Various NGOs and members of the artistic community are turning Taiwan into a leader on gender equality and gay rights, using activism, workshops and visual arts to raise awareness and reach out to a region where some backsliding has been observed. Olivia Yang reports.
Taiwan LGBT Pride, the largest gay pride parade in Asia, was held on Oct. 28, drawing a record 110,000 participants from around the region through the streets of Taipei for a day of concerts and festivities.
In its 15th year, the annual parade started out on Ketagalan Boulevard in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei. Three groups — including one led by the representative offices of 19 countries — marched through northern, western and southern Taipei before returning to the popular plaza for an evening concert.
Thousands march down Zhongshan Road on their way to Ketagalan Boulevard. An estimated 110,000 people took part in this year’s LGBT Pride Parade in Taipei on Oct. 28 (Photo: J. Michael Cole)
Representatives from foreign diplomatic missions in Taiwan took part in the LGBT Pride Parade in Taipei on Oct. 28. Many of them distributed flags and paraphernalia celebrating their country’s embrace of gay rights (Photo: J. Michael Cole)
Everyday people, young and old, as well as extravagant floats and revellers in flamboyant costumes and rainbow accessories of all kinds paraded to this year’s theme, “Make Love, Not War — Sex Ed is the Way to Go.” The focus on gender equality education was chosen in response to anti-gay marriage groups ramping up the pressure after Taiwan’s Council of Grand Justices on May 24 ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.
The landmark ruling has paved the way for Taiwan to become the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex unions. The Grand Justices said Taiwan’s Civil Code, which currently states that an agreement to marry can only be made between a man and a woman, “violates” the Constitution’s guarantees of freedom of marriage and people’s equality. It ordered the Taiwanese government amend the law within two years, adding that should it fail to do so, same-sex couples could get married regardless.
While Taiwan positions itself as one of the most progressive countries on LGBTQ issues in Asia, the region has hardly made any headway on the subject, with some countries even regressing in recent years. Laws and taboos that inhibit people from expressing their sexual orientation continue to exist in various Asian countries: Indonesia has imposed a nationwide crackdown on the community, and many in countries like the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia still face discrimination, sometimes even violence.
Despite the progress, Taiwan has also experienced pushback, primarily from conservative Christian groups.
In response to this phenomenon, the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association, a gay rights organization, held a workshop on Oct. 27 which brought together nearly 50 LGBTQ activists from Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea to discuss the influence of conservative groups on LGBTQ movements in those countries. The three nations have met resistance from conservative powers in implementing laws and regulations related to LGBTQ rights.
A number of Evangelical Christian churches and other conservative groups are behind the anti-gay rights and anti-sex ed movement in Taiwan. Their recent attempt to unseat New Power Party (NPP) Executive Chairman and legislator Huang Kuo-chang — an active supporter of same-sex marriage — is an example of the group’s efforts to pressure the government against implementing marriage equality.
Answering with art
Despite the conservative influences, Taiwan’s LGBTQ culture continues to flourish and to lead the discussions on LGBTQ rights in Asia.
Besides the annual pride parade, the Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) is currently featuring the first major survey of LGBTQ art in Asia. The group exhibition, “Spectrosynthesis: Asian LGBTQ Issues and Art Now,” is exhibiting 22 artists from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and China, as well as Chinese-American artists based in North America.
The show features 51 works created over the past century. The pieces range from interactive light boxes and videos to photography and paintings. The exhibition aims to generate more discussion about the diversity of human social values and further advance human rights in Taiwan and other Asian societies.
“Man Hole,” by Hou Ching-Ming (Photo: Olivia Yang)
Jun-Jieh Wang’s “Passion” (Photo: Olivia Yang)
In the past, public museums in Taiwan have also held exhibitions exploring gender identity, such as the “Your Closed Eyes My Extinction” exhibition at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts in 2015, and “SEE THROUGH, exhibition against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia” at the Huashan 1914 Creative Park earlier this year.
