By Stuart Hill
In 2013 American-educated Christian pastor Guo Mei-Jiang (郭美江) spoke about contagious homosexuality and the need to burn the temptation from Taiwan’s youth. Her preaching – which she uploaded to YouTube as a way of educating the public – could have represented the beginning of more vocal intolerance towards Taiwan’s LGBTQ community.
Yet in typical Taiwanese style, within days the righteous pastor was being parodied on YouTube, her colorful speech of intolerance transformed into the backing track of a humorous and catchy dance beat that became a hit across Taiwan’s gyms and clubs. The technique of sampling her sermon was used in a series of copycat tracks that attempted to outdo each other in terms of comedic value, creativity, and technical brilliance.
In October that same year, the annual Taipei Pride saw an historic turn out of people marching for marriage equality and a range of other issues affecting the LGBTQ community. In contrast, less than a month later tens of thousands marched to promote family values and oppose changes to the marriage act.
Yet in 2014 almost $4 million NTD (roughly $130,000 USD) was raised in one night by individual donations to support the Taiwan Tongzhi LGBT Hotline Association, raising money for projects designed to help LGBTQ people and their families.
So what is to make of Taiwan’s attitude to those defining themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or queer?
Is Taiwan really that gay friendly?
Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau seems to think so. In response to questions about how safe and accommodating Taiwan is to gay travellers, a representative of the bureau was effusive in stating how friendly Taiwan is. “We have no doubt that Taiwan is a safe place for gay travel, especially in the capital city of Taipei.”
In fact the spokesperson was quick to highlight that same-sex couples can record their partnerships at household registration offices in Taipei. This unofficial registration process started in June 2015, following introduction of a similar initiative by the City of Kaohsiung, in Taiwan’s south.
And then this from a friend of the bureau’s representative: “Being a gay man, I think gay life in Taipei cannot be easier, compared to other cities of Taiwan or other major Asian cities. I have never had any verbal or non-verbal attacks from strangers while being intimate on the street. Though every once in a while people stare at you when two men hold each other, most of the time they don’t mean any harm.”
Juan Mei-ying, the director of marketing at the non-profit Taiwan Tongzhi LGBT Hotline Association agrees: “Although same sex marriage is not legal in Taiwan, there are no other restrictions generally. It is not a problem for LGBT people holding hands, hugging and kissing on the street.”
Despite this openness, neither the Taipei City nor Taiwan central governments have actively done anything in recent years to promote Taiwan as a gay-friendly travel destination. While Taipei Pride is reported to be the largest LGBT parade of its type in Asia, the event fails to attract the kind of government or business support that similar events in other cities worldwide can muster. According to Juan Mei-ying from the Tongzhi Hotline, “We can see effort from the government but they can always do more.”
On the issue of legal rights, a bill to amend the marriage act was before the parliament for years and was stalled further by obstruction from the Ministry of Justice. A key player in discussions of the bill, Deputy Minister of Justice Chen Ming-tang, has said there was still a lot of debate in the community and now was not the time to make changes to legislation.
However, film director Barney Cheng, director and actor of the movie Baby Steps, cites his own experience as a way of indicating that Taiwan is ready for change. Exploring the themes of same sex marriage, gay surrogacy, parental disproval, and familial duty, his film is a potential lightning rod for many of the issues affecting Taiwan’s LGBTQ community today.
“From a filmmaker’s perspective, I believe that Taiwan is a pretty liberal place. When we were promoting Baby Steps, we got messages from every corner of the island asking us for posters – from cafes, restaurants, bookstores, offices, schools, and organizations. These are gay-friendly places that wanted to help us promote the movie. We ran out of posters!”
When asked to imagine the things in his movie happening in real-life Taipei, Cheng could not see any cultural obstacles, as Taiwan’s diversity of opinion means that fewer people really care.
