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

The late 1990s saw a proliferation of chatrooms, blogs and forums devoted to transgender issues — but there was yet no place for the scattered online community to meet as a group. Although people shared information online, it was often scarce and anecdotal.

This changed in 2000 when a male-to-female transsexual named Winnie approached Josephine Ho (何春蕤) at an academic conference on gender diversity.

“Trans was not featured as the important issue because we hadn’t come into contact with any of them yet,” said Ho, who researches and writes about gender issues and is coordinator at the Center for the Study of Sexualities at National Central University.

“She came and felt at ease. So we started talking and … she contacted her friends on the Internet and we had our first meeting in June of 2000. More than a dozen people showed up,” Ho said. From that first meeting the Taiwan TG Butterfly Garden was born.

What began with 12 people in 2000 grew into a network of more than 100 trangenders; 30 or so typically show up for meetings. In addition to meeting every two months, the group collects and disseminates information on transgender issues through the Center for the Study of Sexualities’ Web site (sex.ncu.edu.tw).

The group just celebrated its 60th meeting.

Although they have made progress, many challenges remain. The group meets in Taipei, leaving transgenders in central and southern Taiwan with only online support. Additionally, the transgender community, because of its diversity, is fragmented into diverse subgroups — cross-dressers, transvestites, transsexuals — which rarely interact. Finding common cause is difficult because they have different needs and agendas.

Two years after the group was set up, Winnie, a co-founder of Butterfly Garden, disappeared.

It was left to Ho, rather than a member of the transgender community, to keep the group going. Winnie’s disappearance is symptomatic of a larger problem that hinders the formation of a transgender community: once a person transitions, they want to forget their former identity. It is an issue Ho empathizes with.

“Why would they want to hold onto the past?” she said. “I become a woman and if I can live everything presented as a woman — my identity papers say I’m a woman, I’m fine, I don’t have any problem anymore — why would I bring up the ghost in my closet?” she said.

Ironically, for a group so dependent on the Internet, Ho said creating and maintaining a Web site is impossible. It is the same reason why it took eight years to start a helpline and why even now there are only enough people to staff it every Wednesday from 7pm to 10pm. The phone number is (02) 2394-9008.

But it looks as though things are set to change. After participating in the meetings for eight years, Kao was recently convinced by Ho to represent the group publicly — an aim that Ho hopes will eventually see the Butterfly Garden run by transgenders for transgenders.

“It took … seven years for him to come through. In the beginning each individual is confused,” Ho said. “What do I have to do to survive in this world? And you gradually grow together and learn, and you manage your life, and after seven years we have one, two, three, four, five, six people who are committed to the cause,” she said.

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