The local film industry has also been making waves on the international LGBTQ scene. In its fourth year, the Taiwan International Queer Film Festival (TIQFF) opened on Oct. 20, offering screenings of 53 films in Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung.
This year, Taiwanese film director Huang Hui-chen won Taiwan’s first Teddy Award at the Berlinale — an official award given by the Berlin-based festival for films with LGBTQ topics — for her documentary “Small Talk”; film director Wang Yu-lin just returned from the 30th Tokyo International Film Festival with his latest film “Alifu, The Prince/ss,” which explores the conflict between gender identity and local indigenous traditions; and film director Zero Chou is working on her latest project, Six Asian Cities Rainbow Project (亞洲六城彩虹計劃, unofficial English translation) — a series of six films about LGBTQ issues shot in six different cities across Asia.
As Taiwan gradually makes itself more hospitable to migrant workers, municipal governments are making it possible for new residents to have a say in how cities and counties spend their money. Chou Ya-wei and Alison Hsiao report on recent efforts.
In what is possibly the first participatory budgeting project in Asia involving migrant workers, people from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam last month and earlier this month were invited by the Department of Labor in Taoyuan, where one in six of the country’s 600,000 migrant workers is based, to help plan their own leisure activities using the local government’s budget.
Hailed as one of the key practices of participatory democracy, participatory budgeting ensures that people have equal participation in the making of decisions pertaining to the allocation of public funds that influence important aspects of their lives. Such efforts occur at a time when traditional representational democracy is carried out behind closed-doors and often has descended into irrelevance for the general public.
Despite the practice’s more than two-decades history since it was pioneered in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, Taiwan has not experimented with participatory budgeting, largely because, until 2014, it had little knowledge of its existence. This changed in the lead-up to the nine-in-one elections in November that year, when the campaign team of Ko Wen-je, the mayoral candidate for Taipei, introduced the idea, pledging to include the city’s residents in budget planning. That promise soon caught on around the nation, with the Ministry of Culture and the administrations in New Taipei City, Taichung and Kaohsiung taking experimental steps in carrying out this “new” model of democracy.
The Taoyuan City Government also joined the fray, and its department of labor went one step further by calling for the participation of non-citizens.
“It’s not that the government has never held leisure activities for foreign migrant workers, but in the past they passively took part as requested, sometimes by their employers or brokers,” said Lai Shih-zhe, senior executive officer of the Department of Labor and the brain behind the participatory budgeting event held in late September and early October.
What was lost in this passive participation was migrant workers’ agency and subjectivity, he said.
Lai Shih-zhe (right) with event staff at the second workshop on Oct. 1 (Photo courtesy of the Department of Labor, Taoyuan City Government)
The Participatory Budgeting for Migrant Workers in Taoyuan project was one of the key initiatives by the local government to turn things around. To this end, the department initially held two information sessions for potential participants, targeting both migrant workers and Taoyuan residents. The sessions were followed by a pair of workshops in which more than 120 participants took part.
The first workshop, held on Sept. 17, called on participants to make various proposal on how to spend municipal funds for leisure activities for migrant workers. In all, 21 proposals from more than 70 migrant workers were collected. The proposals were then discussed during a second workshop on Oct. 1, in which 47 representatives of different nationalities divided into six groups decided which ones were the most appealing.
The atmosphere during the discussions was encouraging and lively. “It is true that our implementation of participatory budgeting might not be perfect, but for this event, I would say the emphasis and the gains lie in participation,” Lai said.
The second workshop on Oct. 1 at the Yuyuan Plaza near Taoyuan Train Station
Norie Rosales, a liberal domestic caregiver from the Philippines who took part in the exercise, proposed a beauty pageant — a Filipino obsession — for members of the LGBTQI community.
Asked what motivated her to make such a proposal, she said the idea was in line with the free social environment enjoyed by her country. “In Philippines we have freedom to express our feelings about our gender. We don’t want discrimination,” she said.
