Sun, Oct 05, 2008 - Page 13 News List

Taiwan’s trailblazing transgenders

With rigidly defined gender roles, unsupportive parents and a largely unsympathetic public, Taiwan’s transgenders must turn to the Internet as the only means to find lovers, friends, information and support

By Noah Buchan  /  STAFF REPORTER

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Anna wasn’t aware of Cynthia’s secret. The two had met on a bulletin board system, or BBS, an online forum popular among university students, and began seeing each other frequently. After a month of dating and with Anna still in the dark, the couple went to see a play.

“It was about cross-dressing and after the play, [Anna] asked me if I could accept a transgender person as my lover. I was a little nervous about the question and just said, ‘I don’t know, I would need a little time to think.’ And I asked her: How about you? And she answered ‘yes,’” Cynthia said.

Still fearful of revealing her true identity, Cynthia waited a few days before writing an e-mail and “coming out” to Anna.

“Even after I told her she thought I was female-to-male,” said Cynthia.

Two years later Cynthia, a 29-year-old doctoral student, and Anna, 27, a self-professed “bisexual” who is doing her master’s degree in gender studies, are still a couple. [Their names have been changed to protect their identities.]

If Anna and Cynthia’s relationship seems exceptional, the manner in which they met is common among Taiwan’s transgender community. With clearly defined gender roles, unsupportive parents and no public space — such as parks, cafes or clubs — available to them, Taiwan’s transgenders have been left with little alternative but to turn to the Internet to find lovers, friends, information and support.

But this is changing. Last month, the Taiwan TG Butterfly Garden (台灣TG蝶園), a group established in 2000 and Taiwan’s only transgender support group that meets on a regular basis, opened a hotline to provide information and support to transgenders and their families, build up a network throughout Taiwan and hopefully help make the transition from one gender to another less fraught with pain.

In Taiwan, like most Asian countries, the core unit of the community is the family. Parents play a fundamental role in making decisions for their children, often dictating what they study, who their friends are and even their general outlook on life. Individuals can count on the support of this family network throughout their lives. But paradoxically, it is within their own families where transgenders can expect the least support.

“My mother and father didn’t want to talk about it,” said Quinton Kao (高旭寬), 32, a female-to-male transsexual. “I kept wanting to discuss it with them, but they refused. And they kept on looking for any excuse to stop me from becoming a man,” he said calmly, as though he were talking about any family issue. “They still can’t accept it.”

Kao said his parent’s reaction is normal in a country with an education system that instills clear gender roles from a very young age. “You know, boys should wear blue clothes and girls should wear pink,” he said.

One’s peers can be equally — or even more — intolerant than the family. Several suicides of young, “sexually confused children,” have occurred over the past few years because they were incapable of dealing with the stress of conforming to social norms.

In April 2000, middle-school student Yie Yong-chi (葉永誌) was found dead in the bathroom of his school in Kaohsiung County. Just before his death, he had requested to leave class early so he could go to the bathroom alone. It was later revealed that the boy was often taunted by his classmates and even forced to take his pants off to verify his gender identity.

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