On Taking Gay Rights From Taipei to Beijing: Don’t Call It a ‘Movement’

Taiwan moved one step closer last month to becoming the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage, when a legislative committee passed draft changes to the island’s civil code.

The proposed amendments have been sent to party caucuses for negotiation and possibly further revision before a final version is approved outright or goes to a vote by the Legislative Yuan, a process that is expected to take months.

Still, the development was applauded by gay rights advocates, not just in Taiwan but in mainland China as well.

Among them was Lai Jeng-jer, a leading figure in the gay rights movement in Taiwan who now lives in Beijing. In 1999, Mr. Lai, who trained as an architect, opened Gin Gin in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital. It was billed as the first gay-themed bookstore in the Chinese-speaking world.

His mission was to create a space where sexual minorities could congregate openly and provide a platform to work for social change. In 2012, he moved to Beijing, where he and his business partner, Yeh Kenta, established what is now the Two Cities Cafe and Lounge. In an interview, Mr. Lai, 51, discussed the progress he had seen in gay rights, how Taipei differed from Beijing and how he dealt with the occasional visit by the Chinese police.

How do you feel about the passage of the same-sex marriage proposals in Taiwan?
Very happy. It was just drafts that were passed, and they still need to undergo a process of consultation among political parties and more readings, and we don’t know what the final outcome will be. But most of my friends are delighted because, after years of campaigning for this, there’s finally some progress.

Final passage would be a milestone. Some of my friends in mainland China have told me they might go to Taiwan. Up to now, if they wanted to get married, they had to go to the United States or Europe. I feel that the gay community in China has been greatly encouraged. Since we share a similar cultural background, they believe that if Taiwan can achieve this they can start to expect more for China.

You’ve long been part of the gay rights movement in Taiwan. How do you see it developing?
I’ve witnessed profound changes in Taiwan society since the lifting of martial law in the 1980s. I saw a lot of civic movements emerging and people taking to the streets to protest. I was quite young at the time and greatly inspired. I started to appreciate the significance of democratization.

Now, more and more people accept that, as a Taiwanese, it’s right to stand up for the underprivileged and the marginalized. Not just on same-sex marriage but on other issues, like environmental protection. Those who get involved are not always the ones directly affected, but they feel obligated to do something for those who are. That’s why, this time, we’ve also seen so many heterosexuals joining the demonstrations.

How have you adjusted to the move from Taipei to Beijing?
On Christmas Eve two years ago, we hosted a gay meet-up party at our cafe and invited about 20 people. In the middle of that, some police officers showed up and asked everyone to show their IDs. I was shocked, but our guests looked extremely calm. One after another, they took out their ID cards and showed them to the police. After the police finished checking them, they said fine and left. The party resumed, and our guests acted like nothing had happened. But I found it strange that they seemed so used to this kind of police intrusion.

Most of the people who come to our cafe are supportive. There are only a few who have objected. Once I saw a customer had commented on social media: “It turned out to be a gay bar. I won’t go there again.”

We’re not even a bar, let alone a gay bar. My colleague replied: “This is a cafe from Taiwan with a theme of cultural diversity. It’s not a gay bar, though we are in fact gay. Even if you don’t like this, please still show some respect.”

How would you compare the gay communities in Taiwan and in Beijing?
I have great admiration for any gay organizations that can survive in Beijing.

My cafe once hosted the Beijing Queer Film Festival. This is an international event that brings directors from all around the world. And when it comes to international events, there’s usually trouble. The police tend to interfere.

The Queer Film Festival has been held about a dozen times, and seven or eight times it’s been forced to shut down midway. Once they held it at Tsinghua University, and when the police came, even a top university like that had to compromise.

So when we held it, we couldn’t openly publicize it. What we did was send emails to people in which we didn’t mention what was happening. We just told them to come watch a movie on which day and at what time. It turned out that a lot of people showed up, and the police didn’t.

Some people joke about this situation. They say that in Taipei it’s called a “gay movement,” but in Beijing it’s “gay activities.” You can have all kinds of activities, but you can’t allow any of them to turn into a movement.

Still, it’s not that hard to live in Beijing as a homosexual, if all you want is a quiet life and you avoid participating in any movements. I’ve seen many lesbian couples kissing each other in the subway. Gays can also host parties at home. But you can’t get involved in any protests or demonstrations. Basically, if you keep a low profile, the authorities don’t interfere.

Do you know any gay couples in Beijing who want to get married?
I attended a wedding ceremony for a gay friend of mine. He’s the founder of Feizan, one of the biggest gay dating websites in China. He and his boyfriend sent us invitations for the event. But then he told guests that they should keep an eye out for a possible last-minute change of venue.

On the morning of the event, he telephoned that the site had changed. At noon he notified me that it was relocated again. That evening, they changed the site for the third time. Afterward, I learned that the police had called the first few places, which made them too scared to go through with it.

But finally there was a place near Ditan Park where they knew some people, and maybe because it was too late for the police to intervene, they succeeded in holding it. About 200 people attended. It was a very happy day.

Do you foresee the eventual legalization of same-sex marriage in mainland China?
It’s possible. But it’s hard to tell how long it might take. I’ve been living here for a while and can see the policy-making system in China is very different from what we have in Taiwan. Things can change very suddenly here. It might not take as long as in Taiwan.

This article was adapted from a feature that first appeared on the Chinese-language site of The New York Times.

by Yuru Cheng and Amy Chang Chien
Source – The New York Times