what can help turn his country into a beacon of hope for LGBTQ people. He said he is out to all of his friends, both gay and straight, and they have all been very supportive of him.
“We have to come out to let everybody know that yes, we are human, we are right here, we have the right to get married,” he said.
The other groups supporting the effort on Friday night included API Rainbow Parents of PFLAG NYC, GAPIMNY, OutRight Action International, Human Rights Watch, and Café Philo@NY.
Those who speak Chinese can learn more by visiting Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan’s website at equallove.tw.