Recent political events involving a ten-minute phone call, a few tweets and a general lack of perspective have landed Taiwan in the geopolitical spotlight, causing jitters on both sides of the Strait and across the globe. Those looking for some good news should talk to the island’s queer residents, for whom life has been steadily improving over the last decade – LGBT equality is a cause that has gained more traction in Taiwan than perhaps anywhere else in Asia. Many believe that the territory could soon become the first in the region to recognise same-sex unions. Here’s why.
There’s public support
Taiwan inherited permissive legal and social attitudes to sex and sexuality that have existed throughout Chinese history. Even under martial law, which officially ended in 1987, same-sex relationships were never outlawed, and while conservative attitudes to sex endure, the international LGBT liberation movement has found a receptive audience among young Taiwanese, who are helping to convince the older generation to change its views. According to some online polls, public support on the island for same-sex unions rocketed from 53 percent in 2013 to 71 percent in 2016.
Unlike in the similarly globalised former British colony of Hong Kong, where an influential evangelical lobby and a legal system still influenced by the bigoted statutes of 19th-century Britain hold LGBT rights back, there have been few organised political efforts to suppress LGBT rights on the island.
An LGBT-friendly pop culture
The diverse pop culture of former coloniser Japan has infiltrated the mainstream, bringing with it queer fiction, anime and manga painstakingly translated into Chinese. Malaysian-born director Tsai Ming-liang emerged in the late ’90s with provocative and sensual works such as The River, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone and The Wayward Cloud, which portrayed sexuality as fluid, and same-sex attraction as commonplace. Native son Ang Lee’s watershed 2005 epic Brokeback Mountain went further by placing a Hollywood gloss on queer themes in cinema, and the film was a huge success on the island.
Legislation is already being put in place
While the Kuomintang-led Pan-Blue Coalition blocked a 2003 vote on recognising same-sex relationships that would also have allowed LGBT Taiwanese to adopt, these causes have been rekindled by newly elected leader Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, and could be put to a vote as early as this year. Tsai’s platform included pledges to grant LGBT Taiwanese equality under the law, and contributed to her solid support among the island’s youth. Although the rights of LGBT individuals are not expressly protected under the Constitution, the Legislative Yuan has passed statutes outlawing discrimination in the workplace and in education.
From August 2013, the government acknowledged Taiwan’s first transgender marriage, and in 2015 the island broke with tradition across Asia by no longer requiring trans residents to surgically transition prior to changing their legal gender. Further legislation is in the works to ban conversion therapy, often a last resort option for families keen to push their queer children into opposite-sex marriages.
LGBT visibility is high
LGBT visibility in Taiwan is far more pronounced than in almost any other Asian territory, and Taipei hosts what might be East Asia’s largest annual Pride parade, attracting more than 65,000 revellers in 2016, many of whom travelled from the Chinese Mainland to show support for an island-wide campaign for same-sex marriage. While gay celebrities may not be as ubiquitous as in Japan, everyday provision for the needs of queer residents is excellent, with gay-friendly beaches, hot springs, resorts, cafes and bookshops – not bad for a territory with a population slightly bigger than that of Beijing.
The obstacles are being slowly overcome
It’s not all a bed of rainbow roses for Taiwan’s queer population. The older generation, for the most part raised to adhere to strict Confucian doctrine, continue to be reluctant to embrace LGBT freedoms, with the families of the victims of an explosion at a party in Taipei in 2015 requesting that official reports drop references to the party’s reportedly ‘gay’ theme. Many marching in the island’s Pride parades continue to wear masks to avoid being identified, and while vocal opposition from the island’s right wing to LGBT equality has been muted by both a shift in social attitudes and the Kuomintang’s recent defeat at the ballot box, populist conservatism is on the march across Asia.
Nevertheless, Taiwan deserves its status as a beacon of acceptance, and is regularly the focus of efforts by Mainland activists to demonstrate how LGBT equality is more than compatible with Chinese values. We can only hope that recent ructions die down, and queer Taiwanese can get on with the business of setting a shining example to the world’s most heavily populated continent.
Pictures from Taipei Pride 2016. For details on Taipei Pride 2017, visit gaytaipei4u.com.