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    A Look at LGBTQ Life in Taiwan

    By Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis–

    Taipei Pride

    It seems only fitting that San Francisco and Taipei, sister cities since the year of Stonewall, 1969, host the largest LGBTQ Pride marches and celebrations in North America and Asia. This year’s Taipei Pride was “the largest LGBTQ gathering of any kind ever in Asia,” explained Simon Tai, head of the organizing group.

    In the last issue, we reported on the community’s efforts to make the Taiwan constitutional court’s promise of marriage equality a reality now. Today we report on Taipei Pride itself, and other wonderful aspects of Taiwan’s distinctive queer community.

    Taipei Pride is a place where Taiwanese and other LGBTQ Asians can come together and be surrounded by love, support, and community. The joy is palpable—as is the community’s commitment to attaining full legal equality and social acceptance in Taiwan as well as in other Asian nations.

    We personally met participants not just from Taiwan, but also from mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Thailand, and Myanmar (Burma). Just before the march was to begin, a huge LGBTQ flag made its way through the crowd like a rainbow dragon.

    Taipei Pride is very down-to-earth and community-based. It is entirely volunteer run with over 500 volunteers taking part, according to head organizer Tai. We were struck how nearly everyone participated in the march rather than standing on the sidelines just to watch. While some organizations had floats or trucks, most of the 160 groups simply marched together as contingents on foot. Anyone could join in and hold a sign with whatever message they chose.

    In addition to the push for full marriage equality, defending and expanding LGBTQ education is public schools was a major theme of Pride. In 2004, Taiwan enacted the groundbreaking national Gender Equity Education Act, mandating gender education in public schools from early ages through high school. Activists credit such education, which has included LGBTQ curriculum, as a significant factor in broadening public acceptance of queer people. They seek expansion of LGBTQ education under the act, whose implementation they view as having been too slow and too variable by region.

    After losing the marriage equality court decision, however, anti-LGBTQ forces—particularly several conservative political Christian groups—are attempting to remove LGBTQ education from schools, thereby preventing students from learning about the true diversity of Taiwan’s population.

    By contrast, Taipei Pride illuminated the beauty of our community’s diversity. LGBTQ Christians, people living with HIV, transgender people and many others proudly and exuberantly made their presence known to the broader society through the 75 media outlets present. They also felt the embrace and acceptance of the community. The Tongzhi Hotline, a prominent LGBTQ service and advocacy organization, distributed thousands of cards and stickers reading “HIV+ OK” as they have done at many other events.

    Also experiencing embrace and acceptance were LGBTQ people from other parts of Asia who came to Taipei Pride to be completely openly queer because it may not be safe to do so in their home countries—be they Pakistan, Singapore or mainland China. Two months ago, we visited Destination Bar and community center in Beijing, China, where Pride marches and rallies are banned and living as an openly gay person can be very difficult.

    Soon after we arrived at Taipei Pride, we were amazed and delighted to see that perhaps the biggest float in the entire parade was that of Destination Bar—topped with muscular gay dancers from Beijing, strutting their stuff to the great pleasure of the crowd—something they clearly could not do in a parade at home. It was a powerful image of oppression and freedom, frustration and hope, repression and joy.

    Indeed, Taipei Pride is becoming a place for Asian LGBTQ activists and leaders from diverse parts of the continent to come together to meet, share ideas and experiences, strategize, and gain support and inspiration from each other that they take back to their own countries. Some aspects of Asian cultures—such as social conformity and the importance of family responsibility—overlap, while other elements diverge. Activists in some Asian countries face enormous barriers to building LGBTQ communities and making gains for LGBTQ legal rights, and it is easy for them to feel isolated. Coming together in Taipei with international activists enables everyone to feel connected and part of a worldwide LGBTQ movement and community.

    Taiwan International Queer Film Festival

    In the days leading up to Pride, the Taiwan International Queer Film Festival showcased an impressive lineup of queer films from across Asia and around the world. With the theme of “Queer and Camp,” this year’s 4th annual festival made good on its promise to provide audiences the opportunity to “unapologetically let their inner self shine through.”

