June 1, 2000
Lesbian and Gay Taiwan:A Yardstick of Democracy
by Kelly Cogswell
The swearing in of Chen Shui-bian as President of Taiwan on May 20 was the first peaceful transfer of power between democratically elected leaders in a Chinese society. While successful elections are indicators of democracy, the development of civil society is far more important. The state of lesbian and gay Taiwan is as good a yardstick as any to tell us whether Chen’s inauguration is in the category of the short-lived two-headed calf at the county fair, or the shot heard round the world.
Persecution in the Nationalist Era.
Homosexual activity was accepted, by and large, as a natural part of sexual exploration in pre-modern China, and the Chinese-derived culture of Taiwan. Depictions of it are common in classical Chinese literature and art where it was usually portrayed fondly, though it was also sometimes lampooned. But generalized intolerance had already set in by the time the prudish Christian British arrived in China with their anti-sodomy laws. Things worsened for lesbians and gays during martial law in Taiwan, imposed when a small Nationalist minority arrived in 1949 from the newly-communist mainland China. The Nationalists ruled the Taiwanese population with the harsh, short-sighted intolerance of generals preparing for battle.
Political opposition was slaughtered or cowed. Taiwanese languages, which were prohibited in public, eroded in private. The land, particularly that belonging to indigenous people, was ruined by an explosion of unsustainable development geared to finance the Nationalist military. Rebellion against what were perceived to be traditional Chinese values like monogamous, heterosexual family life, and even dress and hair style, sometimes resulted in charges of sedition.
Those detained were frequently tortured while awaiting trial, and later during incarceration and "re-education". The Green Island prison was characterized as a concentration camp by those who were held there. Political prisoners released from jail had trouble finding work due to the stigma of "subversion".
In the final years of martial law, however, when the political climate had already begun to thaw, lesbian and gay characters began to appear in Taiwanese literature. Pai Hsien-Yung’s 1980 landmark novel "Niezi", later published in English as "Chrystal Boys", is widely regarded as the first Taiwanese queer novel. Some argue, though, that the lesbian Qiu Miao-Jin’s 1994 "Journal of a Crocodile" is the first novel with a modern, unapologetic queer sensibility.
In 1987, a few years after their fantasy of retaking China faded, the Nationalists ended martial law. Taiwan’s first democratic legislative elections were held in 1992, signalling the beginning of a new era for lesbians and gay men.
Today, there are queer magazines on newstands, lesbian and gay clubs at universities, and queer studies in the classroom. The younger generation comes out to friends, or siblings, but mostly not their parents. Gay men are out and proud in mixed bars and clubs. Gay men also have their own karaoke bars, bathhouses and gyms, while lesbians have their own teahouses. There are myriads of queer Taiwanese sites on the Internet. Japan, Taiwan, and Thailand are the three most gay-friendly countries in that part of the world according to queer Asians.
Activism, however, seems to be lagging behind visibility. According to Travis Hung, a recent gay Taiwanese immigrant to Boston, after so many years of danger and secrecy, the primary concern of the average Taiwanese queer or tongzhi (literally "comrade") is "finding someone to be with and having fun, not activism; the older generation is still heavily closeted, afraid coming out would endanger their career, family, or whatever they think is important." Besides, he says, "Asians overall are not crazy about politics."
Nevertheless, there’s been a small, but vibrant, queer activist community in Taiwan since the 1987 transition to democracy.
Activism in the New Democracy
In the late 80’s, the newly liberated Taiwanese press reported on the evolving gay liberation movements in the United States, along with new feminist movements, and AIDS activism. ACT UP’s blend of Ghandi-style civil disobedience, and wit honed in New York bars, bathhouses, and paddy wagons became a model for some Taiwanese activists.
Others found all this a burden. The 1996 "Chinese Tongzhi Manifesto", written by a consortium of queer Chinese intellectuals and activists, declared that "confrontational politics, such as coming out and mass protests and parades may not be the best way of achieving tongzhi liberation in the family-centred, community oriented Chinese societies which stresses the importance of social harmony." In a moment of wistful cultural amnesia, the writers turned their backs not only on the West, but on their own long Asian history of bloody politics and confrontational student activism almost traditional in Beijing, Seoul, and Jakarta. For the first few years of democracy, queer Taiwanese were on the outside looking in. The primary dialogue about homosexuality was in the hands of doctors intent on pathologizing it. This was exacerbated by the backlash against AIDS.
The brilliant anti-AIDS plan of ultra-conservative Hao Bocun, a former general, appointed Prime Minister in 1990, was to ostracize queers and sex workers as dangerous high-risk groups to be avoided. He portrayed them as a threat to "the ruling social order," especially that of the heterosexual nuclear family. Christian Taiwanese also touted AIDS as a punishment for sexual sins.
Queer AIDS activists found powerful allies in feminists. Unlike queers, women had been allowed to organize under martial law, so they initially had the best resources to lobby for change in governmental policy. Awakenings, one of the first feminist groups to give lesbians a voice, and already supportive of poor women forced into prostitution, rallied behind both gay men and sex workers. They demanded that AIDS be fought by releasing information about the transmission of AIDS and safe sex, not by demonizing people who had it.
The first lesbian group, Between Us, was formed in 1990 . A few years later, in 1993, Gay Chat, focused on safer sex and AIDS was founded at Taiwan University, but was forced to change its name to the unwieldy and apologetic "Research Group for problems of male homosexuals at the National Taiwan University". Later that same year the first officially registered gay magazine appeared "Ai fuhao zi zai bao", or "Aibao" for short, which means "Love-paper".
