October 31, 2018 at 8:31 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Taiwan marriage activists receive support from Evan Wolfson, HRC

A referendum on whether to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in Taiwan will take place on Nov. 24. Evan Wolfson, founder of Freedom to Marry, and his former colleagues are working with Taiwanese advocates ahead of the vote. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lu/Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan)

The founder of Freedom to Marry and two of his former colleagues are working with same-sex marriage activists in Taiwan ahead of next month’s referendum on the issue.

Evan Wolfson, Cameron Tolle and Thalia Zepatos are working with the Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan, an organization that is campaigning in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples on the island.

Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan Chief Coordinator Jennifer Lu told the Washington Blade earlier this month during a WhatsApp interview from the Taiwanese capital of Taipei that she first met Wolfson in 2015 when he was in Taiwan to give a speech about efforts to secure marriage rights for same-sex couples in the U.S.

“At that time, we didn’t have our marriage equality coalition,” said Lu, who attended the Human Rights Campaign’s Global Innovative Advocacy Summit in 2016. “We actually reconnected and looked for their experience.”

Lu noted Freedom to Marry’s strategy ahead of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in the Obergefell case that extended marriage rights to same-sex couples throughout the U.S. was to connect with “normal people.”

Wolfson — who has worked with marriage advocates in more than a dozen countries that include Cuba, Switzerland and Japan — was last in Taiwan in July 2017.

Tolle and Zepatos traveled to the island earlier this month. Lu told the Blade they shared their “longtime experience” on the issue when they were in Taiwan.

“We learned a lot from those experiences,” said Lu.

Five LGBTI-specific questions before voters

Taiwanese voters on Nov. 24 will consider five questions that relate to marriage and LGBTI-inclusive school curricula.

One question asks whether same-sex couples should receive marriage rights through Taiwan’s civil code. Another question asks voters whether they agree the island’s Gender Equity Act should include LGBTI-inclusive school curricula.

Two questions that LGBTI rights opponents proposed ask voters whether marriage in Taiwan should be defined as between a man and a woman and whether they agree the Gender Equity Act should include LGBTI-inclusive school curricula. Another question asks whether same-sex couples should be able to enter into civil unions or domestic partnerships, as opposed to marriages.

“Our supporters need to vote for three nos, two yes,” Lu told the Blade. “It’s a really confusing message, but we are really trying our best to clarify that.”

Lu said the Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan has produced ads that feature same-sex marriage supporters. One of these ads features a 93-year-old grandmother with a lesbian granddaughter. A group of firefighters who Lu described as “all straight” and “muscular” appear in another.

Lu told the Blade her organization has staff and volunteers working in Taipei and in other cities across Taiwan. The Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan had a large presence at Taipei’s annual Pride celebration on Oct. 27 that drew more than 100,000 people.

Freedom to Marry, HRC, Human Rights Watch and OutRight Action International are among the organizations that are hosting a fundraiser for the Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan at the Stonewall Inn in New York City on Friday. Freedom to Marry has also launched an online fundraiser to raise funds for the Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan’s campaign.

“We actually learned a lot from the United States, Australia and Ireland,” said Lu.

Brian Brown, NOM supporting Taiwan marriage opponents

Taiwan’s Constitutional Court in May 2017 ruled the provision of the island’s civil code that does not “allow two persons of the same sex to create a permanent union of intimate and exclusive nature for the committed purpose of managing a life together” is unconstitutional. The landmark ruling also said same-sex couples could legally marry within two years if Taiwanese lawmakers fail to “amend or enact relevant laws” that allow them to do so.

President Tsai Ing-wen is among those who publicly support marriage rights for same-sex couples. Lu noted to the Blade that a majority of Taiwanese also back the issue.

Taiwan would become the first country in Asia to allow gays and lesbians to legally marry if voters approve the marriage referendum questions.

“We have a real chance to continue the strong momentum in Taiwan that could make Taiwan that could make Taiwan the first in Asia to secure the freedom to marry,” Wolfson told the Blade earlier this month during a telephone interview. “The eyes of many in Asia are watching what’s happening.”

Activists in Taipei, Taiwan, on May 24, 2017, celebrate the Taiwan Constitutional Court ruling that recognized same-sex marriage. (Photo courtesy of Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association)

Both Wolfson and Lu noted the National Organization for Marriage is providing support to marriage opponents ahead of the referendum.

NOM President Brian Brown in a video he recorded from Taipei in January referenced California’s Proposition 8. Brown also noted 33 states banned marriage for same-sex couples until the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Obergefell ruling in 2015.

“It’s critical in a situation where the courts have come in and attempted to redefine marriage, that the people stand up for the truth of marriage and that there is true democracy, a true vote,” said Brown in his video.

HRC Global in Sept. 7 blog post notes Brown has traveled to Taiwan “several times” since 2017.

“Notorious anti-LGBTQ exporter of hate Brian Brown — who has unsuccessfully worked to undermine marriage equality in the United States for at least 11 years — is now peddling his hatred in Taiwan,” reads the post.

Lu largely echoed this sentiment when she spoke with the Blade.

“They lost in the U.S.,” said Lu. “They need to find a new place to build their power.”

A NOM spokesperson has yet to return the Blade’s request for comment for this story.

Brian Brown, National Organization for Marriage, NOM, Values Voter Summit, gay news, Washington Blade

National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown speaks at the Values Voter Summit in 2014. He is working with opponents of marriage rights for same-sex couples in Taiwan ahead of next month’s referendum on the issue. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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