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Was Chen's inauguration like the two-headed calf at the county fair, or the shot heard round the world? Related Gully Stories:

Taiwan: Democracy At Risk
The Gully's complete coverage of Taiwan, its colonial past, and uncertain future as a new democracy eyed hungrily by China.

Gay Mundo
All our coverage is queer, this is our ultra-queer stuff.

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Lesbian and Gay Taiwan:
A Yardstick of Democracy

by Kelly Cogswell

JUNE 1, 2000. The swearing in of Chen Shui-bian as President of Taiwan on May 20 was the first peaceful transfer of power between democratically elected leaders in a Chinese society. While successful elections are indicators of democracy, the development of civil society is far more important. The state of lesbian and gay Taiwan is as good a yardstick as any to tell us whether Chen's inauguration is in the category of the short-lived two-headed calf at the county fair, or the shot heard round the world.

Persecution in the Nationalist Era.
Homosexual activity was accepted, by and large, as a natural part of sexual exploration in pre-modern China, and the Chinese-derived culture of Taiwan. Depictions of it are common in classical Chinese literature and art where it was usually portrayed fondly, though it was also sometimes lampooned. But generalized intolerance had already set in by the time the prudish Christian British arrived in China with their anti-sodomy laws.

Things worsened for lesbians and gays during martial law in Taiwan, imposed when a small Nationalist minority arrived in 1949 from the newly-communist mainland China. The Nationalists ruled the Taiwanese population with the harsh, short-sighted intolerance of generals preparing for battle.

Political opposition was slaughtered or cowed. Taiwanese languages, which were prohibited in public, eroded in private. The land, particularly that belonging to indigenous people, was ruined by an explosion of unsustainable development geared to finance the Nationalist military. Rebellion against what were perceived to be traditional Chinese values like monogamous, heterosexual family life, and even dress and hair style, sometimes resulted in charges of sedition.

Those detained were frequently tortured while awaiting trial, and later during incarceration and "re-education". The Green Island prison was characterized as a concentration camp by those who were held there. Political prisoners released from jail had trouble finding work due to the stigma of "subversion".

In the final years of martial law, however, when the political climate had already begun to thaw, lesbian and gay characters began to appear in Taiwanese literature. Pai Hsien-Yung's 1980 landmark novel "Niezi", later published in English as "Chrystal Boys", is widely regarded as the first Taiwanese queer novel. Some argue, though, that the lesbian Qiu Miao-Jin's 1994 "Journal of a Crocodile" is the first novel with a modern, unapologetic queer sensibility.

In 1987, a few years after their fantasy of retaking China faded, the Nationalists ended martial law. Taiwan's first democratic legislative elections were held in 1992, signalling the beginning of a new era for lesbians and gay men.

Queer Visibility.
gay magToday, there are queer magazines on newstands, lesbian and gay clubs at universities, and queer studies in the classroom. The younger generation comes out to friends, or siblings, but mostly not their parents. Gay men are out and proud in mixed bars and clubs. Gay men also have their own karaoke bars, bathhouses and gyms, while lesbians have their own teahouses. There are myriads of queer Taiwanese sites on the Internet.

Japan, Taiwan, and Thailand are the three most gay-friendly countries in that part of the world according to queer Asians.

Activism, however, seems to be lagging behind visibility. According to Travis Hung, a recent gay Taiwanese immigrant to Boston, after so many years of danger and secrecy, the primary concern of the average Taiwanese queer or tongzhi (literally "comrade") is "finding someone to be with and having fun, not activism; the older generation is still heavily closeted, afraid coming out would endanger their career, family, or whatever they think is important." Besides, he says, "Asians overall are not crazy about politics."

Nevertheless, there's been a small, but vibrant, queer activist community in Taiwan since the 1987 transition to democracy.

Activism in the New Democracy
In the late 80's, the newly liberated Taiwanese press reported on the evolving gay liberation movements in the United States, along with new feminist movements, and AIDS activism. ACT UP's blend of Ghandi-style civil disobedience, and wit honed in New York bars, bathhouses, and paddy wagons became a model for some Taiwanese activists.

Others found all this a burden. The 1996 "Chinese Tongzhi Manifesto", written by a consortium of queer Chinese intellectuals and activists, declared that "confrontational politics, such as coming out and mass protests and parades may not be the best way of achieving tongzhi liberation in the family-centred, community oriented Chinese societies which stresses the importance of social harmony." In a moment of wistful cultural amnesia, the writers turned their backs not only on the West, but on their own long Asian history of bloody politics and confrontational student activism almost traditional in Beijing, Seoul, and Jakarta.

For the first few years of democracy, queer Taiwanese were on the outside looking in. The primary dialogue about homosexuality was in the hands of doctors intent on pathologizing it. This was exacerbated by the backlash against AIDS.

The brilliant anti-AIDS plan of ultra-conservative Hao Bocun, a former general, appointed Prime Minister in 1990, was to ostracize queers and sex workers as dangerous high-risk groups to be avoided. He portrayed them as a threat to "the ruling social order," especially that of the heterosexual nuclear family. Christian Taiwanese also touted AIDS as a punishment for sexual sins.

Queer AIDS activists found powerful allies in feminists. Unlike queers, women had been allowed to organize under martial law, so they initially had the best resources to lobby for change in governmental policy. Awakenings, one of the first feminist groups to give lesbians a voice, and already supportive of poor women forced into prostitution, rallied behind both gay men and sex workers. They demanded that AIDS be fought by releasing information about the transmission of AIDS and safe sex, not by demonizing people who had it.