Despite the 1929 Publication Law (only abolished in 1999) requiring all publications to be registered and approved by the government, and the penalties imposed on publishing scofflaws, a wealth of other "un-official" newspapers and magazines appeared including "The Asian Lesbian Collective", "The Little Gay Paper", and "Gongdehui jishi", which concentrated on human rights.
Gays and lesbians took to the streets in 1993 to protest their exclusion when Taiwan’s Parliament was discussing an anti-discrimination law. The newly founded Home for Aids Victims was also protesting, but against the lack of action by Parliament.
The profile of queers was further heightened by the Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s 1993 film "The Wedding Banquet", about a gay Taiwanese yuppie living in New York who marries an illegal immigrant from China to fulfill the wishes of his aging parents and help her get a green card. When "The Wedding Banquet" won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival, photos of the Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui shaking hands with Ang Lee were plastered on the front page of every Taiwanese newspaper, giving the seal of approval to Lee’s gay subject matter.
Shortly after this, Chen Shui-bian, who was then mayor of Taipei, was challenged to attend a public gay wedding ceremony held by two gay men who returned home from the West expressly for the action. The cautious Chen didn’t turn up, but he did send a congratulatory letter with a representative. That letter, however, was signed by Chen as a private citizen, and not as mayor.
The first Gay Pride Festival was held in June 1997 in Taipei’s New Park, the setting for "Chrystal Boys". Over 30 gay organizations took part.
The Family and the Lie.
One rite of passage for Western queers is the moment of coming out as gay to our parents. There is even an "International Coming Out Day" celebrated in the U.S., where it originated, and countries ranging from Canada to New Zealand. While the new generation of Taiwanese queers does come out, it’s usually to friends and siblings, not to their parents. Two factors explain it: the higher stakes of alienating the family, and the acceptability of the useful lie.
A few years ago it seemed like every Taiwanese soap opera had someone dying of cancer. The doctor would gather the family together and ask them whether or not to tell the patient. The family inevitably considered it better not to burden him or her with the bad news. Of course, these being soap operas, the doomed character would find out inadvertently and more drama would ensue.
My point is that not all closets are created equal. A great deal of the horror of the Western closet is the horror and burden of the lie. When the lie is less of a burden, the effects are different. Compounded with the larger roles families play in Taiwan, coming out to them is often not cost-effective.
Safety Net and Straight Jacket.
For queers as for hets, Taiwanese life begins and ends with the family. It is both a safety net, and a straight jacket. Vivian Huang, a straight Taiwanese living in New York, described it as a "feudal system, each family being its own kingdom, with the oldest male the king." Though democracy reportedly exists outside the family, it’s still common for grandfathers to decide the votes of the entire family.
Love is tangled up with obedience. And loyalty to your family, in a country where there is no social security for your old age, no free government health insurance, may be the only thing keeping homelessness and death at bay. At utilitarian best, the family is a nursing home, hospital, day care center and pre-school. At worse, it is a fresh hell for daughters-in-law lowest in the pecking order, and a daily torture for queers. Without state aid, when each member of the family depends on the others for well-being, if not survival, marriage, procreation, and the continuance of the family are essential. For traditional families, heterosexual unions are neither sacrament nor heady joys, but a duty. In other words, love comes and goes, but continuing the social structure is your obligation, especially for oldest sons.
The pressure doesn’t start immediately. Mothers make excuses for their sons, said Vivian: "they’re too picky, too choosy, too poor, or just having too much fun." And gay sex, per se, is not necessarily a big problem for many Taiwanese, with the exception of fundamentalist Christians, as long as it doesn’t exclude marriage. Coming out in Taiwan, not just as a person who has sex with the same gender, but as a gay person, a lesbian person, who will not marry someone of a different gender, means not just painful fights, but an active attack on this entire structure of culture, identity, and fiscal safety. The worst is that you may be mortgaging not just your future, but the present of your parents and grandparents. And with an extensive arsenal known to include not just insults and tears, but threats of suicide or violence, they’re not gonna let you forget it.
As it is now, many gay folks in Taiwan cave in and marry to ease the pressure from their families. Sometimes gay men and their lesbian friends marry, kind of a kill two troublesome-family- birds with one stone, with an understanding that they will get a divorce later. Even those who cleverly immigrate to escape the pressure, are sometimes so effectively harrassed and guilt-tripped by their families that they break up longstanding gay relationships abroad and return to Taiwan and marry someone of the opposite sex.
The Chrystal Ball.
While there seems to be a possibly troublesome gap between queer theorists in Taiwanese universities, the bar scene, and activists-a gap which also exists in the U.S.-the increasing visibility and openness of lesbians and gays to friends and siblings is a good harbinger for the next generations of queers. In Taiwan, as elsewhere, children will find it easier to come out to parents who at least knew a gay person in college.
What Taiwanese queers need most is time. As Travis Hung said, "Maybe when the younger generation grows older, maybe then we’ll pursue gay rights." Everything depends on peace with big brother China, and a few more years in a democracy where you can raise your voice without being punished.
Now, after so many years of fear, and with the burden of the family waiting outside the bar door, it just seems better to party.
May 10, 2000
In Taiwan, Gay Life Has Zest
Nowhere else in the Chinese-speaking world are homosexuals as free to be open as they’ve become since the end of martial law in 1987. Yet a sense of duty leaves many people closeted within their own families.
by Henry Chu, Times Staff Writer
Taipei, Taiwan – Shu Yu Shen shows off his wedding album as proudly as the next guy. There he is on the big day, looking natty–and maybe slightly nervous–in his tailored Chinese suit. There are the guests, more than 300 of them, gathered in one of Taipei’s poshest hotels to watch the exchange of vows. And there’s the other groom, Shu’s Uruguayan partner, Gray Harriman, flashing a brilliant smile for the photographers and reporters who packed the ballroom to witness the ceremony that made headlines in Taiwan–and other parts of the world–in November 1996. Shu, an author, got up on stage beneath a rainbow flag and gave an emotional speech. "I’m just a representative for all gays and lesbians in Taiwan," he told the crowd. "I know many gay and lesbian couples who cannot get married and have the blessing of their friends."
