Does a presidential candidate have to reveal their sexual orientation to the public?
The question has suddenly become a hot topic in Taiwan. Although women’s groups and gay and lesbian groups were quick to respond after former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairman Shih Ming-teh (施明德) questioned DPP presidential primary contender Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) sexuality, the media’s interest in the subject has not yet been sated. On Friday morning, UFO Radio (飛碟電台) host Tang Hsiang-lung (唐湘龍) devoted 30 minutes of his program to listeners’ calls on the topic of whether Tsai should come out of the closet or else clarify that she is not in fact a lesbian.
Should politicians have to declare their sexual orientation, just as they have to declare their assets? Shih seems to think so, but we really ought to consider what influence or harm someone’s sexual orientation or how faithful they are in their love life might have on how they go about making policy. Although experience tells us that politics is dominated by heterosexual men and that they have a tendency to make public policy decisions that infringe on the rights of minorities, the democratic consensus in most countries, including the US, is that the private lives of public figures should not be a focus of examination and discussion by the public at large.
The questions now being raised about Tsai’s private life are not an isolated phenomenon. In Taiwan, curiosity about public figures’ private lives tends to focus on women.
Female politicians whose lives have been put under a microscope include former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) former interpreter Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), former Hsinchu City Bureau of Cultural Affairs director Chu Mei-feng (璩美鳳) and independent legislator May Chin (高金素梅). These and many other examples illustrate how the private lives of women politicians, especially unmarried ones, are so often picked over by the media and public.
Even when the woman in question refuses to be drawn by rumors, incessant reporting and discussion in the media detract from her right to freely participate in politics. In addition to still being a minority in the world of politics, the professional image and hard work of these women are overlooked, putting them on an unequal footing with male colleagues.
Taiwanese society has not yet grasped the proper standards and limits of public discussion, and the media have yet to learn where to draw the line between what is public and what should remain private. Think about it. If someone in your workplace asked questions about your sexual orientation in front of everyone, no matter whether you are gay or straight and whether or not you admit to whatever that person implies, your career prospects and indeed your space for social interaction may well suffer as a result, given that our society is still full of prejudice against homosexuality in both language and culture.
If that is true in the workplace, then it is even more so in the heat of elections, when the power to govern the country is at stake.
An enlightened society needs to continue learning and evolving its standards of conduct. Any media outlet that aspires to be considered of good quality should desist from reporting speculation about politicians’ private lives, and all worthy citizens should refrain from spreading stories about other people’s love lives and private affairs, except when the people concerned divulge the information of their own accord.