The first lesbian group, Between Us, was formed in 1990 . A few years later, in 1993, Gay Chat, focused on safer sex and AIDS was founded at Taiwan University, but was forced to change its name to the unwieldy and apologetic "Research Group for problems of male homosexuals at the National Taiwan University". Later that same year the first officially registered gay magazine appeared "Ai fuhao zi zai bao", or "Aibao" for short, which means "Love-paper".

Despite the 1929 Publication Law (only abolished in 1999) requiring all publications to be registered and approved by the government, and the penalties imposed on publishing scofflaws, a wealth of other "un-official" newspapers and magazines appeared including "The Asian Lesbian Collective", "The Little Gay Paper", and "Gongdehui jishi", which concentrated on human rights.

Gays and lesbians took to the streets in 1993 to protest their exclusion when Taiwan's Parliament was discussing an anti-discrimination law. The newly founded Home for Aids Victims was also protesting, but against the lack of action by Parliament.

the wedding banquetThe profile of queers was further heightened by the Taiwanese director Ang Lee's 1993 film "The Wedding Banquet", about a gay Taiwanese yuppie living in New York who marries an illegal immigrant from China to fulfill the wishes of his aging parents and help her get a green card. When "The Wedding Banquet" won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival, photos of the Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui shaking hands with Ang Lee were plastered on the front page of every Taiwanese newspaper, giving the seal of approval to Lee's gay subject matter.

Shortly after this, Chen Shui-bian, who was then mayor of Taipei, was challenged to attend a public gay wedding ceremony held by two gay men who returned home from the West expressly for the action. The cautious Chen didn't turn up, but he did send a congratulatory letter with a representative. That letter, however, was signed by Chen as a private citizen, and not as mayor.

The first Gay Pride Festival was held in June 1997 in Taipei's New Park, the setting for "Chrystal Boys". Over 30 gay organizations took part.

The Family and the Lie.
One rite of passage for Western queers is the moment of coming out as gay to our parents. There is even an "International Coming Out Day" celebrated in the U.S., where it originated, and countries ranging from Canada to New Zealand. While the new generation of Taiwanese queers does come out, it's usually to friends and siblings, not to their parents. Two factors explain it: the higher stakes of alienating the family, and the acceptability of the useful lie.

A few years ago it seemed like every Taiwanese soap opera had someone dying of cancer. The doctor would gather the family together and ask them whether or not to tell the patient. The family inevitably considered it better not to burden him or her with the bad news. Of course, these being soap operas, the doomed character would find out inadvertently and more drama would ensue.

My point is that not all closets are created equal. A great deal of the horror of the Western closet is the horror and burden of the lie. When the lie is less of a burden, the effects are different. Compounded with the larger roles families play in Taiwan, coming out to them is often not cost-effective.

Safety Net and Straight Jacket.
bride and groomFor queers as for hets, Taiwanese life begins and ends with the family. It is both a safety net, and a straight jacket. Vivian Huang, a straight Taiwanese living in New York, described it as a "feudal system, each family being its own kingdom, with the oldest male the king." Though democracy reportedly exists outside the family, it's still common for grandfathers to decide the votes of the entire family.

Love is tangled up with obedience. And loyalty to your family, in a country where there is no social security for your old age, no free government health insurance, may be the only thing keeping homelessness and death at bay. At utilitarian best, the family is a nursing home, hospital, day care center and pre-school. At worse, it is a fresh hell for daughters-in-law lowest in the pecking order, and a daily torture for queers.

Without state aid, when each member of the family depends on the others for well-being, if not survival, marriage, procreation, and the continuance of the family are essential. For traditional families, heterosexual unions are neither sacrament nor heady joys, but a duty. In other words, love comes and goes, but continuing the social structure is your obligation, especially for oldest sons.

The pressure doesn't start immediately. Mothers make excuses for their sons, said Vivian: "they're too picky, too choosy, too poor, or just having too much fun." And gay sex, per se, is not necessarily a big problem for many Taiwanese, with the exception of fundamentalist Christians, as long as it doesn't exclude marriage.

Coming out in Taiwan, not just as a person who has sex with the same gender, but as a gay person, a lesbian person, who will not marry someone of a different gender, means not just painful fights, but an active attack on this entire structure of culture, identity, and fiscal safety. The worst is that you may be mortgaging not just your future, but the present of your parents and grandparents. And with an extensive arsenal known to include not just insults and tears, but threats of suicide or violence, they're not gonna let you forget it.

As it is now, many gay folks in Taiwan cave in and marry to ease the pressure from their families. Sometimes gay men and their lesbian friends marry, kind of a kill two troublesome-family- birds with one stone, with an understanding that they will get a divorce later. Even those who cleverly immigrate to escape the pressure, are sometimes so effectively harrassed and guilt-tripped by their families that they break up longstanding gay relationships abroad and return to Taiwan and marry someone of the opposite sex.

The Chrystal Ball.
While there seems to be a possibly troublesome gap between queer theorists in Taiwanese universities, the bar scene, and activists—a gap which also exists in the U.S.—the increasing visibility and openness of lesbians and gays to friends and siblings is a good harbinger for the next generations of queers. In Taiwan, as elsewhere, children will find it easier to come out to parents who at least knew a gay person in college.

What Taiwanese queers need most is time. As Travis Hung said, "Maybe when the younger generation grows older, maybe then we'll pursue gay rights." Everything depends on peace with big brother China, and a few more years in a democracy where you can raise your voice without being punished.

Now, after so many years of fear, and with the burden of the family waiting outside the bar door, it just seems better to party.

Related links:

For Jens Damm's History of the Gays and Lesbians In Taiwan

For Gay asia links.

For Improper Judgements, Improper Remedies: Analysis of the 1998 Martial Law Period Compensation Law.

For Taiwanese links Berkeley Students for a Sovereign Taiwan: Links.

For Complete Coverage Asia

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

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