It was a watershed moment for what has blossomed into the most progressive gay movement in the Chinese-speaking world. Hong Kong has its gay bars, and mainland China its growing but underground gay and lesbian community. But in Taiwan, homosexuals have stepped out of the closet and begun knocking on the doors of society, politics and culture in a way not found among any of this island’s neighbors. Since martial law was lifted here in 1987, gays have been free to band together and carve out their own niche, following the example of other interest groups in Taiwan’s raucous democracy. The island’s new openness and political pluralism have given gays a visibility and an outlet difficult to imagine in Hong Kong or mainland China.
"Society changed," said Shu, 39. "Every group tried to fight for their own rights and have their voice in public. It inspired us." The advocacy might seem tentative by Western standards, hampered as it is by still-strong social stigmas that discourage many gays from being open about their orientation.
But the gay scene in Taiwan also enjoys advantages that Western activists can only dream about. Anti-gay rhetoric and violence are virtually unheard of here. Religious proscriptions against homosexuality are almost entirely absent. In general, the public is far less polarized over the issue than in Western societies. On Valentine’s Day, the local gay community was even able to persuade one of the minor candidates in the March presidential election, Hsu Hsin-liang, to conduct a mock wedding between two women–with one role played by his running mate–to express his support for gay rights. "Whether you’re homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual, you should enjoy equal treatment," Hsu declared as the fake brides joined hands and the news cameras rolled, in a scene hardly imaginable in U.S. presidential politics.
Resources for homosexuals have grown by leaps and bounds in less than a decade. They now include a gay bookstore in Taipei, a community hotline, college support groups, a gay-friendly health clinic, at least two national magazines, and bars and nightclubs operating openly across the island. As in other countries, the Internet has been a major contributor to the boom, allowing gays and lesbians to find one another–and perhaps themselves–while maintaining a low profile if they choose. Cyberspace is "a place where you don’t have to reveal your true identity and people don’t know who you are," said Alexander Chang, the beret-topped creative director of G&L Publishing, which puts out G&L and Glory magazines. The two publications have a combined circulation of about 30,000 and are sold in mainstream bookstores, such as the popular Eslite chain, as well as in Taipei’s gay bookshop.
When Chang left Taiwan in 1992 to spend a few years overseas, one of the only avenues on the island for gays to find one another was a film magazine that carried about a dozen gay personal ads in the back of each issue. The ads were somewhat furtive, couched in cryptic phrases such as "searching for true friends of the same sex." Now, in a sign of how times have changed, Chang puts out magazines that each boast about a dozen pages of personal ads in every issue, free of the coy subterfuge people were forced to resort to in the past.
Through such publications and other media, pop culture has pushed gay themes into Taiwan’s public consciousness with a forthrightness unseen in more conservative Chinese-speaking cultures in the region, from China to Singapore to Malaysia. In 1993, director Ang Lee made the international hit film "The Wedding Banquet," which went on to become Taiwan’s highest-grossing movie up to that . The Oscar-nominated comedy traces the trials and tribulations of a gay Taiwanese man who schemes with his American boyfriend in New York to keep their relationship a secret from his parents back home.
A year later, author Chu T’ien-wen published her acclaimed novel "Notes of a Desolate Man," an account of the life and loves of the gay narrator. The book won one of Taiwan’s most prestigious literary awards, the China Times Novel Prize. Both works–as well as subsequent gay-oriented films and literature–touch on what many gays and lesbians here say is their most daunting challenge, one that relatively few seem to have conquered: coming out to their mothers and fathers. "If you ask a hundred people, ‘Who do you most want not to know you’re gay?’ a hundred people will say, ‘My parents,’ " Chang said.
Despite Taiwan’s increasing tolerance, conservative notions of sex and family life still prevail among the older generation, setting up a clash between a modern society that embraces diversity and an ancient culture that emphasizes conformity to traditional norms such as carrying on the family name. "Three things demonstrate a lack of filial piety," goes a famous Confucian proverb. "The biggest one is not producing heirs."
At 38, Webster Chen feels the full weight of that pressure. His parents are impatient for him to marry a woman and have kids. But he cannot bring himself to be honest with his folks about his sexuality, a hesitation that stems from a very filial sense of duty to shield them from hurt and grief. "I don’t care whether other people know. But I have to think about my parents," said Chen, who owns one of Taipei’s most popular gay bars, The Source. "My parents would have a hard time accepting that their son is homosexual and would think that it’s somehow their fault."
He shudders at the horror stories he has heard about parents accusing their children of disobedience or even dragging them to doctors in search of a "cure." Allen Chen, no relation to Webster, has gotten only as far as telling his mother. He said she hopes he will "become straight after I finish my [mandatory] military service." Forget about telling his father, she warned. "My mom knows that if my dad knew . . . he might kill me," said the 23-year-old recent college graduate, who found solace in a campus support group.
It would be wrong to characterize Chinese culture as unremittingly hostile to homosexuality through the ages. Emperors are often recorded as having male consorts, including the tenderhearted Emperor Ai of the Han Dynasty, who legend says cut off the sleeve of his robe rather than stir his male companion, who had fallen asleep across it. Homosexuality is still occasionally referred to in Chinese as "the passion of the cut sleeve." China’s greatest literary classic, "The Dream of the Red Chamber," written during the 18th century, chronicles numerous sexual escapades between partners of both the same and opposite sexes. During the 19th century, homosexuality was common enough in China for a disapproving British emissary to note that "many of the first officers of the state seemed to make no hesitation in publicly avowing it."
