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Tea Leaves

Taiwan offers queer lessons for inclusivity in Asia

The island's relaxed approach to gender and sexuality is a beacon for the region

People take part in the annual Taiwan Pride walk in central Taipei in October 2018.   © Getty Images

Asia's largest LGBTQ Pride parade will take place on the last Saturday in October -- not in bustling Bangkok but in Taiwan's capital, Taipei. This year's celebrations promise to be particularly upbeat. In May, Taiwan's legislature became the first in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage.

Already, ripple effects are being felt throughout the region: In Thailand, a bipartisan consensus has emerged on legalizing same-sex unions, and in socially conservative Japan, opposition lawmakers have announced their support for equal marriage. Why is Taiwan at the center of this sea change?

A small democracy with a population roughly the size of Australia, Taiwan receives scant attention in the international media beyond coverage of neighboring China's territorial claims over the self-ruled island. But the majority ethnic Chinese society boasts a distinct cultural identity borne of successive waves of European, Japanese, and Chinese colonization.

To understand what makes Taiwan unique, look no further than its vibrant LGBTQ culture. While the island's robust LGBTQ movement owes much to its one-of-a-kind circumstances and blend of regional influences, its successes have resonated and inspired well beyond its borders.

When I first moved to Taipei, I was immediately struck by how progressive the city is. Young gay couples walk hand-in-hand, while rainbow flags and gender-neutral restrooms abound. LGBTQ nightlife runs the gamut from saunas to techno parties. Cultural events like the annual Taiwan International Queer Film Festival, which recently wrapped up its 2019 screenings, are commonplace.

Hate crimes are virtually unheard of. As Jay Lin, founder of a queer-friendly streaming platform serving Southeast Asia, put it: "Living as an LGBTQ person in Taipei means not having to worry about safety, equality, and freedom on a daily basis."

This accepting atmosphere isn't limited to Taipei. Cities across the island turn out tens of thousands for local Pride events. When I told a Taiwanese friend from one of the smaller cities that a boys' school in New Taipei City had announced it would allow students to don skirts as part of their uniforms, he replied nonchalantly: "It's nothing new -- my middle school had guys who wore them too."

Taiwan was not always a beacon of LGBTQ rights, but its queer history is undeniably rich. Many of the island's aboriginal peoples have long honored third genders, though today these predominantly Christian communities tend to be more sexually conservative. And the ethnic Chinese settlers who began arriving in the 15th and 16th centuries were not particularly hostile to same-sex love.

Under Japanese colonial rule in the early 20th century, and later under the dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese Nationalist Party, homosexuality and transsexuality were viewed as illnesses or moral failings. But this stigma did not prevent LGBTQ subcultures from forming discreetly, and when martial law was lifted in 1987, the LGBTQ cultural and political scene exploded.

Writers like Chiu Miao-chin tackled lesbian desire in a matter-of-fact, poignant style, and directors like Ang Lee turned the generation gap in sexual attitudes into fodder for mainstream comedy. At the same time, gender and sexuality rights groups took off, forcing politicians to heed the rights of sexual minorities.

Taiwan's list of legislative milestones over the past two decades is long and impressive. In 2004, discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity was outlawed. From 2010, schools have been required to teach gender equality and LGBTQ diversity. "Conversion therapy" has been effectively banned since 2018.

From 2020, the government, headed by the liberal Democratic Progressive Party, will offer a third gender option on ID cards. And while a recent same-sex marriage law is a compromise that falls short of true equality, it has set a new regional benchmark.

Taiwan is no queer utopia, of course. "Many activists are willing to march on the street to demand their rights but are reluctant to bring up the issue with their own parents," notes Michael Garber, who is working on a documentary about the marriage equality movement. Lu Po-ju, a gay resident in Taipei, agrees: "We are one step closer to equality, but we still haven't crossed the finish line."

Transgender activists advocate allowing people to change the gender on their IDs without surgery. More radical groups hope to challenge the policing of LGBTQ sex work and eventually extend marriage-like benefits to a variety of nontraditional relationships.

Compared to other East Asian nations, though, Taiwan's inclusivity is, well, rather queer. In the Pride march on Oct. 26, Taiwan's hard-won democratic freedoms and distinctive culture of tolerance will once again be on display as tens of thousands take to the streets to celebrate their latest, historic victory on same-sex marriage.

For the many regional activists who will be watching, the goal is clear: Today Taiwan, tomorrow Asia.

Brandon Kemp is a Taipei-based film and culture writer.

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