    The festival is also becoming a meeting place for international filmmakers and artists, just as Taipei Pride is for activists and the community at large. This year, the Asian Pacific Queer Film Festival Alliance, a consortium of 25 LGBT oriented film festivals in the region, held its first in-person meeting at the Festival, called the Asian-Pacific Film and Culture Forum.

    Jay Lin and other founders of the Taipei queer film festival are bringing the best of the festival and much more to the world through their new platform: GagaOOLala (https://www.gagaoolala.com/en/home), which they have termed a “Gay Netflix” for Asia, if not the world. GagaOOlala boasts the largest collection of LGBTQ film in Asia, and features movies, short films, documentaries, series and original content.

    Spectrosynthesis: A Groundbreaking LGBTQ Art Exhibition

    In addition to queer film, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, this fall hosted the first-ever major LGBTQ-themed exhibition at a government museum in Asia. The path-breaking show featured artists from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, and Singapore, as well as other places.

    Patrick Sun, Executive Director of the Hong Kong-based Sunpride Foundation, co-host of the exhibition, expressed his pride at being “part of this beautiful, beautiful country” in which people are “very warm and accepting.” He said the museum was “totally behind” the exhibition from the beginning, and that the museum and the government gave them a “free hand” with “no censorship.”

    We loved many pieces in the exhibition, and Sun explained that a “recurring” theme of the show is “acceptance and tolerance.” “The essence of what we are trying to say” is that “if we take apart all the external features … maybe we can have a better look at the essence of oneself. Who are we? And for me the message is that if we are not that different inside, why is there discrimination?”

    “One of the most touching moments” for Sun happened when he was at the exhibition one day and he “saw a mother bringing her son who was 5 or 6 years old. And the mother was explaining to her son that in this world there’s man loving woman, woman loving woman, woman loving man, and man loving man. That’s just a fact of life. And the son just looked up and said, ‘Yes,’ and nodded. That to me makes it all worthwhile.”

    The Only LGBTQ Taoist Temple in the World

    With respect to queer spiritual and cultural life, Taiwan is also distinctive. Over two-thirds of Taiwan’s population identifies as Taoist or Buddhist, and Taiwan boasts as far as we know the only Taoist temple in the world specially dedicated to serving the LGBTQ community. According to founder Taoist Master Lu Wei-ming, thousands of LGBTQ people have come to the temple since its creation in 2006.

    The temple, called Wei Ming Tong (Hall of Martial Brilliance), is dedicated to the centuries-old Taoist God Tu‘er Shen (Rabbit God), who originally oversaw gay “love and relationships,” but now protects LGBTQ people in all aspects of their lives. According to an account from the early Qing dynasty, a man named Hu Tianbao fell in love with an attractive male inspector and was caught peering at the inspector through a bathroom wall. Hu confessed his same-sex love and attraction to authorities, who then executed him by beating him to death. Thereafter, Hu became the God Tu’er Shen to compensate for the injustice of being killed for being gay. Master Lu explained that Tu’er Shen suffered because of who he was and whom he loved, and thus can empathize with challenges LGBTQ people face today.

    Master Lu also described how queer people have been a part of Chinese history and culture, and how being LGBTQ is a natural part of Taoism. According to Master Lu, “in ancient China, the culture didn’t see gay people as much different from others. They were looked at equally as normal people.” Indeed, texts report instances of young male couples marrying and being recognized by each other’s families in the Ming and early Qing dynasties in Fujian Province of China, where many early Chinese Taiwanese came from.

    As Master Lu explained, Yin and Yang—how seemingly opposite aspects of life are actually deeply interconnected to form a whole—is central to Taoism. In the famous circular symbol, a dot of Yin appears in Yang, and a dot of Yang is represented in Yin. In Master Lu’s words, nothing “exists alone,” and LGBTQ people “are natural in the world,” represented by the circle. “Woman is normal inside man, and man is normal inside woman.” In Chinese temples, Guan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is depicted as both male and female and neither male nor female—free of the constraints of gender—able to offer compassion for all.