And at the dawn of the 20th century, one of China’s most revered scholar-reformers of the modern era, Kang Youwei, proposed the idea of marriage contracts that could be entered into by two people of the same or opposite sex. It is this liberal vein of Chinese history that Taiwan’s gays and lesbians hope to mine in their push for greater visibility and the same rights as heterosexuals. "I don’t want gays just to stay in bars or saunas," said Webster Chen. "I want them to be able to walk down the street holding hands."
But organizing politically has been slower to catch on than establishing social spaces, partly because many gays and lesbians continue to fear public exposure. Taiwan still has no openly gay politicians or famous gay public figures. The gay community got one of its first tastes of political action two years ago, during a close mayoral race in Taipei, the capital. Sensing an opportunity to use their votes as leverage, a handful of activists crafted a statement for the candidates to sign to demonstrate their support for homosexuals.
Ma Ying-jeou and Chen Shui-bian, the two leading candidates, signed the statement and responded to questions put to them by G&L magazine on the issue of gay rights. Chen, the incumbent, was criticized for skipping writer Shu’s 1996 wedding–although he had said yes to an RSVP–and for failing to hold a city-sponsored Christmas dance for gays and lesbians as he had promised. "But my intentions have not changed," he insisted. "In the future, I hope that, through the power of the city government, we can help organize gay rights groups with the people and give our gay friends a better environment."
Ma also pledged his support. "Whether homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual, as long as you don’t break the law . . . I am willing to protect your freedom of choice," Ma said. "Love is an undying human pursuit." In the end, Ma won, and he has since set aside about $33,000 in the Taipei municipal budget for gay-related programs. The money has yet to be spent, but activists are encouraged by the show of support. "That was the first time we knew how to play the gay issue in the political game," said Shu. "If we don’t have our own candidate, then at least we can have our own voice."
The mayor’s face now graces a photo used to promote the formation of the Taiwan Gay Society, the first such civic group to pursue official recognition from the government. Chen, Ma’s rival, became the president-elect of Taiwan in March. Gay advocates hope to press him to respond to their concerns on a national level. For many gays and lesbians in Taiwan, however, victories are still counted on a more modest scale.
Ginger Lin finally mustered up the courage to come out to her two sisters, both of whom, to her shock, also turned out to be lesbians. Now she has a girlfriend of two years, and they occasionally discuss marriage. "In just five years, it’s changed a lot. Talking about [homosexuality] doesn’t earn you strange looks, and maybe one day there won’t be discrimination," said Lin, She shrugged her shoulders. "This is the way I am. What is there to accept?"
May 5, 2000
Cinema: Gay Teens In Taiwan
A rosy hued documentary gets a mixed reception in Singapore
by Jacintha Stephens Singapore
"Documentary filmmakers are very political," declares Taiwan director Mickey Chen. He is also gay and proud. Hence ‘Boys for Beauty’, his cinematic celebration of homosexual youth, which, he says, performed creditably at box offices in the island last year. And if the documentary is any sort of indicator, 33-year-old Chen stands at the more accommodating end of the political spectrum.
Boys focuses primarily on the lives of three teenagers – a drag dancer, a straight-A scholar from an elite institution and a student from an average school. Chen had ruthlessly whittled the "leads" from a shortlisted series of interviews with 12 boys and their families. Those choices, however, came under some fire at a special screening of his film organized in Singapore last month in conjunction with his visit. "Why is it that you depict only effeminate gays?" demands one member of the predominantly male audience. The boyish Chen quips: "Because I believe in the power of sissyhood."
A more serious criticism, though, is that his documentary fails to address the problems that gay teenagers encounter, and Chen replies in kind. "I am very protective when it comes to gay society. I only showed those accepted by their families because I wanted to present positive images of homosexuals," he explains. It’s not that he doesn’t want to "deal with darkness," he says, but that he’s careful in his representation of the teenagers. Chen fears that any depiction of the uglier side of homosexual life may be taken out of context and used against the youngsters.
All the same, his documentary is unapologetically intrusive. The camera’s unblinking eye captures the teenagers’ changing moods, their petty squabbles over love lives and their worries over matters ranging from weight problems to sexual encounters. But what comes across as a seamless chronicle was painstakingly spliced together from hundreds of hours of footage. Toting a fuss-free digital camera, Chen had followed gay teenagers around Taipei for a year. "At first, I spent hours and hours just chatting and talking nonsense with them." The time was well spent, for the trust that Chen earned is evident in his film. His subjects appear relaxed and their frank answers to probing questions provide an insight into their different psyches.
One boy declares: "Being gay is very high class. I have never found anything wrong with it." An assertive stance. But confusion and low self-esteem are more familiar feelings among many gay teenagers. "I dare not tell anyone. I thought being gay was equal to having AIDS. That I’m not a good son," says one. Adds another: "I’m like Mulan [in reverse] – a boy dressed in girls’ clothes."
Bin’s father is one of the most memorable interviewees. While he repeatedly declares that he is proud of his drag-dancer son, "Papa Bin" cannot comprehend the teenager’s sexual preference. "It doesn’t make sense. But he is my son, so I must try and understand him," he says, though he hopes the boy will "come to his senses" eventually. Indeed, Bin’s father is a supportive dad and even drives him to his gigs. At the gay bars where the boy performs, Papa Bin is often complimented by other teenagers craving acceptance from their families. But the father still feels guilty for "not knowing how it happened." He adds: "How could [society, friends and relatives] blame me for not giving [Bin] a normal orientation? Luckily he didn’t blame us."