Those efforts are what participatory democracy seeks to achieve: the exchange of values and the exchange of cultures, with participants thrashing out compromises to accommodate different, culturally imbued sports competitions, art exhibitions, culture tours, beauty pageants, cultural carnivals, and so on.
The 13 proposals that made the cut from the initial 21 will be put to a vote between Oct. 26 and early November. The voters will comprise residents of Taoyuan as well as migrant workers from around the nation, regardless of their place of work. They will be able to vote online or at ballot boxes set up at locations where migrant workers congregate during holidays, such as train stations, as well as in certain large factories in Taoyuan.
The three proposals that receive the highest number of votes will then each be allocated NT$500,000 (US$16,500) from the municipal budget for their implementation.
But cultural exchanges should not — and are not — limited to those between migrant workers.
“The proposals have also highlighted the need and wish to make exchanges with the local Taiwanese people and culture,” Taoyuan Department of Labor Senior Executive Officer Lai Shih-che said.
“And what the [participatory budgeting] event has shown to the Taiwanese is that through transparency, mutual understanding, communication and participation, migrant workers — who have been ignored, to say the least, by the local people — can also create a common good,” he added.
Mutual trust can be built through exchanges, but also by making good on promises.
“Misgivings were expressed about the trustworthiness of the department which proclaimed that the migrant workers’ proposals would be carried out in accordance with their wishes,” Lai said. “But we’ve assured them that they will be invited to take part in the following preparatory meetings with the officials and the contractors for the events.”
Understandably, migrant workers were not the only ones who had concerns over the government’s role in funding the events.
“There were indeed doubts from local politicians about engaging non-citizens in deciding how to use public funds,” Lai acknowledged. “But I pointed out to them that the number of migrant workers in the city, which is 108,000, amounts to one-twentieth of the city’s dwellers and one-tenth of the city’s workforce, not to mention that they are also taxpayers.”
A role for NGOs
The Taoyuan participatory budgeting project was co-hosted by the Serve the People Association, Taoyuan with assistance from other NGOs across the nation, such as the SEA Migrant Inspired, which helped out on different fronts, from the provision of interpreting services to outreach among the local migrant worker population.
The Taiwan Reach-Out Association for Democracy (T-ROAD) and 1095 Studio are two Taichung-based organizations that played a critical role in the Taoyuan labor department’s project. (The number in the group’s name designates the days a migrant worker has to sign up for under a working visa contract, or the equivalent of three years. The story of the name does not stop there, as the official name is in fact “1095,” with a comma attached, which signifies that migrant workers would go on with their life journey after a short stint in Taiwan.)
At 1095 Studio, 1095, co-founder Annie Kuan (left) and T-ROAD member Hung Shih-yu
Composed of members who have worked closely with the Taichung City Government on the city’s participatory budgeting initiatives, T-ROAD was established on the understanding that PB-related training and assistance for government officials and citizen-proposers should be widely available.
“More often than not the proposers would find themselves at loss after tabling a proposal or having a proposal actually accepted — this is where we come in,” said Hong Shih-yu, a member of T-ROAD.
In Taoyuan’s case, the association trained those who were professionally equipped with Southeast Asian languages or familiar with Southeast Asian affairs, but had limited knowledge about PB, to be discussion facilitators.
1095 Studio was one of those that signed up for the task. Since its founding in 2015, the group has dedicated its efforts to “building a bridge between diverse cultures,” and has launched various proposals in Taichung, among them a weekly “mobile library” at the Taichung Railway Station that offers books in different Southeast Asian languages which migrant workers can borrow from (the mobile library is modeled on the Brilliant Time’s initiative at Taipei Main Station. More information is available here); cross-culture cuisine events; guided tours around what has come to be known was “ASEAN Square” (or “piramid” in Bahasa Indonesia); and outdoor movie screenings. The most recent ones are a legal counseling service and a ASEAN Square revitalization project. (In 2015 Taichung Mayor Lin Chia-lung said he believed that the rechristening would reposition the commercial square near the station as a driving force promoting exchanges with Southeast Asian cultures and people.)
The ASEAN Square, or the “piramid” for migrant workers in Taichung
“Too many times we saw local authorities presented measures and projects to hitch the wagon to the central government’s New Southbound Policy but achieved little due to perfunctory implementation, lack of understanding or implicit discrimination,” he lamented. “But the Taoyuan PB team and its project overcame those barriers, and their effort and enthusiasm should definitely be taken as an example for future migrant worker policy planners.”
1095 Studio co-founder Annie Kuan said that while Taiwan can lead as a vibrant and functioning democracy in the region, “we also see what we as Taiwanese lack when we work with people from Southeast Asia.”
“We rely on the government to make decisions, and comment on or criticize them later. Our Southeast Asian friends, however, are used to being actively involved in group discussion about local issues,” she said. “Their sense of identity of being part of a local community is stronger.”
“In a sense there is this ‘mutual admiration.’ We praise their willingness to participate, they find our ‘big government’ taking care of various aspects of our life great,” Kuan added.
And that is precisely the point of the exchanges, she stressed, “which is to learn from each other.”
Movements that are driven by a conservative ideology are joining hands to block various progressive efforts by the government in Taiwan. Using threats, violence, disinformation and even democratic instruments, these groups seek to intimidate civilians and elected officials in the pursuit of their objectives. J. Michael Cole looks into the latest developments.
Violence-prone groups that advocate unification with China, a movement that opposes the Tsai Ing-wen government’s pension reform program and religious organizations that are dead set against the legalization of same-sex marriage (and homosexuality in general) have come together and formed a loose coalition in recent months, using tactics that go against the progressive momentum that has animated Taiwanese society in recent years.
Though more alliance of convenience than an actual structured organization, the three movements have joined ranks to push back against what many regard as progress, and have had no compunction in resorting to threats and violence to punish, intimidate and silence their ideological opponents. Left unchecked, these activities will contribute to greater social instability and undermine the nation’s democratic institutions.
Violence and threats
A handful of groups have resorted to physical violence, and the threat thereof, in recent months. Led by Chang An-le’s (aka “White Wolf”) China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP) and its ideological ally, the Concentric Patriot Association (CPA), these groups have repeatedly attacked protesters and students at various venues, most recently during the aborted “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival.” The CUPP and CPA are believed to be working alongside Chinese triads, chief among them the Bamboo Union and the Four Seas Gang.
Besides their involvement in violent altercations during the Sunflower Movement in 2014, the groups have been linked to assaults targeting members of the Falun Gong and young pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong (interestingly, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte alleged recently that the Bamboo Union is behind the proliferation of the drug trade in his country). Moreover, the CUPP has been present at protests against pension reform and has collaborated with the Blue Sky Alliance, a violence-prone organization that is suspected of involvement in physical assaults against elected officials outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei earlier this year. Anti-pension reform groups were also behind the disruptions during the opening ceremonies of the 2017 Summer Universiade in Taipei last month. The Blue Sky Alliance also added its own threats against students after the concert incident.
Following the controversy surrounding the “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival,” which has been regarded as a United Front effort by the Chinese, numerous Taiwanese activists have reported receiving threatening messages on social media. In at least one instance, a message made a direct reference to a knife attack. The spouse of Yao Li-ming, a vocal talk show personality, has also received threats, cautioning her to be “careful” next time she visits the market. Given precedent in China and Hong Kong, such threats should not be taken lightly and require proper investigation by the authorities, which in the past week have launched a series of raids against locations associated with the Bamboo Union (although he denies it, Chang, who served a decade in U.S. prison for drug trafficking, is widely suspected of being associated with the group).
