Out in Taiwan: Standing for Equality with Fashion Photographer Leslie Kee

Out in Taiwan: Standing for Equality with Fashion Photographer Leslie Kee
Credit: GagaOOLala
Why you need to know

As Pride approaches, world-famous fashion photographer Leslie Kee is casting Taiwan's LGBT community in its very best light.

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Every year on the last weekend of October, thousands of people from around Asia flock to Taipei for the continent's biggest Pride Parade. The annual march, which has been running since 2003, is attended by people from all walks of life to celebrate the human right to be yourself.

As Pride approaches, celebrated Singaporean photographer Leslie Kee – who has snapped subjects such as Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Kate Moss over his 20-year career – spent last Sunday photographing 200 LGBT subjects for “Out In Taiwan,” which follows his successful exhibits “Out in Japan” (ongoing since 2015) and “Out in Singapore” (2018).

包含薛舜文在內等人,攜伴力挺OUT_IN_TAIWAN
Credit: GagaOOLala, GagaTai and LalaTai
A couple poses as part of the 'Out in Taiwan' photo shoot by Singaporean fashion photographer Leslie Kee.

The projects aim to humanize the LGBT community and familiarize the public with their diverse faces.

Taiwan has long led the way in LGBT rights in the region and currently boasts a progressive gender equality education policy in the form of the Gender Equity Education Act (性別平等教育法), which has been in place since 2004. Additionally, in May 2017 the Constitutional Court ruled that marriage is a human right and should not be denied on the basis of sexuality, in the process giving Taiwan’s parliament a two-year deadline to legislate on its decision.

不僅有名人、伴侶現身支持,更有家庭一同入鏡,呈現家庭的多元面貌
Credit: GagaOOLala, GagaTai and LalaTai
A family faces Leslie's camera during the shoot at Portico Media's offices in Taipei on Oct. 21.

However, on Nov. 24, no less than five questions on the issues of equal marriage and education policy regarding gender equity will be presented to the electorate in referendums that will be held in tandem with local elections.

The upcoming referendum questions have shaken the confidence of many supporters of the LGBT community and led to fears that Taiwan might regress in this area of human rights, should one or indeed many of the referendums pass.

Read More: OPINION: Tsai Has Only Herself to Blame If Marriage Equality Referendums Fail

Against this backdrop, Leslie Kee decided to bring his project to Taiwan. The News Lens attended the shoot and spoke to both Kee and some of the participants about why they feel this project is important for Taiwan. Some came solo, others in couples or with their families. The subjects run the gamut from internationally famous to regular Joe Public via activists, creatives and models. All of them were ready to stand up and be counted in the struggle for equality.

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Credit: GagaOOLala, GagaTai and LalaTai
Leslie Kee presides as his team assists with editing.

Kee is aware of the current situation in Taiwan, mainly through local friends and the internet. Having spent a great deal of time in New York, Paris and London, he is deeply aware of the disparity between attitudes in cities like these and the majority of their counterparts in Asia.

During our interview he talked passionately about the contrast with Japan, Taiwan and Singapore “How much longer are we going to continue with this whereby Asia is supposed to be very developed, but what is the point of having such a developed country if people’s minds are not developed about humanity?

“This is the right timing, hopefully [the project] can push a little bit, just by my little support for Taiwan. I’ve got so many Taiwanese friends… [and I hope to] speed up the process of achieving same sex marriage.”

TYLAdiscussion
Credit: GagaOOLala, GagaTai and LalaTai
Leslie Kee chooses which shot of subject Tyla will make the final cut. With all the subjects, Kee shoots a short series before they discuss which to include in the project.

Describing his project as a “very stylish, very chic, very cool, very fashionable, very fun, very natural and very human” way of spreading the message that Asia must speed up its efforts to achieve same-sex marriage, Kee suggests the light that shines through his subjects and their photos “tells a thousand words” about the human importance of the struggle for equality.

“In Taiwan I took a different approach [to the shoot], a little bit more gentle, a little bit more poetic, a little bit more, you know, at home. The tones are different because this is what I see in them.”

The Taiwan series uses the same gray background as the Japan and Singapore exhibitions, with each subject posed with both eyes open and eyes closed.

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Credit: Leslie Kee
Jovi Wu (R) and Mindy Chu with daughter Alison.