The most dramatic, and tragic, case that Chen came across did not even make it into the raw cuts: a father who discovered his son was homosexual when he found the youngster asleep with a gay magazine in his hand. Shocked and furious, he tore up the publication, set it alight and then held the flames to the boy. The family agreed to be interviewed on camera, but Chen says his conscience would not allow him to spotlight a parent who momentarily let his anger get the better of him. "The father acted not from his heart but from the pressures of society," he says. "I’ve no right to play God [and judge]. I don’t have the right to burn Chinese society." Instead, the director presents portraits of well-adjusted teens who enjoy some degree of acceptance, even support from loving parents.
In any case, the New York-trained filmmaker reckons attitudes are softening in Taiwan. Not only was Boys financed by a $12,000 grant from the United Daily News, one of the island’s leading newspapers, the authorities even entered his documentary at a foreign film festival. What’s more, Chen adds, the government recently approved ground-breaking funds to promote the rights of gays and other minorities.
Chen’s rosy pictures, however, may be what trouble Singapore officials most. Gay activists, who sought permission for a screening through the arts organization The Substation, could only show the film to a restricted adult audience. A 1992 censors’ panel decreed in 1992 that while gays should not be persecuted, it could not allow works that glorify homosexuality or agitate for its acceptance. That stance, observes T. Sasitharan, Substation’s artistic director, stems more from officials’ desire "to protect the conventional family." And lest anyone forget, a series of formal debates and officially supported activities in recent years help hammer home the message: Singapore must nurture "strong families."
But activists like Alex Au question the definition of this basic social unit. It’s time, he argues, to re-examine the assumption that "family values" can only be built in a heterosexual setting. "Pigheaded" pressure on gay sons and daughters only creates barriers to communication. Rather than strengthen the family, Au says, insisting on conformity only tends to fracture them.
Similarly, Au feels denying Singapore teens the chance to view films such as Boys is more damaging: "By cutting off information about their own sexuality, gay teenagers are left with negative self-images and feelings of isolation." He concedes that Singapore isn’t a wholy homophobic society, but says many people still adopt "Jurassic" attitudes. Equality for the gay community is "still very far away."
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August 21, 2001
Taipei gets ready for gay and lesbian extravaganza
Special Valentines: The only government-subsidized gay and lesbian event coincides with Chinese Valentine’s day and will include an uncensored film on local gay life By Chuang Chi-ting, Staff Reporter A Taipei City Government official yesterday said that Taiwan’s only gay and lesbian event to receive government funding will serve as a barometer of society’s acceptance of homosexuality. "The festival should serve as an index of mainstream society’s tolerance," said Lin Cheng-hsiu, director of Taipei’s Bureau of Civil Affairs, at a press conference yesterday.
Lin encouraged the public to participate in the festival’s events, adding that gays and lesbians should be appreciated as they contribute to Taipei’s cultural diversity. The Second Taipei City Gay and Lesbian Festival, whose main events are scheduled for this Friday and Saturday, aims to highlight the vitality and brightness that homosexuals share with heterosexuals.
"We want to dismiss the stereotype that gays and lesbians can only hide in a dark corner," said Lai Yu-lin, secretary-general of the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association, which promotes homosexual civil rights and is responsible for organizing the event. "The festival provides a channel for communication between homosexuals and heterosexuals," Lai added. "The city government’s involvement in the movement justifies the fight for homosexual civil rights and can influence people’s perception of homosexuality," Lai said. The civil affairs bureau director, however, admitted that the city government had failed to increase funding from the amount provided for the festival last year.
"The government is short of funds so we can only afford about NT$1 million for the festival. "Homosexuals are also taxpayers. It is somewhat pitiful that we cannot enjoy more funds for activities promoting our civil rights," Lai said. He added that gay and lesbian activists hope that the central government might also sponsor similar events in the future.
The festival’s main events are scheduled to begin on Friday — the day before Chinese Valentine’s Day. Lai said that the events are scheduled for that time to remind the public of the love and affection which gays and lesbians share, because "stereotypes always associate homosexuality only with sex [not love]." Corner’s, a film about homosexual love which contains some explicit scenes, will be screened — uncensored — outdoors at 7pm on Friday at Taipei’s 228 Memorial Museum park. Corner’s is the name of a gay bar which used to be a popular meeting place for Taipei’s homosexuals.
It was closed early this year after its business declined by 70 percent in the wake of intensive police spot checks in late 1999. "Through the event, we hope to introduce to the public a full picture of gays’ and lesbians’ world of love," said Wang Ping, secretary-general of the Gender Sexuality Rights Association. In addition to a fair, the festival’s events on Saturday will include a sports tournament and games. "Gays and lesbians should have the space to exercise and have fun rather than hide in the corner," said a spokesperson for Lala Info, an Internet-based organization fighting for homosexual rights and which is currently in charge of the festival’s basketball tournament. This year’s festival also includes community lectures that began two weeks ago and will continue until Sept. 10. Some sessions are open to public.
July 3, 2001
Gays and lesbians should be able to wed
by Chang Sheng-en
On June 26, the Ministry of Justice produced a draft of the basic human rights law intended to further protect and promote human rights in Taiwan. Article 6 stipulates that gays and lesbians shall be allowed to have families as well as to legally adopt children. New policy is praiseworthy at a time when Taiwan is actively promoting human rights. Due to the traditional, even conservative, values in this society, alternative sexual orientation has been a strictly taboo subject. Such a dark "secret" could only be revealed to fellow homosexuals and close friends. This situation, however, has gradually improved in recent years.
