Two days after the constitutional court of Taiwan officially legalised same sex marriage for the first time on May 24, a lesbian dating and video streaming app in China was shut down. Two weeks later, the People’s Republic of China poached Panama, Taiwan’s long time ally, away from maintaining any diplomatic relations with the island country.
Since Tsai Ing-wen was voted in as president last year, China has been making strides to further isolate Taiwan, owing to Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) pro-independence policy. Although China and Taiwan don’t differ significantly from each other in social values and share the common cultural prestige placed on patriarchal legacy, Taiwan’s democratic culture of protests and free speech on a variety of social and political issues has widened the gap.
After the May ruling, a DPP lawmaker told Bloomberg, “We don’t think people in China are seeking different values than people in Taiwan. It is the result of a different political system and democratic practices over the years”.
While hearing the case of a veteran gay rights activist Chi Chia-wei and the Taipei city government, the court ruled that the existing family civil code was “in violation of both the people’s freedom of marriage as protected by Article 22 and the people’s right to equality as guaranteed by Article 7 of the constitution.” Even as China attempts to polarise countries against Taiwan, their hard won fight for ‘equal love’ is a lesson to the geo-politically ambitious, whether in the Pacific East or the Global South.
Democracy movements and civil society paved the way for queer inclusion
“I dare not say to anyone when I was young,” said the 45-year-old owner of Café Dalida, recalling his high school days when Taiwan was still under martial law. Before Alvin Chang opened the first open-air gay bar in Taipei, which heralded more businesses to form Taiwan’s very first gay district, gay bars were an underground feature of the Taipei nightlife.
Taipei has come a long way since bars like Bear Café and Funky Bar, where Alvin and his friends found a refuge 20 years back. “These karaoke gay bars were mostly in the basement but they were hidden away even though the general public knew about them,” he reminisces. Unlike anything in the past, an entire line of gay-friendly bars have opened up around the Red House in the last 11 years opposite the touristy Ximending market. “People don’t need to go to basements to hide anymore,” he says with pride and relief.
This migration from basements to open air bars is a significant shift in Taiwan’s history. Paul, a 60-year-old American who works as a gay outreach counsellor in a local high school, vividly recalls the night he arrived in Taipei 20 years back when he met his husband Kenny, a Taiwanese citizen, in an underground bar. “The police came in around 11:35 pm and checked everyone’s ID. They didn’t look at mine because I was a foreigner. They just looked at me and knew I was of age. They also checked everyone’s pockets for drugs. It was harassment. You didn’t want to be picked up for being gay. They’d just charge you with anything or make things up.”
While hate crimes by the public have not been heard of or reported, police crackdowns in underground bars and in New Park, a popular cruising spot in the city, was routine before Taiwan achieved full-fledged democracy in 1996. In the opening chapter of his book, Crystal Boys, Pai Hsien-yung describes the cruising atmosphere in New Park in the 1970s. He wrote, “There are no days in our kingdom, only nights. As soon as the sun comes up, our kingdom goes into hiding, for it is an unlawful nation; we have no government and no constitution, we are neither recognised nor respected by anyone, our citizenry is little more than rabble”. Although apps and websites have now taken over to a large extent, senior citizens less savvy with smartphones still cruise at the park.
Student protests in Taiwan have always played a role in setting precedence towards a shift in political awakening. Twenty four years after the Wild Lily protests against the formation of a one-party rule national assembly in pursuance of the 1947 constitution of the Republic of China, the Sunflower movement in 2014 saw students occupying the Legislative Yuan to protest the trade in services agreement with China signed by the Kuomintang (KMT) party ruled government. Seen as a move tending towards unification with the mainland, the protests changed the public sentiment towards the KMT.
As repressive as the government was only two decades back, Taiwan has never criminalised consensual same-sex behavior between adults unlike its Asian counterparts in the South and the Middle East. However, until the first direct elections in 1996, ignorance was widespread and the society simply did not acknowledge queer identities.
For C.K. Hugo, who writes on Taiwanese queer culture for a city-based webzine, coming out coincided with his years in the university during the nineties, a time that was steeped in social liberation movements. “My whole awakening was in conjunction with the progression of LGBT rights in Taiwan. Attending university, my sexuality started to solidify as a lot of voices started coming out. More and more social groups, activist groups start to come out and people started talking about LGBT rights and that really pushed Taiwan to become the forefront of LGBT rights in Asia,” Hugo tells me over a Skype conversation.
Post the presidential elections that brought in a two-party democracy, the country swiftly progressed towards social liberalisation with the heavy backing of a burgeoning civil society. Formed in 1998, Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association is the oldest LGBTQI rights organisation in the country and the first to address the rise in suicides among LGBT youth.