Jovi Wu (邱明玓) came to the shoot with her wife Mindy Chu (吳少喬), and daughter Alison (吳清苗). Jovi explained that she used to attend services at a Christian church, but that disapproval from members had led her to stop attending.

“Some people called us to let us know this photographer was coming, that we could have a chance to show gay people can have a child. Because Christians think gay people don’t have children, so they think that gay marriage shouldn’t be legal. So we want to show that there are gay families,” she told The News Lens.

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Credit: Leslie Kee
Aurélien Jegou.

Aurélien Jegou is a French director based in Taiwan. His award-winning LGBT short “The Mermaid and the Whale” (人魚與鯨魚, 2016) has been screened at film festivals across Asia, Europe and North America, including local festival Urban Nomad.

“First of all I think we shouldn’t be ashamed to be who we are. I come from a small town in France. It was quite hard growing up. I was bullied sometimes, people threw stones. I always tried not to care, to be myself.

“This kind of an event gives us opportunities to show who we are. I wrote a movie about this. It’s about a man getting pregnant. I used this image to show that everyone is someone’s freak. We’re all special in some way.

“In my town I was special because I was gay, had red hair and within my family because I wanted to be an actor/director. In Taiwan it’s because I am a foreigner. Whoever we are we should never be put in a position to be ashamed and going to this event shows you are accepted and loved for who you are.”

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Credit: Leslie Kee
Benson Lee.

Benson Lee (震撼) works as PR for the Marriage Equality Coalition (婚姻平權大平台, equallove.tw), the group behind putting the questions in favor of marriage equality and keeping the current education policy in place up for referendum.

“I really want to support this campaign because it’s positive, because I already came out to my parents. And I want to show others that it’s not hard or impossible. I know it’s still hard in Taiwan but once more people come out and say ‘it’s okay’ this society will embrace it. Taiwan is progressive. I want to do something for this country and the society as well.”

泰辣Tyla_s
Credit: Leslie Kee
Tyla.

Tyla (泰辣) has a popular YouTube channel with over 50,000 subscribers, on which he talks about his experiences growing up gay in Taiwan and how he has found happiness since he has come out and embraced his true identity.

“I’m wearing a Qing Dynasty empress outfit from a popular Chinese drama. I wear this because I like it, and things from the Qing Dynasty. I want to tell everyone to be proud to be who you are.

“I want to show people this because when I was a teenager I was bullied by my classmates…because they thought I was sissy. I was very afraid of being myself. My biggest wish as a teenager was to die at 30. But now I’m 30, I have a good husband, a good career, I’m very happy. I hope my YouTube channel can inspire others. I think it’s important people know they are real, they are beautiful. Especially young people. If when I was a young person there was someone to help give me this courage it would have helped me a lot.”

呂聯俊Alex_Lou_楊國棟Roger_Yang_s
Credit: Leslie Kee
Alex Lou (L) and Roger Yang.

Alex Lou (吕联骏) works in arts and media and has recently relocated from Singapore to Taiwan to be with his partner Roger Yang (楊國棟). They chose to celebrate their seventh anniversary by taking part in “Out in Taiwan.”

“I believe coming out is a very important process for LGBT people. I acknowledge everyone needs to do it at their own time. You can’t force it. But my life really changed when I came out. In the ‘90s [in Singapore] it was hard. Every day I was putting on my shirt and tie. Putting on a mask. Then I got an opportunity to do my master’s in Boston in the mid-90s. When I was there I got an internship and I was surprised and shocked that everyone in the company was like ‘oh you’re gay, no big surprise,’ I realized I wanted to live like that.

The last few jobs in the interview I’ve just said ‘I’m gay, and if you’re not okay with that I don’t want to work here. Don’t expect me to be someone else.’ Of course not everyone is in a position to be so open, I’m lucky because of my position and the industry [arts and media]. I don’t think it’s about being brave, it’s just about being true to yourself.”

The “Out in Taiwan” by Leslie Kee exhibition will be held from Saturday Oct. 27 to Sunday Nov. 4 at TAGather Goods in Ximending: 2F., No.41, Neijiang St., Wanhua Dist., Taipei City, Taiwan (台北市萬華區內江街41號2樓 (日常經典門市二樓)

Admission: 12 - 9 p.m. every day. The online exhibition, which includes video footage of more than 150 coming out stories, will also launch on Oct. 27 at www.outintaiwan.tw

IG @outintaiwan

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
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Editor David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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