“I’m very proud of the enthusiastic support for the movie. Sure, not everyone is gay-friendly; that’s a given. But overall, I feel that Taiwan is a pretty open-minded place. Most of the cultural prejudice comes from lack of understanding or lack of exposure to gay people. The LGBT community in Taiwan is becoming more visible, and that will make Taiwan a friendlier place.”
Tony Thamsir, who moved to Taiwan from Indonesia over 20 years ago, sees things in another light. While he says Indonesia is far less friendly to gays than Taiwan, Taiwan is still not so open about gays and homosexuality. “Most Taiwanese people who live in a big city can accept they have a gay friend, but I don’t think they can accept the reality of their kid is gay,” he said.
He wants the government to do more for the rights of foreigners – both gay and straight – in Taiwan.
It wasn’t too long ago that it was possible for foreigners to contract HIV in Taiwan then be compulsorily deported if they were discovered to be HIV+. Despite blood tests required of foreigners seeking work, studying or immigrating, the approach to dealing with foreigners reflected a fairly intolerant attitude to managing health issues affecting non-citizens. The law could create a lot of issues for those married to Taiwanese spouses. The laws were finally changed in January 2015 so that foreigners who were found to contract HIV were treated the same way locals would be.
Doctor Stephane Ku (Ku Wen-wei, MD), a specialist in infectious diseases, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, admits that even the medical profession has undergone a lot of cultural changes. “We heard a lot of jokes against gay men while receiving medical education in college. Kind of sad when you heard these discriminating and insulting words from medical professionals.”
These days things are improving, if gradually, says Ku: “Doctors of my generation in general have a rather tolerant attitude towards gay people, which doesn’t automatically translate into [tolerance] of people living with HIV and AIDS, unfortunately.”
For same-sex couples, the inability to marry and the absence of a right to form a legal partnership, continues to provide a tough environment for Taiwanese wanting to live in Taiwan with their foreign-born partners.
Says Ku: “The partnership of gay couples should be respected and acknowledged substantially by the law, for sure. People can lose their jobs because of discrimination. Despite that, we do have some laws to protect people from sexism at work, but they should be implemented and enforced more extensively.”
Tongzhi LGBT Hotline director of social work Cheng Chiwei echoes those thoughts: “Taiwan already has several progressive gender equality laws that relate to work and education, but the government should implement these instead of compromising to conservative forces.”
Asked about his expectation for how governments handle the rights of the LGBTQ community, Cheng Chiwei pessimistically responds: “I don’t dare think of when the Taiwan government will deliver on this.”
That said, Cheng Chiwei admits that things have changed: “Compared to when Taiwan was under the martial law period, today’s young gays can’t comprehend the kind of oppression and stigma that gays experienced then. When we talk about the differences in these generations, it’s really important to include the political, legal and social environment.”
Dr Stephane Ku agrees: “More (especially younger) gay men actually come out openly at work and at home. That’s something unimaginable in Taiwan 20 years ago or even now in Asian countries such as Japan and Korea.”
Despite the government’s apparent lack of action on the issue of marriage equality, for many in the LGBTQ community, daily life goes on. From Taiwan’s Bureau of Tourism: “We have a great gay area (HongLou, the Red House in Ximen) where open air bars serve not only the LGBT community but also straight couples; the ambience is very nice and this is a must-do in Taipei, like visiting le Marais in Paris, but more relaxing.”
Meanwhile, the Taiwan Tongzhi LGBT Hotline Association is gearing up for its annual donation drive, a performance night on July 18, which last year attracted 1,500 attendees. “Last year we raised almost NT$4,000,000 so this year we expect to raise above that, with all the money used for our [LGBT community] services,” according to Juan Mei-ying.
And on the importance of marriage equality, first Dr Ku: “Absolutely, yes! It grants a legal status and right for all gay couples.”
A sentiment supported by Tony Thamsir: “Yes, for me marriage is important. Marriage is about love. Love is responsibility. I won’t say ‘I love you’ if I cannot take the responsibility.”
By all accounts, Taiwan’s gay community has been ready for this responsibility a long time.
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More about Taiwan’s LGBTQ community can be found at: