How do we quantify freedom? How can we assign a value to freedom from the risk of physical violence in a society?
Well, one way would be to list all the factors that make a society violent, prejudiced, oppressive, racist and patriarchal, then assign a value for each factor, reach a total and compare it with other societies. Sociologists such as myself call this process “performativity” and it is undoubtedly compelling.
These days, performativity almost rules our lives: Everything gets a score, everything gets compared and evaluated; schools, universities, hospitals, computers, smartphones, airlines, hotels and, of course, individuals in the workplace. Do you rank at the top or the bottom in your appraisal? It’s important. After all, who wants to come at the bottom of any assessment?
However, simple lists only tell us so much. For example, a restaurant may get a high score on a good Internet listing, but that does not mean you will enjoy your next meal there.
So if it is tricky to produce a definitive list for restaurants, then what about human sexuality? Now there is a really tricky area to evaluate and compare, far more complicated than choosing where to have dinner tonight.
Tricky or not, one Internet travel organization, www.spartacusworld.com, has made an impressive, if not risky, attempt to create a list of the “most liberal and gay-friendly countries to visit or live in.” This “Gay Travel Index” is highly performative: It lists 14 categories ranging from gay marriage to the death penalty for homosexuals. The index then goes on to color code virtually every country in the world, with dark green for the most liberal and gay-friendly countries, through to yellow for the countries that are not quite liberal enough, down to dark red for the most patriarchal, homophobic countries on Earth: countries where it is acceptable for a husband to beat his wife, but not to kiss his male friend.
Now even someone with just a passing interest in gay rights is probably going to be able to work out that Sweden is going to be coded dark green, while Iran is going to be dark red. However, what about the middle rankings? Which countries are given the green of liberalism and which are given the red of medievalism? Well, as you might imagine, this is where it gets rather complicated, if not contentious.
For example, it is difficult to understand how South Africa and Mexico, two of the most violent, sexist and homophobic countries on the planet, can be ranked above, or indeed even alongside, Thailand, a country where being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) is acceptable, if not openly tolerated across most levels of society. One notable Thai airline is even staffed exclusively by “ladyboy” flight attendants. Can you imagine that happening anywhere else in the world? No. In fact, in my estimation, there are more openly gay men per square kilometer of Bangkok than in any other city, with the possible exception of San Francisco.
However, what really shocked me in the listing was China being placed 34 places above Taiwan. Even Kosovo, Montenegro, Bolivia, Nicaragua and El Salvador got placed above poor old Taiwan.
How on earth can that be right? I have lived all over the world, and spent the past decade in Asia, most of it in Thailand and Taiwan, and trust me, Taiwan is a fantastic place to be an LGBT person. After all, was not Taiwan the first Asian country to hold a major gay rights parade, now established as one of the biggest and brightest LGBT parades in the world? And I have never seen LGBT people getting hassled in Ximen by police or homophobes. In fact, the Red House Theatre area is now one of the major tourist attractions of the city.
I have never once had one of my many gay friends around the world tell me they are looking forward to their next stay in Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzen. I have had many tell me they cannot wait to be back in Taipei.
You see, this is where performativity breaks down. It can produce some sort of “objective” scoring based on certain criteria, but it does not tell us what it is like to have the experience — to actually live the life.
Come on, Taiwan, do not be despondent, you are a great city, for me the best Asian city to live in by a big margin, and you have certainly earned your place well above China on any gay-friendly world ranking list. In fact, my own subjective assessment puts you at No. 2 in Asia, just one place behind Thailand. China, on the other hand, is languishing at the bottom, along with Myanmar, Singapore and Malaysia.
Stephen Whitehead is a visiting professor of gender studies at Shih Hsin University in Taipei.