Beyond Drag Queens: Winning Hearts and Minds for LGBT in Taiwan

Beyond Drag Queens: Winning Hearts and Minds for LGBT in Taiwan

What you need to know

As Taiwan edges closer to becoming the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage, the fight for acceptance continues.

At a star-studded gala dinner in the banquet hall of a swanky Taipei hotel on Oct. 28, five young Taiwanese were on stage, pulling faces and striking poses to the amusement of the hundreds in attendance at the inaugural Queermosa Awards.

The group included Zhong Ming-xuan (鍾明軒), Lin Jin (林進) and the transgender woman A-La (小A辣). Combined, their Facebook pages are followed by about 3 million people.

A-La, 27, rose to stardom in 2014 with a YouTube video, which has since been viewed more than 2.6 million times. Lin is best known for a 2015 video of him dancing with his elderly grandmother in the same room, which has garnered more than 4 million views. Zhong, 17, similarly became famous at the age of 12 after a video of him singing went viral.

While their videos and posts are often satirical – their sense of humor could perhaps not quite be described as universal – the group have been credited with championing LGBT issues among Taiwan’s young generation. Their impact has been so notable that the awards, which acknowledges the efforts of many long-time gay rights activists, had a special “Internet Phenomenon” category for someone who uses the Internet to support the LGBT community. There were five nominees – the award was taken out by Lin, also known as "Fashion Baby."

The inaugural ceremony drew some of Taiwan’s most well-known entertainers, politicians and international media.

Queermosa Awards founder, Jay Lin (林志杰), believes the “taboo” around LGBT issues in Taiwan has slowly been “chipped away” in recent years. In-depth articles covering LGBT issues, though still mostly published by alternative media, reach a larger audience than before because of social media , he says.

Amid a broader change in sentiment towards same-sex couples, Lin says there has also been a “significant” improvement in how mainstream media covers LGBT issues. He points to the coverage of the annual Taiwan Pride parade – this year it drew a record 80,000 people to the streets of Taipei on Oct. 29. Importantly, much of the reporting – which in previous years may have focused on some of the more flamboyant participants and risqué costumes – highlighted the massive turnout, included comprehensive commentary on issues like marriage equality, and the photos and videos from the event accurately depicted the truly diverse cross-section of society in attendance.

“That was a good thing to see,” Lin says.

LGBT activist Qi Jia-wei (祁家威).

Towards marriage equality

There has been renewed optimism for Taiwan to become the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage, particularly after then-presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) used marriage equality as part of her campaign platform ahead of the January elections.

On Oct. 25, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislator Yu Mei-nu (尤美女) proposed a bill to legalize same-sex marriage and Taiwan’s executive branch of government – the Executive Yuan – has since said it will support legislation to allow same-sex marriage and marriage equality. It had been hoped the first vote on the new law would happen last week, but this has been delayed due to controversial labor legislation.

Still, the momentum towards same-sex marriage is such that the issue has propelled Taiwan into international headlines – The Guardian, BBC and The Washington Post were among those to cover the Taiwan Pride and the same-sex marriage issue.

Lin notes that Taiwan will typically only make international headlines if the story is related to international geopolitics or the tech sector. After Taiwan Pride, however, “there was wide coverage in all sorts of international, well-renowned newspapers and media brands,” Lin says.

That coverage, which makes its way back to Taiwan via social media, gives the local LGBT community in Taiwan “moral support,” he says.

“It gives Taiwanese more pride, in a sense, that it is the only country in Asia where discussions of liberalization and marriage equality have come so far,” he says. “It all galvanizes to give a lot of enthusiasm and passion to the LGBT community.”

That enthusiasm was palpable at the Queermosa Awards – which, apart from anything else probably boasted the sharpest-dressed, best-looking group of people gathered in a single room anywhere that night. Impassioned speeches from legislator Yu and longtime LGBT activists like Qi Jia-wei (祁家威) – whose dogged commitment to marriage equality was acknowledged at the awards – were met with rapturous applause.