Chang An-le, aka “White Wolf,” speaks to reporters during a protest outside DPP headquarters in Taipei (Photo: J. Michael Cole)
Young activists, including former Sunflower Movement leader Chen Wei-ting (now a legislative aide), have also been threatened with lawsuits for exposing links between concert organizers and UFW groups back in China. “Lawfare,” as the tactic is sometimes referred to, has been used with greater frequency by Chinese companies and organizations in recent months to silence and intimidate investigative journalists and academics.
The atmosphere of fear that is generated by the use and threat of violence is anathema to the inherent liberties in a democratic system, where different opinions should be aired without fear of reprisal. Involvement by crime syndicates, which have access to weapons, adds a layer of apprehension among people who advocate for their country and a progressive, liberal-democratic way of life.
Although the tolerance of pro-unification parties like the CUPP is a clear manifestation of Taiwan’s political maturity and democratic openness, such permissiveness ought to have its limits. If a registered political party ceases to act like one; if it intermingles with organized crime; if it infiltrates and co-opts grassroots organizations (trade groups, temples); if its head is, as he claims, collaborating with the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (or one of its subsidiaries tasked with “turning” criminals and using them to further unificationist objectives); and if, as is suspected, it receives illegal funding (possibly from a foreign and hostile government), then its rights as a party should be annulled and the CUPP should be written off as an entity that operates outside the system. In other words, unless its leaders agree to abide by the democratic rules of the game that define Taiwanese politics, the CUPP should be barred from participating in elections or engaging in other forms of activities that are the remit of law-abiding political parties.
Using democracy against itself
Meanwhile, the Greater Taipei Stability Power Alliance, an alliance created to oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan, is reportedly within a hair’s breadth of collecting enough signatures — 25,119 — to launch a recall vote against Huang Kuo-chang, the executive chairman of the New Power Party (NPP). Huang, whose NPP emerged from the Sunflower Movement and is well regarded by young progressive Taiwanese, has openly supported same-sex marriage and pension reform. A count on Oct. 6 will determine whether all the signatures gathered are valid. Should the attempt succeed, Huang could be removed despite not having committed a crime or been involved in irregularities; his removal would be the result of conservative/religious groups who cannot countenance a society that operates outside the confines of a literal and often self-serving interpretation of a religious text that guides no more than 5% of the total population of Taiwan.
The Greater Taipei Stability Power Alliance, which has initiated the attempted recall campaign against Huang, is a close ally of the Faith and Hope League party, which itself serves as an umbrella for various highly conservative Evangelical churches across Taiwan that have actively opposed same-sex marriage and which are generally anti-gay and against sex ed in school. The groups are also known to have been collaborating with MassResistance, a U.S.-based organization that promotes conservative values and that has been described as a “hate group.” Using disinformation and a fear campaign on social media to win over adherents to their cause, other religious groups (including Presbyterians) have threatened similar punitive action against politicians who support same-sex marriage, including the Democratic Progressive Party’s Wang Ting-yu in Tainan.
Opponents of same-sex marriage in Taiwan predict doom and gloom during a rally outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei on Nov. 17, 2016 (Photo: J. Michael Cole)
National Civil Servant Association president Harry Lee, who has spearheaded opposition to pension reform, has also thrown his support for the Greater Taipei Stability Power Alliance, thus merging opposition to same-sex marriage and pension reform, two issues that enjoy majority support with the Taiwanese public (more than 80% of young Taiwanese support the legalization of same-sex marriage). The CUPP’s Chang An-le is also known to have taken part in activities (including a panel) organized by anti-gay groups in Taiwan.
United in their opposition to progressive ideas, the alliance of convenience that has recently emerged in Taiwan threatens to serve as a force multiplier whereby the anti-liberal-democratic tactics used by one group exacerbate the efforts of other groups, however unrelated their causes. The involvement of pro-Chinese Communist Party, violence-prone and ostensibly triad-related groups in those movements adds a worrying variable to the mix and compounds the resulting instability.