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Same-sex activists hug outside the parliament in Taipei on May 24, 2017 as they celebrate the landmark decision paving the way for the island to become the first place in Asia to legalise gay marriage. Crowds of pro-gay marriage supporters in Taiwan on May 24 cheered, hugged and wept as a top court ruled in favour of same-sex unions. / AFP PHOTO / SAM YEH (Photo credit should read SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images)
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(CNN) —  

Taiwanese voters rejected same-sex marriage in a referendum Saturday, dealing a blow to the LGBT community and allies who hoped the island would become the first place in Asia to allow same-sex unions.

Three referendum questions initiated by groups that opposed marriage equality passed, while those put forth by same-sex marriage advocates did not.

For instance, the majority vote was yes on a question that asked, “Do you agree that Civil Code regulations should restrict marriage to being between a man and a woman?”

Voters, meanwhile, rejected a question put forth by LGBT activists that asked if civil code marriage regulations “should be used to guarantee the rights of same-sex couples to get married.”

Amnesty International Taiwan’s Acting Director Annie Huang called the result “a bitter blow and a step backwards for human rights” on the island.

“However, despite this setback, we remain confident that love and equality will ultimately prevail,” Huang said in a statement. “The result must not be used as an excuse to further undermine the rights of LGBTI people. The Taiwanese government needs to step up and take all necessary measures to deliver equality and dignity for all, regardless of who people love.”

High court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage

The vote comes after Taiwan’s high court passed a resolution in May 2017 ruling it was unconstitutional to ban same-sex couples from getting married.

The ruling was seen as a rare beam of light in a region infamous for its repression of LGBT people.

The ruling gave Taiwanese lawmakers a two-year deadline to enshrine marriage equality into law, but the government reached a deadlock.

With the government stuck, Taiwan’s conservatives saw an opportunity to use the newly revised referendum law – under which any suggested question that gets a minimum of 280,000 signatures must be put to the people – to stall same-sex marriage.

Legal confusion

Saturday’s results mean that Taiwan’s government could now be compelled to enforce a law already ruled unconstitutional.

Further complicating matters, there remains broad disagreement among legal experts on whether President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration is mandated to enact the result into law.

Members of a pro-gay Christian group assemble for the media before the start of a gay pride parade in Taipei on October 27, 2018.
DANIEL SHIH/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Members of a pro-gay Christian group assemble for the media before the start of a gay pride parade in Taipei on October 27, 2018.

One lawmaker from the president’s Democratic Progressive Party told CNN any positive result “must pass” in the next legislative session, but a legal expert insisted it was “up to lawmakers” how they dealt with the result.

Amnesty’s regional campaign manager for Taiwan Suki Chung said the result should not be used to undermine LGBT rights.

“The government must legislate for equality of marriage by 2019 to comply with the Constitutional Court’s decision,” Chung said on Twitter.

The director of Human Rights Watch’s LGBT rights program, Graeme Reid, also called for the legislation to be enacted.

“Disappointing measure of public opinion in #Taiwan referendum does not absolve lawmakers from enacting legislation - per Constitutional Court ruling - to allow same-sex partners to marry,” Reid tweeted.

Asia’s LGBT crisis

Taiwan is home to one of Asia’s largest and most vibrant gay communities. Many of its citizens take great pride in the island’s progressive, LGBT-friendly values. If it had approved same-sex marriage, it would have become the first place in Asia to do so.

Ahead of the vote, Human Rights Watch senior researcher Maya Wang said Taiwan was seen as an inspiration for LGBT rights activists.

“What’s happening in Taiwan has been generating a lot of excitement in the region for LGBT activists, including ones in mainland China and Hong Kong, where the possibility of it being legalized will generate pressure for other governments in the region to follow,” she told CNN.

Many of Taiwan’s neighbors in Asia are regressing in their recognition of LGBT people.

In Indonesia, declining secularism has led to deepening discrimination against the country’s gay, lesbian and transgender communities. Earlier this year there was even the suggestion of a possible ban on same-sex relations in the country.

While Indonesia is one of the more serious examples, Malaysia and the Philippines are also following its lead.

In September, two Malaysian women were publicly caned for attempting to have sex in a parked car, the first time a punishment of its kind has been imposed in the country.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has said he would protect LGBT rights in the country but it came not long after he hurled one of his characteristic insults, calling a US ambassador a “gay son of a bitch.”

In mainland China, where homosexuality is legal but prejudices and discrimination against LGBT people persist under Communist Party rule, an author of same-sex erotic fiction was sent to jail for 10 years in November.

Campaign against gay marriage

Gay and lesbian groups in Taiwan claimed a flood of deliberate disinformation was spread to confuse the public ahead of the Saturday’s vote.

A campaign budget of more than $3.24 million was reportedly raised by leading conservative group the Alliance for the Happiness of the Next Generation, whose advertisements have appeared on billboards and front pages of newspapers.

Across social media, rumors were circulated as to what could happen in Taiwan if same-sex marriage became legal, including false reports that other places that have passed the laws have regretted it.

CNN’s Ben Westcott, Angus Watson and Mimi Hsin Hsuan Sun contributed to this report.