Today, under the banner of “Together, Make Taiwan Better,” the 17th annual Taiwan Pride parade starts in Taipei, a testament to liberal advancement and growing protections for minorities in Asia’s leading democracy.
Legal scholar Margaret Lewis recently said: “The May 2019 legalization of same-sex marriage … was a triumph for human rights, separation of powers and (at the risk of being sappy) love.”
Judicial Yuan Constitutional Interpretation No. 748 (司法院釋字第748號解釋施行法) is not a queer panacea, but it is a significant step in the right direction.
The flaws of the law notwithstanding, in the past decade there has been a momentous transformation from the melancholic sentiments of sexual minorities during Taiwan’s Crystal Boys era of the 1970s and 1980s, when Kenneth Pai (白先勇) wrote: “There are no days in our kingdom, only nights. As soon as the sun comes up, our kingdom goes into hiding, for it is an unlawful nation … we are neither recognized nor respected by anyone, our citizenry is little more than rabble.”
Authoritarian Taiwan has receded into the memories of an older generation, while Taiwanese tongzhi (同志) under 40 know a very different Taipei. Their city is a techno-mediated, virtual and physical city of freedom filled with transnational flows of queer media, bodies, desires and now sexual citizenship. The implications for Taiwan’s soft power and nation building should not be underestimated.
Perceptions of Taiwan as a gay-friendly country have grown steadily over the past two decades. After last year’s parade one news article, titled “How Taiwan became the most LGBT-friendly country in Asia,” said: “The reason such a small country hosts such a large parade is that Taiwan has become the most LGBT-friendly country in Asia... So the pride parade is not just for the Taiwanese — it attracts thousands of people from neighboring countries, where attitudes about sexuality may be less tolerant.”
In a 2017 article on intraregional desire among middle-class men in Bangkok, anthropologist Dredge Byung’chu Kang said: “Taipei has become a new frontrunner in regional gay tourism. This has led to a subsequent desirability of Taiwanese partners and subcultural influence.”
Following this cue, my research explores the emergence over the past 15-20 years of what I call “transnational gay Taipei” as a case study reflecting what Kang calls “new political-economic and socio-cultural alignments in Asia.” In other words, Asia desires Asia, not the West.
The rise of Asian regionalism among sexual minorities has been fueled by an increasing exchange of transnational media consumption among Asian countries, through GagaOOLala in Taiwan and Line TV in Taiwan and Thailand; the proliferation of low-cost airlines; and popular LGBTQ events that advertise in multiple Asian languages across social media platforms. All have given rise to “transnational gay Taipei.”
Taipei offers a fascinating case study of what scholars Audrey Yue (余燕珊) and Helen Hok-Sze Leung (梁學思) call “new queer Asian urban imaginaries” that circulate and foster the “emergence and consolidation of new and established gay cities in Asia.”
I focus on the late 1990s and early 2000s for three main reasons: First, the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association, the first officially registered LGBT non-governmental organization in the country, was established in 1998.
Second, on April 20, 2000, Yeh Yung-chih (葉永鋕), a bullied 15-year-old Taiwanese student, was found dead in a pool of blood in a bathroom at his school. His death drew national attention and galvanized the movement for inclusive gender education and LGBT rights in Taiwan.
Third, on Nov. 1, 2003, the first Taiwan Pride parade, now the largest regional LGBT event in Asia, was held in Taipei.
The confluence of these factors raised Taiwan’s queer visibility throughout Asia. The subsequent development of Taipei as a gay-friendly city accelerated during the past decade, due to two main factors:
In 2009 the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights was founded by a group of savvy Taiwanese lawyers. Their legal strategy breathed new life into the floundering same-sex marriage movement and amplified its international coverage. That same year Grindr launched globally as a pioneering location-based app that revolutionized socio-sexual relations among gay men.
One of the goals of my research is to better understand the impacts that the digital practices and translocal discourses of “gay Taipei” make toward Taiwan’s sense of nationhood.
By being attentive to how sexual minorities in Asia speak about Taiwan and how tongzhi “brand” their country and its identity to these visitors, I hope to elucidate what media scholar Adina Simona Zemanek calls “other meaningful, albeit marginal narratives that contest dominant structures … and reflect people’s lived, everyday experiences of Taiwan’s transformation and modernization.”
Tourism is a key site of nation branding and yet the multifaceted potential of gay tourism to Taiwan has largely been ignored. In comparison, six years ago the Tourism Authority of Thailand launched the “Go Thai, Be Free” campaign to attract more LGBT visitors. This campaign is still going strong, even under an authoritarian government in Bangkok, with a series of new promotional videos released earlier this year.
Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau, on the other hand, encountered resistance and ultimately abandoned a similar campaign in 2012. To their credit the bureau is beginning to revisit the topic of LGBT tourism.
Relevant manifestations of the New Southbound Policy such as an increase in discount airfares and growing educational and business links between Taiwan and Thailand contribute to a growing number of Thais traveling to and experiencing Taiwan’s freedoms.
Upward trends among gay travelers from Japan to Taiwan also stand out. Japanese travel firms and LGBT magazines now organize “Taipei Pride” tours and even call Taipei the “hottest and closest gay destination in Asia.”
Taiwan is poised to maximize its “warm power” and reap economic benefits in doing so. Unlike Thailand, progressive policies in Taiwan are not simply “pinkwashing.” They are a reflection of Taiwan’s commitment to human rights. The positive economic impacts are a welcome byproduct.
Better understanding of the dynamics of gay tourism to Taiwan, particularly among visitors from other Asian nations, and leveraging this to bolster warm power would also forge additional good will toward the country. It would expand an ever important support system while China tightens its grip on Taiwan’s international space.
This is a matter of survival and it should not be cynically chided. Taiwan’s emerging queer liberalism is grassroots and the product of tenacious civic toil, not state benevolence. Dismissing the courageous human rights work of activists as a foil for capitalist expansion, particularly in a nation where the movement is homegrown, smacks of condescension and decontextualizes Taiwan’s liberal progress.
Nearly 50 years after the Republic of China was kicked out of the UN, the ongoing process toward greater sexual citizenship intervenes as a conscionable provocation to China’s claims. Taiwan’s liberal values, an embattled yet resilient national existence, regional tourist infrastructure and the hope-filled refractions of sexual citizenship its democratic system offers to sexual minorities throughout Asia “brings together seemingly disparate logics and paradigms in relatively unpredictable ways” to create the possibility of what cultural theorist Kara Keeling calls “errant futures.”
Such a future abjures the Chinese Communist Party’s narrative of Taiwan’s destiny in favor of its own perpetual self-determination. It queers Taiwan’s decolonization and necessitates disruptive ways of thinking that thwart the heteronormative and imperialist Chinese visions vexatious naysayers imagine to be Taiwan’s inescapable fate.
Reading the impetus of its queer decolonization as nothing more than a “political ruse” or “a discursively constructed political image” Taiwan selectively uses to “liberally” distance itself from China, in the reductive way that Petrus Liu (劉奕德) does in his book Queer Marxism in Two Chinas, presents an outdated, Sinocentric argument that casts queer progress as beholden to a capricious state arbiter of liberalism. It discounts the centrality of local activists who have painstakingly fought for — and effectively used Taiwan’s rule of law to secure — and expanded rights over the past decade.
So today, as we march on the streets of Taipei, let us remember the past, contemplate this year’s progress and honor the dogged determination of Taiwan’s tongzhi freedom fighters who continue to “Make Taiwan Better.”
Adam Dedman is a doctoral student of cultural studies at the University of Melbourne researching LGBT tourism and migration to Taiwan.
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