The awards also featured a tribute to the recent tragic story of a long-term relationship between two men in Taiwan. Earlier in October, Jacques Picoux (畢安生), a well-known French national in Taiwan, died after falling from a building in Taipei. Police have suggested that Picoux took his own life. Friends and gay rights activists connected Picoux’s death to the passing of his long-time partner Zeng Jing-chao (曾敬超) and their struggle to legalize their relationship. The two had been together for 35 years.

Lin believes that in time, the story of Picoux and Zeng will likely be viewed as “a catalyst” for change. The narrative of a personal tragedy “brings home” what the unequal law actually means for everyday people, as opposed to articles covering the minutiae of the regulatory changes.

“The average person could [read that story and] understand the ramifications of being in a very committed relationship but not being able to marry,” he says.

“It is having an impact now,” Lin says of the tragedy.

Yu Mei-nu (尤美女)
Hsu Yu-Jen (許毓仁) (left) and Yu Mei-nu (尤美女)

Battle not over

Yu’s draft legislation for same-sex marriage has been complemented by similar proposals by the New Power Party (NPP) and also, somewhat surprisingly, by Kuomintang (KMT) legislator Hsu Yu-Jen (許毓仁).

In addition to strong support within the DPP – albeit not universal – all five legislators from the NPP and at least 11 from the KMT now openly support the law change, Hsu says. This is understood to give supporters roughly half the votes in the legislature.

However, initial optimism a new law could be in place and the country’s first same-sex marriages happening before Christmas appear to have been dashed as Taiwan’s parliament ground to standstill last week over controversial labor legislation.

Hsu has been lobbying for support of marriage equality within his own party. While many KMT legislators will not publicly support the legislation due to pressure in their respective constituencies, he is confident that most will not openly oppose the legislation either.

“They are not asking me to take out [the draft law], I think that is a very good sign,” he says.

He appears hopeful that the cross-party fighting, which continues to plague Taiwan’s parliament, will not be an insurmountable barrier to progressing the legislation.

“It seems both DPP and KMT have the consensus that the same-sex marriage (law) won’t become the victim of the bickering between the two parties,” he says.

In Taiwan, as in much of the world, religious groups and broader conservatism have been blamed for stalling progress towards gay rights. And notwithstanding the efforts of civil society to lobby for same-sex marriage laws, there are vocal groups fighting to block the law.

“We are still looking at very strong resistance from conservative groups,” says Hsu – his office continues to receive complaints, mainly from so-called family protection and religious groups.

He expects “really heated” discussions to take place when the same-sex legislation moves into the committee stages in parliament.

Jay Lin (林志杰).

Hearts and minds

Same-sex marriage would be a huge step forward for Taiwan, and it would be important for the region, given the rising threats faced by supporters of the LGBT community in many other countries in Asia.

Queermosa's Lin notes there remain many other issues for the LGBT community to fight for, including raising awareness for HIV/AIDS, immigration issues for same-sex couples, adoption and, more generally, acceptance of “what it means to be a family or a parent.”

“There are so many issues that need to be tackled,” he says. “It is one step at a time.”

In spite of the positive trajectory of the movement in Taiwan, spreading discussion and understanding of LGBT issues into the mainstream consciousness remains a challenge.

Lin is also a media company owner and director of the Taiwan International Queer Film Festival (TIQFF). While the film festival has been an important part of the LGBT cultural scene, it has limitations in the number of people who can attend, and a tendency to be more popular among the LGBT community rather than the general public.

“The impact is there but is it limited,” he says, and despite their efforts to attract a wide audience, the festival does not often reach the mainstream audience. That was a key reason why the Queermosa Awards was developed.

Queermosa has also been working to increase the number of LGBT characters and storylines in television in Taiwan. It wants to follow the example set by the U.S., where the number of LGBT characters featured television has skyrocketed from just 14 in 2005 to 271 last year, according to data from U.S. based Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

To that end, Queermosa states one of its key goals is “to track and monitor LGBT representation in media, and to encourage media executives and content producers, regardless of platforms, to generate content that engages the audience while celebrating diversity and accelerating acceptance.”

Editor: Olivia Yang