Sun, Jul 13, 2003 - Page 18 News List

Lesbians in Taiwan: A bed of roses

Academic Sang Tze-lin says the country is the most progressive place for a gay and lesbian identity in East Asia, except for Japan

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

The Emergin Lesbian
By Sang Tze-lin
380 pages
University of Chicago Press

Subtitled Female Same -- Sex Desire in Modern China, The Emerging Lesbian holds Taiwan in reserve until its final chapters. But when it eventually turns to the island, it comes out with all guns blazing. Taiwan, Sang Tze-lin (桑梓林) proclaims, has since the early 1990s pioneered the emergence and definition of a lesbian identity in a way that's unique in the Chinese-speaking world.

American-style its arguments may be, but in a pan-Chinese context they are crucially important. The future, she argues, may show that Taiwan sowed the seeds of a modern Chinese lesbian identity which the mainland's same-sex-oriented women eventually followed.

The book, which started life as a Ph.D. thesis at Berkeley, California, is an academic work that looks at the evolution of lesbian politics in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. It doesn't, despite its title and subtitle, find evidence of very much of an unbridled nature being done or publicly said in China. The absence of the free interchange of ideas there means that such groups as exist have had to express themselves in guarded, and especially non-political, language.

In Taiwan, however, things could hardly be more different. Taiwan's fiction about lesbian and gay sexuality in the 1990s became "voluminous" the author claims. She points to the "uncountable" number of MOTSS ("Members of the Same Sex") domains set up by students on the Internet BBS (Bulletin Board System) here. She points to Web sites such as that of Hong peiji ("G-zine"), described as an electronic journal featuring incisive feminist and lesbian commentary with intentionally "offensive" graphics, the work of a group at Taiwan's National Tsing Hua University. Another Taiwanese lesbian Web site she points to is that of the TO-GET-HER Lez Cyberpub. Furthermore, quoting a 1996 American source that focused on Taiwanese female same-sex culture, she states that there were, even seven years ago, over 30 lesbian bars ("T-bars" [T for tomboy]) in Taipei, Taichung and Kaohsiung where the clientele was "very young," generally between the ages of 14 and 23.

"The growth of these organizations throughout the 1990s in Taiwan is emblematic of the vitality and strength of the lesbian and feminist movements on the island," she writes. "The Taiwanese militant lesbian feminist persona is not just a new lesbian identity. It is an unprecedented public female identity, at least as far as the Chinese-speaking world is concerned."

It's important to underline just what the writer is saying here: Taiwan's lesbian presence represents, irrespective of sexual preferences, women standing up as a group in public in a way that has no parallel in any other part of the Chinese world. "We are left, then, with an intriguing question indeed," she goes on, "Whether the pointed critiques of the structuring of gender norms, differences, and hierarchies that Taiwanese lesbian feminists have advanced on the island for over a decade can catalyze similar developments on the mainland in the near future."

In discussing the remarkable upsurge of gay and lesbian writing here in the 1990s, Sang Tze-lan gives a lot of space to Qiu Miaojin (邱妙津), the author of The Crocodile's Journal (鱷魚手記), who took her own life in Paris in June 1995, aged 26. She considers the book "honest" and "questioning" and contrasts it favorably with "more ideologically-driven novels and short stories that certain queer theorists-cum-writers produced in 1990s Taiwan." Of course it's not all a bed of roses here for lesbians and gays.

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