Jennifer Lu was one of the first few lesbian volunteers at Hotline in the late 90s, where she trained volunteers, organised support groups for the youth and parents apart from raising public awareness. “In my generation, we did not talk about LGBT. We did not have gender education. We didn’t talk about that when were in school. So it’s still difficult for us to talk about it. In my generation, we only came out to close friends but not in public or to neighbours or distant family friends,” she said. After a ‘frustrating’ brief stint working in the DPP, she came back to Hotline for a full-time gig.
Po-Ying, a 19-year-old medical student, went to the same senior all girls’ high school in Taipei as Jennifer. One can note the progress made in Taiwanese society through the generations as she about her coming out and social life. “My school is really LGBT friendly but in their time they didn’t really talk about this. For us, it’s a lunch time conversation,” says Po-Ying.
Originally from Kaohsiung city in Southern Taiwan, Po-Ying came out to his parents at the age of 13. But it was only after he moved to Taipei for high school and came to know of “lesbians who dressed like him” at Hotline that he started openly identifying as F2M (female to male transgender person). Subsequently, he came out to his parents, again, at the age of 18.
Jennifer opines that as far as LGBT issues go, the most important difference between this generation and the one before is the democracy system. “They grew up in that kind of atmosphere which is very open and liberal. There’s a huge gap between this generation and their parents who grew up in martial law period. My parents still worry about how the government could treat you,” said the 33-year-old.
While his parents were supportive both times that he came out, Po-Ying said, gay men and transgender women have it much tougher. “For our parents, if a girl has studied far enough and can find a good job, she’s going to be fine by herself. But for a son, it’s not the same because the family name is very important even in our generation.”
Western liberal values sans Catholic guilt
LGBT rights and freedom easily flourish in a country like Taiwan, where Christianity is only the fourth most popular religion after Buddhism, Taoism and 18.7% of citizens, who identify as non-religious, according to a 2005 Census survey. The apparent absence of religious taboo has meant there is social indifference, not so much acceptance, towards non-heteronormative identities and lifestyles.
In Taiwan, civil rights for the LGBTQI population has been most strongly contended by Christian conservatives, family-based organisations and child rights groups. Of the three, the Christians wield considerable political influence, particularly in the ranks of the Kuomintang party, who have been mostly cold, although sometimes lukewarm, about marriage equality. The newly elected chairman, Wu Den-yih, showed his support for the constitutional court ruling on May 26 through his Facebook post that said, “Everyone is equal in the face of love.” Just a couple of months earlier, however, he told a same-sex marriage supporter that he did not support amending the civil code “for the sake of an extremely small minority with a different sexual orientation.”
According to a report in the Taipei Times that looked at the strategic alliances between church and political leaders to hold same-sex marriage legislation, a KMT legislator with ties to the Bread of Life Christian Church was at the forefront of the anti-marriage law protests in 2013 and had even blocked a DPP bill proposal to legislate same-sex marriage as far back in 2006. “In addition to their political connections – historically if one wanted to climb the ranks of the KMT being Christian was definitely an asset,” J. Michael Cole wrote in the Hong Kong Free Press.
Countering this bloc is the Tong-Kwang Light House Presbyterian Church, a lone wolf among the Presbyterian group of churches, which passed a joint motion opposing same-sex marriage in 2014. Twenty years ago, when queer folks faced condemnation from every ministry in town, the late Pastor Yang Ya Hoi established Tong Kwang as an independent fellowship in 1996.
Gary Chuang found spiritual refuge in this fellowship. Born into a Buddhist family, Gary first read the bible among various other religious text books while working in a publishing company. At 35, however, he was undecided about whether to follow Buddhism or Christianity until he chanced upon a book written by a Catholic author. “The author had asked the father in church, ‘Why am I gay?’ He could have said it is wrong but instead he said, ‘Don’t worry. Lord has prepared for you already’. This line really spoke to me. From then, I started going to church every Sunday and found peace”.
After being ousted out of an evangelical church in Hong Kong for openly expressing his views on the church opposition to the legal passage of an anti-discrimination law for LGBT community in 2005, pastor Huang Guoyao moved on to a ‘gay church’ in the city. “At the time I felt that we should not do that, as a church minister or even a Christian. So I voiced out my view on it through the Hong Kong main post. The feedback was quite negative and I felt that I could not stay any longer. I was a little bit upset but I needed to be faithful to my calling,” he said. That calling to him is the mission to present the love of Jesus Christ, beyond the gospel, as something fair and righteous like equality for the LGBT communities. In 2014, he moved to Taipei, where he started preaching at Tong-Kwang.
