The modern gay history of Taipei, Asia’s most LGBTI-friendly city

Cruising grounds, police raids, and the biggest Pride in East Asia

It’s undeniable: Taipei is one of the greatest LGBTI cities in the entire world.

The Taiwanese capital is the epicenter of gay rights in the country. The city hosts the second largest gay pride in Asia (behind Tel Aviv, Israel), the country is becoming the first to legalize same-sex marriage, and the city’s gay district is the envy of East Asia.

But the road to LGBTI rights is never smooth. So how did they get there? The gay history of Taipei might hold the answers.

In the beginning
Unfortunately, pre-modern information about non-heterosexual and non-gender-confirming people is hard to come by. As with a lot of modern problems, colonialism is to blame here.

The 300-year Qing Dynasty in China provided the modern territorial base for China and kept extensive historical records of its main cultural regions. However, Taiwan was considered pretty unimportant, so a lot of written gay history has been lost to time.

What is known is that there was never any law against gay sex. A lot of Asian countries outlawed same-sex relationships after the West colonized them (see Section 337 of the Indian Penal Code for that), but Taiwan was eventually taken over by Japan.

But while no outright rule persecuted LGBTI people, society still tried its hardest. The subject has been taboo throughout Taiwan’s history. The state, too, took its opportunity to persecute the community.

Martial law ruled Taiwan from 1949 to 1987, bringing with it all the problems of military rule. Of course, this meant they targeted LGBTI people, especially with an article prohibiting ‘wearing odd outfits’. The lesbian (‘butch’ women) and transgender communities in particular were hurt.

The Confucian culture of ‘family values’, promoted through Chinese influence, also created a feeling of oppression that lingers to this day. Slightly different from the Christian family values that dominates the West, Confucian family values focused on filial piety, family harmony and gender stereotypes.

These values created structures that made it difficult for every day Taiwanese LGBTI people to pursue the life they deserve. It becomes their duty to find traditional partners and continue the family.

LGBTI sub-cultures and cruising grounds in Taipei
When society pushes people away, sub-cultures form. In the mid-20th Century, society as a whole perceived man-and-man sex as nothing other than sex work, and by the Confucian values, immoral. But it was much more complex than that. Sex work did occur in gay spaces, yet these paces also became havens for gay men. In particular, Taipei’s New Park.

This is probably the most famous cruising ground in the country. Its relative darkness and open spaces meant most men could come here without harassment from police for many years. Abroad, though, it became known as a place to pick up sex workers.

In fact, the place is so iconic it has embedded itself into popular culture. Crystal Boys, Taiwan’s first openly gay novel and its most revered, is not just set here, but follows the exploits of a boy navigating the queer world that inhabits it.

However, the space eventually came under threat by the state. In the late 1980s, the police received a tip-off that tourists used the park to find male sex workers.

This led to a crackdown on the area. They didn’t distinguish between actual sex-workers or people using the park to find other sexual partners, leading to dozens of arrests.

While the grounds are considered historical for gay men in Taipei, it completely lost its identity as a cruising ground in 1996, when it was renamed 228 Peace Memorial Park.

It now commemorates the 18 to 28,000 civilians that lost their lives in the 28 February 1947 anti-government uprising.

Not just cruising – the growing bar scene
The modern LGBTI scene began to find its feet in the 70s. Before the rise of the gay and lesbian bars, the LGBTI community hung around tolerant mixed bars.

Famous socialite and business-owner Ta-K was instrumental in the gay bar movement, opening the first ever, gay-specific venue: Champaign. It was his ambition to move away from the conflation between sex workers and the community at large, while retaining core aspects of the Taiwanese queer community.

Cross-dressing, karaoke, and drinking were all encouraged in these fully-legal establishments. This didn’t stop the police from raiding, though, as they often assumed the venues were brothels.

Meanwhile, the lesbian community spent years without a specific place of their own. The community was loosely structured around the ideas of ‘T’ and ‘po’, which is easiest to understand as butch and femme from Western culture.

Instead, Lesbians would go to gay bars in order to express themselves. That was until the opening of the first T-Bar in 1985. Wang Yu Ku (called Forgetting Sadness Valley) was opened by a T-Po couple called A-pao and Ya-t’ou.

As the years passed, the gay scene in Taiwan built itself around the Ximan and Red House district – a place that takes its name from a Japanese-era theater nearby.

Post-martial law, as attitudes towards the LGBTI community grew more tolerant, the ‘traditional’ gay and T-bar began to fade. While you can still find plenty of them today, most bars are mixed, with heterosexual people enjoying them too.

The snow-balling affect of these spaces spread into other areas too. The first Chinese speaking LGBTI bookstore, Gin Gin Books, opened in 1999. Yet for the first decade of it opening, the store faced frequent legal hassles from censors.

Stand with Pride
Taiwan’s first Pride was held in 2003. Before then, small rumblings formed, from the 300 LGBTI people who marched in the 1996 parade of The National Women’s Coalition, to the 2002 protest against the Ministry of National Defence’s ban on gay people serving in the military.

But the Pride movement kicked off on 1 November 2003. Starting at 228 Memorial Park, 20,000 people from dozens of groups joined the march, along Hengyang Road to Red Playhouse in Ximeding.

The Pride received NT$70,000 from the city government with the mayor Ma Ying-jeou giving a speech at the end of the parade.

The Pride built up every year, defending more groups, such as sex workers. The momentum built until, in 2017, Taipei hosted the largest Pride in East Asia with 80,000 people from around the world attending. It was the second largest in all of Asia.

In the same year, the city celebrated a big victory. The Constitutional Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry under the constitution. While many states allow same-sex couples to register as partners, they have less than married couples – this would level the playing field.

A minor stumbling block in this has emerged. The right to marry is now coming down to a referendum, so it’s up to the Taiwanese citizens to support their LGBTI siblings.

But the road to equal marriage has never been smooth. With the LGBTI movement fully coming into its own in the late 90s, early 2000s, so too did the issue of marriage equality.

The government heard two attempts to pass equal marriage in the early 2000s. Unfortunately, both failed, and with it, hopes for equal rights.

Yet in 2016, a tragedy struck Taipei that reinvigorated the movement. Gay French professor Jacques Picoux died on 16 October, after falling from the tenth floor of his Taipei apartment block. Friends say he took his own life.

His Taiwanese partner of 35 years, Tseng Ching-chao, died the year before of cancer. However, as they weren’t married, he couldn’t participate in any crucial medical decisions in the last moments of his life. He also had no legal claim over their shared property. This was all controlled by his family.

The equal marriage decision, which needs to be implemented by the end of 2019, will stop that from happening to another person.

by Tom Capon
Source – Gay Star News