Not only has the Taipei City Government helped set up a successful association of gay- and lesbian-friendly businesses, but a homosexual high school teacher, Tuan Chien-fa, has also become the first teacher to publicly "come out" in Taiwan. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education is planning to include discussions on homosexual issues in the future Nine-Year Educational Program to "help students and parents understand and respect others." Such progress clearly shows an increasing acceptance of homosexuality.
I believe the ministry’s recent decision concerning gay and lesbian families and adoption is a positive move conducive to the elimination of discrimination against homosexuals. As the ministry’s chief advisor, Tsai Mao-sheng put it: "the rights of homosexuals shall be protected in order to avoid any unjust treatment." Only by allowing same-gender couples to legally form families can we enable them to enjoy the rights and privileges afforded to all married "straight" couples — such as automatic inheritance rights, hospital visitation rights, the right to make medical or health care decisions on behalf of one’s partner and greater access to insurance and credit, among other benefits.
The ministry’s decision to allow homosexuals to adopt children is also commendable. In fact, an increasing number of homosexual couples and individuals worldwide are choosing to become parents. In the year 2000, an estimated 5 million children were being raised in gay and lesbian households in the US alone — whether through birth parenting, step parenting, donor insemination, foster parenting or adoption. Experts say that gay and lesbian parents are good parents, since they are usually caring and open-minded about raising children. Adoption by gays and lesbians will not only give them equal parental rights but legal responsibilities as well.
Besides, legal adoption of a child must be based on the best psychological and economic interests of the child. That is perhaps why we have to step away from the mythical biological model of parenthood and try to adopt a more "child-centered" approach for the sake of the adoptees’ best interests. Still, it is a pity that the ministry stressed that the right to "form a family," as stated in the draft, is different from the right to a legal marriage. The ministry’s excuse — that the main purpose of getting married for heterosexuals is to raise children — is rather odd. No wonder staff at the Taiwan Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Association have asked, "If that is the case, would it be fair to say that those women who do not or cannot give birth should not be allowed to marry?"
According to Article 7 of the Constitution, "All citizens, irrespective of sex, religion, race, class or party affiliation, shall be equal before the law." That being so, gay and lesbian rights, of course, should be legally protected and promoted in Taiwan — so that each and every one of us on this land can be treated equally and justly.
Chang Sheng-en is an English teacher trainer at the English Advanced Association in Taipei.
February 20, 2001
Book reveals high school lesbian lives
by Staff Writer
The sex lives of lesbian students at Taiwan’s top high school for girls came under the spotlight yesterday following the publication of a book chronicling their experience. The ‘Taming and the Resistance’ is a collection of interviews with 10 lesbian women who graduated from the Taipei First Girls’ Senior High School, all of whom later went on to study at Taiwan’s top university — National
Taiwan University (NTU).
The interviewees, aged between 23 and 32 and appearing under pseudonyms in the book, also reveal how the school authorities suppressed the sexual orientation of lesbian students and how they found outlets to express themselves later in college. Some of the book’s subjects are founding members of Taiwan’s first-ever lesbian society on campus — the Lambda society at NTU. Taipei First Girls Senior High has been one of Taiwan’s top high schools since the Japanese era and was, until recently, considered conservative. The book’s author, Chang Chiao-ting, herself a graduate of both the school and NTU, said she has no intention of putting homosexuality in either institution under a magnifying glass.
Chang said she only wanted to reveal how mainstream values often try to "tame" homosexuals and how the women in the book resisted such taming. The book is an adaptation of a dissertation Chang wrote for her master’s degree at NTU. According to the book, the high school’s counseling authorities often claimed the girls had been influenced by external factors and said such "circumstantial homosexuality" would change later. Some interviewees also accused the school of using religion to exorcise the "devil" in the girls.
One student with the pseudonym He Su said when another lesbian asked for help from the school’s guidance counseling office, the counselor gave her a Buddhist sutra and told her to recite it at home. The subjects also discuss the school trying its best to avoid using the term "homosexual" when handling lesbian students. Another interviewee who called herself Hsiao Chun tells of two girls expelled from the school after a military instructor found them naked and together in a campus toilet.
The book touches on a sensitive double suicide case that occurred at the high school seven years ago. Rumors circulated in the media at the time that the two girls who killed themselves were lesbians. One former student in the book remembers going to a secret cranny in a school building with her lover and seeing graffiti on the wall, which she believed was left by the two girls who took their own lives.
Commenting on the book, school principal Chen Fu-kui said she had not heard of any lesbian students at her school since she took over as its principal about a year ago. Chen also said that, as Taiwan society has become more liberal in recent years, subjects previously considered taboo can now be discussed openly. Chen refused to comment on the authenticity of the interviews, saying she would read the book and talk to the guidance counseling office today before making a response.
November 28, 2001
7 Gay Group Promotes Election Candidates
Activists recommended 10 Taipei City and County legislative candidates after reviewing the conduct of 35 who signed an agreement to support gay rights
by Chuang Chi-ting
Activists yesterday recommended a list of Taipei City and County legislative candidates sympathetic to homosexuals. "Legislation ensuring homosexual rights must be passed," said Wang Ping, secretary-general of the Gender Sexuality Rights Association. "A hypocritical society might ask gays to stand up and fight whenever their rights are violated but won’t support them once they do.
Most homosexuals are forced to remain invisible, whatever happens to them, out of fear of discrimination after exposing their sexual orientation," she said. The activists’ campaign only involved Taipei City and County legislative candidates, but one candidate from Hsinchu has also been recommended. A shortage of activists prevented a nationwide campaign. Activists produced the list of 10 lawmaker candidates after reviewing the previous attitudes and conduct of 35 candidates who signed an agreement to support legislation for gay rights.