He has since performed benediction for four same-sex weddings, one of them for a couple from his congregation, Gary and his partner, Viko Yam who were married in an Episcopal church in San Francisco. While both their families joined them on their special day, Gary’s family, who come from a rural province in Taiwan, were in lesser attendance than Viko’s. “When Gary told his second sister, she asked why did he need to get married. He said he just had to. As time went by and they saw the wedding video, they were more at ease and started opening up about it”, Viko recalled, satisfied that, “at least they didn’t reject and joined the function”.
Most of the cities and counties in Taiwan allow same-sex partners to register themselves, allowing them family care leave and authority to sign consent forms for surgical or medical emergency. But of course domestic partnership doesn’t compare to the benefits of marriage, not to mention the social recognition. “In the Asian context, it’s a big thing for the family. So the end goal to see this wedding is quite different. Western parents are happy for you but in Asia, they are happy for themselves,” says Jennifer, who registered with her partner at the Taipei City Hall in June 2014, even before it was legally recognised.
Paul, who married Kenny in Rhode Island a year before the historic SCOTUS ruling that recognised marriage as an equal right for all, is resentful that their union is yet to be legally recognised in Taiwan. “We are married but we’re still not accepted. I want to retire but I have to work here to be able to stay here whereas Kenny can get permanent residency in the US but will have to leave his job in Taipei”, he said, calling the Taiwanese society ‘hypocritical’ in its acceptance towards same-sex partnership.
In October last year, a French professor teaching at the National Taiwan University committed suicide allegedly due to depression caused by his Taiwanese partner’s demise. In his final moments, the professor couldn’t make any medical decisions for him since he had no legal status as the couple had reportedly lived without legal recognition for 35 years. His suicide became a rallying point at the annual pride parade against the government to stop dragging its feet on passing the marriage equality bill.
Gender equality: A fine bone china precariously placed on the edge
Despite the enactment of landmark laws like the Gender Equity Education Act (2004) and the Gender Equality in Employment Act (2002) in the previous decade, the institutionalisation of gender equality remains controversially debated even today. In an email response, a DPP spokesperson said that Taiwan still has a long way to go to make gender equality a reality. “Some people are still against gender equity in education as they believe it would make their children become gay or lesbian. This goes to show that the gender equity education is still not universal enough”, said Yiching Yang, assistant to DPP legislator, Yu Mei-Nu.
Even underneath Tong Kwang’s rainbow flag, lies the tragic story of its founder, who was forced to leave the fellowship because of the lack of funds. Although Pastor Huang never met her, he described Pastor Yang as a woman with a strong character, who clashed with with some of the elder deacons of the church. In 2000, when she attempted to reunite with the church years, the congregation didn’t vote in her favour. “The rejection by the same church that she had helped establish threw her into depression and ultimately, isolation”, he said. She committed suicide in 2008.
The Taiwanese society continues to suffer from a relative lack of gender representation, where women are still held against the norm that ‘Asian women don’t participate in public activities’. Entering politics at a time when queer political candidates were mostly gay men, Jennifer’s identity as a lesbian has been important to the cause. However, she also feels that it has worked to her disadvantage. “People have told me that I have a better chance of winning if I did not reveal my sexual orientation”, she confessed. Despite her defeat, she hopes to reform politics through her newly founded party, Social Democratic Party of Taiwan, which she describes as being more gender friendly than DPP or New Power Party, that rose to power last elections, winning five seats in the Legislative Yuan.
The fact that the president has never alluded to her orientation, despite many a rumours afloat about her queer identity indicates the barrier women in Taiwan continue to face, especially in public life. The mere number of lesbian bars in town, as Jennifer puts, do not survive due to lack of customers, considering parents don’t allow women the same degree of freedom. “In Taiwan, the lesbian community does not have a pick up culture. They just have their own spaces with their friends. They don’t talk to strangers. So you don’t have to go to a bar, you just go to your friend’s place or their private party.”
Authorities are expected to amend or enact relevant laws within two years from the issuance of the court ruling. However, the last lunge towards the finish line for marriage equality may be slowed down by the internal struggle of the Legislative Yuan, where each party is floating their own version of the bill. Despite their common intention, NPP and DPP have independently proposed bills to amend the civil code while the KMT is pushing for the deeply unpopular same-sex partnership bill in an effort to keep the supposed sanctity of the civil code intact.
Ya-Ting Yang, an NPP spokesperson told this reporter in October last year over email, “We are going to change all of the words that previously stated as “husband and wife” or “man and woman” to “two individuals”.
Taiwan’s gender progressive policies, and eventual marriage equality law, serve as a beacon of hope for the rest of Asia, where many countries still prosecute same-sex relations and persecute sexual and gender minorities. More than that, though, it serves as a beacon of hope for the small island country, eager to stand as an independent state.
Makepeace Sitlhou is a freelance writer based in Bangalore. She tweets at @makesyoucakes.