    Patrick Sun echoed these ideas in his vision of Spectrosynthesis: “In all of us, it’s not like black and white, binary gender. There’s a woman living in [a man, and] a man living in [a woman]. We have a masculine side and a feminine side, and probably many, many more sides that we have not explored yet.”

    Coming Out in Taiwan

    Taiwan is one of the safest countries in the world as far as street crime. Although anti-LGBTQ violence exists, we were struck by how comfortable some young people seemed to be expressing their sexuality. During our visit, we noticed young Taiwanese gay couples and trans people simply being themselves openly at such ordinary places as the subway station and Taiwan’s famous night food markets. Many people told us they did not have to hide amongst their friends and community.

    This represents change. Arthur Chang, a long-time volunteer at the Tongzhi Hotline, told us that originally most callers were LGBTQ people in distress about their sexuality. Parents also called upset when their child had come out to them. Now, Chang says many callers are LGBTQ people wanting to talk about romantic or relationship problems.

    Coming out is not easy for all, however, and perhaps especially for older adults. Chang told us of an annual weekend bus tour for older gay men that has enabled many closeted gay men who are married to women to have a few days to be who they really are. Despite the fact that employment discrimination is prohibited nationwide, coming out on the job can be risky. Although Chang noted significant changes in hotline calls, many activists told us that when it came to coming out to parents, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was the unspoken rule.

    One person who is responsible for change and who passionately wants more children to come out to their parents and be accepted is the extraordinary woman known as Guo Mama, head of Loving Parents of LGBT, Taiwan. Guo Mama herself sets a powerful example for other parents of LGBTQ people. When she suspected that her own daughter was queer, she encouraged her to come out, and her daughter did as a lesbian. But Guo Mama thought that something else was going on and encouraged her daughter to consider whether she was transgender. Guo Mama’s daughter soon thereafter came out as her son. Her child’s grandparents were so supportive that they insisted that the genealogy engraved on their family gravestone be changed to identify that that they had a grandson and not a granddaughter.

    Guo Mama told us that she has personally helped over 500 parents to accept their children’s coming out to them over the last 13 years, and she has devised practical steps for LGBTQ people and their parents in the coming out process. Her underlying message to parents of young people struggling with their sexuality and coming out: “Your child needs your help now more than ever.” Her message to LGBTQ Taiwanese about parents: “We don’t throw our kids away.” Through her work, she has found that parents are willing to do things for their children “beyond their children’s imagination.” Guo Mama’s dream is to bring families closer together and to remove the stress of “living double lives” and “telling lies.”

    Final Evening at Taipei’s Natural Hot Springs

    As we reflected on our experience of LGBTQ life in Taiwan, our last evening in Taipei seemed almost metaphorical. The city of Taipei boasts marvelous natural sulfur hot spring spas along the banks of a steaming river in the hills on the outskirts of town. On a Saturday evening, we went with friends to visit Emperor Hot Springs, a venue very popular with gay men.

    The spa is gender segregated, and we soaked in the soothing waters with over two hundred others. The atmosphere was relaxed and casual with many folks hanging out and chatting with friends, while others soaked silently. In one pool, you could lie down with your head resting on a piece of wood made soft by the warm mineral waters. We felt as if we could float there forever.

    Afterwards, bathers dress and join each other—gay and straight together, straight families with small children and groups of friends—to savor pots of warm rice soup and other delicious Taiwanese food. It doesn’t get much better than this.

    Actually, it does get better, and it will—when the Constitutional Court’s promise of marriage equality and the dignity that comes with it become a reality—and as progress toward full LGBTQ equality and inclusion continues. Taiwan’s amazing LGBTQ community, with its inspiring activists, leaders and allies, is doing everything it can to make that dream come true. We hope to be planning a return visit soon.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.