The agreement, sent to 138 candidates, requested future legislators to request government aid to promote homosexual rights and to work for an "anti-discrimination act" and a "partnership registration act," which would grant homosexual couples the same legal rights enjoyed by couples who are in a heterosexual marriage, including inheritance and adoption rights. "With the candidates’ positive response, we feel optimistic about future progress in the legislature," Wang said.
The recommended candidates represent various parties, but most are independent. Webster Chen, a gay independent candidate who runs a popular gay bar and whose platform addresses gay issues exclusively, is on the list. He said he wants to show that gays are just like everyone else and deserve fair treatment. "Without respect for gays, people won’t really give equal treatment to us even with legislation," he said. "Society should pursue a reconciliation with homosexuals.
They don’t hurt anyone," said another recommended candidate, legislator Shih Ming-teh, who attended the first gay wedding in Taiwan, and Asia, in 1996. "I hope one day the mothers of homosexuals in Taiwan will be able to proudly admit that their children are gay, just as I saw in the New York gay parade," said independent candidate Sisy Chen, who held a mock lesbian wedding last year with female New Party legislator Chu Hui-liang to strengthen the gay rights movement. They are both on the recommendation list. Chu, although she represents Hsinchu, was recommended because of her strong advocacy of gay rights.
However, activists noted that only one of the 10 is a Taipei County candidate. In fact, only 13 of the 69 seeking a legislative seat representing Taipei County signed the agreement. "Efforts to introduce the idea of homosexual rights to residents outside the capital of Taipei should be strengthened," said Gofyy (a pseudonym), standing committee member of the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline.
"Many candidates in Taipei County don’t have a clue about homosexuality." Chu Wei-cheng, an activist and assistant professor at National Taiwan University, said that the poor response from Taipei County candidates possibly reflected the overall attitude of rural residents. "They may fear that they will lose support by taking a pro-gay stance."
December 7, 2001
"Lan Yu" film breaks taboos at Chinese language ‘Oscars’
by Alice Hung in Taipei
A gritty drama that tackles twin Chinese taboos is expected to steal the limelight at the Chinese-language version of the Oscars in Taiwan on Saturday. Hong Kong arthouse director Stanley Kwan’s "Lan Yu" received 10 Golden Horse Award nominations including best picture, best director, best actor and best cinematography. Based on the online gay novel "Beijing Story," the film is about the tortured 10-year romance between two Beijing men.
Homosexuality is one of the many taboos tackled by the film. The 1989 bloody crackdown on student-led protesters in Beijing is another. One of the most poignant scenes shows the character Chen Handong driving towards Tiananmen Square searching for his lover Lan Yu as tanks and troops rolled in to crush the demonstrators. Kwan, 43, told Reuters in a recent interview that he knew the film would never get past the censors to be shown on the mainland, but felt it was crucial to set the film in the Chinese capital with a crew made up of predominantly Beijing natives. The film, which debuted in Hong Kong late last month, has won praise at international film festivals from Toronto to Brisbane.
May 2, 2002
Blackmailers stalking gay men at beach hideaway
by Staff Writer
Taipei, Taiwan, ROC – As Taiwan’s homosexuals have become more open about their sexual orientation, some in the gay community have turned an abandoned beach resort – located in Tamshui Township, Taipei County – into the nation’s biggest "nude camp," local media reported yesterday. But due to a spate of blackmailings, however, all is not well at this gay sanctuary. Sha Lun Beach in Tamshui was once a run-of-the-mill beach resort open to the public from mid-May to mid-October every year. But after the resort was abandoned several years ago, the secluded spot began to attract gay men from across the nation.
Many gather there to socialize, while others sunbathe or go swimming in the nude. According to local media, some of the men engage in sexual congress either behind bushes that surround the area or inside lookouts that remain on the beach. "This is a heaven for gay men," said A-Kai, a young Taiwanese man in his twenties. "I’m here to completely liberate myself and I don’t care about what people think," added the man, who was taking a walk on the beach – wearing nothing but his sandals. Since the news has largely spread over the Internet, the beach – just like the 228 Peace Park in downtown Taipei – has become a "sacred land" for male homosexuals. But this new "sacred land" has become clouded by fear – a fear that gays at the beach are being targeted for blackmail. Blackmailings that have thus far come to light all began under similar circumstances.
The victim is approached by a man while alone at the beach. After striking up a conversation – with the victim responding positively to the man’s friendly overtures – a group of three or four other men appear, threatening to reveal the victims’ sexual orientation while demanding that he turn over his wallet or ATM cards. Fearing exposure, the victims usually obey the blackmailers’ instructions and seldom report the incidents to the police.
May 2, 2002
Military police to accept gays
Embracing Change: To counter criticism that it is homophobic, the military said that
by Brian Hsu, Staff Reporter
Taipei, Taiwan, ROC – To avoid criticism for discriminating against gays, the military police yesterday said they would revise a rule which excludes homosexual conscripts from serving as guards at the Presidential Office and other vital governmental buildings. The Military Police say that while the rule has existed for many years, it is a pity that its application has been interpreted as discrimination against homosexuals.
"The rule does not use the term ‘homosexual’ to describe a soldier with such an inclination. It rather uses ‘sexual orientation impairment,’ when it refers to homosexuality," a spokesman for the military police command said. "We don’t remember when the rule was formulated. But we are certain that sexual orientation impairment’ was considered a mental illness at the time," the spokesman said. "Now times have changed. The rule is not quite appropriate by current standards. We will revise it to show our respect for the rights of soldiers, regardless of their sexual orientation," the official said. The military police official made the statement yesterday in response to a report yesterday in a local Chinese newspaper. The report said that exclusive rule of military police tends to lump homosexual conscripts and conscripts with criminal records into a category called "potentially dangerous elements."
A defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said military police have always been very careful in their selection of recruits, since their primary job is to defend the president. "When looking for suitable candidates, the Military Police are usually concerned mostly about the look, height and physical attributes of recruits. They then train the recruits for several months before picking out the best for the toughest jobs, such as guarding the Presidential Office," the official said. "The second-best will be assigned to regular units around the island. These will include conscripts with gender identification disorder," he said. "The practice is not discriminating against homosexuals. It is aimed at preventing those responsible for the most important tasks, such as guarding the president, from getting into compromising situations due to issues of sexual orientation," he said. "We accept the fact that values have become more and more diversified. But we think the military, by its nature, must be careful not to be so."
Homosexuality in the armed forces is not the only issue that the military wants to play down for the sake of safeguarding its traditional values. The sexual harassment of female and non-commissioned officers by their male superiors or subordinates has also been kept from the public. Military analysts say there have been so few reports of such incidents in the press, that the public tends to believe that gender equality already exists in the military. But some defense officials admit in private that what has been exposed is just the tip of the iceberg.
June 7, 2002
An alternative film festival
by Max Woodworth, Staff Reporter
Taipei, Taiwan, ROC – A bold new wave of Taiwanese gay filmmakers is set to make a splash at the First Taiwanese Lesbian and Gay Film Festival beginning this weekend at Taipei’s Huashan Arts District. The festival, which is actually the second following a small-scale festival last year held in a handful of gay bars, will feature 11 movies, eight of which were made by local filmmakers with the remaining three coming from the US. "We chose Huashan so that it doesn’t just attract the gay community. We hope that anyone would feel welcome to come out this time," said Lee Hsiang-ru, head of the festival’s organizing committee.
As another way to attract a crowd, the festival has placed its focus on the recent works of Taiwanese filmmakers, who are quickly adding to a small, yet significant stock of locally made gay films. Two of the highlights among the full-length films will be Jofei Chen’s "Incidental Journey" and "Corner" by the director simply named Zero. "Incidental Journey" tackles the larger themes of life and destiny, while "Corner" is an atmospheric celebration of the small pleasures of human interaction or lack thereof in the setting of a lonely bar. Five short films by young Taiwanese filmmakers offer some stylistic and thematic variety that shows the broad-ranging concerns of local gay filmmakers. Most, however, are deeply personal and confined to the emotional worlds of one or two characters. Adding crucial weight to the content of the festival will be the three films from the US. Barbara Hammer’s "The Female Closet" is a documentary about the lives and loves of three women in the last century. First is Alice Austen, the famous photographer who was an open lesbian living with her lover Gertrude in New York. The film then moves on to the relationship between the German artist Hannah Hoch and her partner Til Brugman. Hammer, who has made more than 50 films, is best known for her 1995 award-winning film "Nitrate Kisses."
Easily the crowd-pleaser of the festival will be "Golden Threads," a documentary by Lucy Winer about an octagenarian lesbian named Christine Burton who started her own personals and match-making service called Golden Threads while in her 70s after being rejected by a dating service on account of her age. The film chronicles Burton’s organization’s ninth anniversary weekend-long celebration. Films start at 7:30pm on Fridays and 7pm on Saturdays and Sundays starting today for the next two weekends. For additional screening information, visit Acer ticketing on the Web at http://ticket.acer121.com. Tickets are also available at Eslite and Senseio bookstores, Fnac, and at Novel Hall.
December 22, 2002
Gay, lesbian hotline open for counseling
by Hung-fu Hsueh, Taiwan News Staff Reporter
A non-profit gay and lesbian association providing consultation services by telephone for the last four years held their annual assembly yesterday. Members of the Tongzhi Hotline Association are hoping more members of the gay and lesbian community would utilize their services, but they also stress that more funding would help ensure quality of service and wider accessibility.
In Chinese, Tongzhi stands for the gay and lesbian community: Although consciousness of the community’s struggle has only been legitimized relatively recently in Taiwan, it took years of vociferous dedication by local activists so that organizations could prop up on the island. Each association aims to mitigate the plight of gays with a slightly different take, but every group shares a common goal: to protect the interest of and encourage a proud self-identity of the gay community; the THA is one such organization. In contrast to the conservative social movements just ten years ago, the gay community in Taiwan has sponsored some of the most energetic activism this past year. From protests to festivals to study groups – the impetus for these activies all aim to champion gay rights.
The THA now provides two telephone lines for consultation services from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., Monday to Friday, four days a week. THA now has three full-time workers and around 40 volunteers who have answered 735 phone calls for consultation from December 2001 to November 2002. "The number of callers has been increasing steadily but mildly," said the secretary general of THA, Chen Ya-yun. "Based on last year’s calls, we have seen a trend of friends and family members of gays who ask for advice on ways to help their friends or family members," said Chen. He sees this as clear indication that more and more people are accepting the gay community.
According to statistics provided by the THA, there are twice as many male callers compared to females. About half the callers are from the greater-Taipei area, which reveals that word of the THA is only sporadic outside Taipei. First-time users account for 40 percent of all calls; this shows that many patrons are repeat-users. Aside from consultion services, the THA also frequently participates in activities to promote gay rights. "This year, we attended one demonstration at the Ministry of National Defense to protest the exclusion of gays in the military police," said the chairman of THA, Chen Yi-tsung. In addition, Chen said the THA has also formed alliances with other groups to bolster gay rights in the form of social activism.
The THA has also promoted activities to engender a better understanding of the "equal rights" concept. "Human rights has been a quintessential focus of our campaign in the past year; we hope people would understand gay rights as a fundamental human right," Chen said. The THA and other gay societies, in cooperation with the Taipei City Government, have organized events in the past two years to raise public awareness and to promote interaction with the gay and straight community. For more information visit www.hotline.org.tw