TDB Vol. 1 No. 16: Taiwan’s LGBTQ Culture Thriving Despite Conservative Challenge

TDB Vol. 1 No. 16: Taiwan’s LGBTQ Culture Thriving Despite Conservative Challenge

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.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 14: Illiberal Forces Push Back in Taiwan

TDB Vol. 1 No. 14: Illiberal Forces Push Back in Taiwan

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.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 5: Constitutional Interpretation No. 748 Paves the Way for Marriage Equality in Taiwan

TDB Vol. 1 No. 5: Constitutional Interpretation No. 748 Paves the Way for Marriage Equality in Taiwan

Although the ruling by the Council of Grand Justices fails to resolve the dilemma between amending the Civil Code or enacting of a special act, many of the reasons listed by the judges to support their ruling indicate that the judicial system is on the side of progressive social values. Stacy Hsu reports.

 

A large crowd of gay marriage supporters standing anxiously outside the Legislative Yuan on May 24 cheered after Taiwan’s Council of Grand Justices ruled in an unprecedented move that the Civil Code’s prohibition of same-sex marriage is unconstitutional and demanded the law be amended within two years.

The ruling, titled Interpretation No. 748, states that the Civil Code, which currently prevents two individuals of the same gender from creating a permanent union for the committed purpose of managing a life together, is in violation of people’s constitutionally protected freedom of marriage and right to equality.

Article 972 of the Civil Code stipulates that an agreement to marry shall be made by “the male and the female parties” in their own concord.

The ruling accordingly urges concerned authorities to amend or enact laws within two years in accordance with the Interpretation, but allows them to decide in what manner they intend to achieve the equal protection of the freedom of marriage.

As the Interpretation enables homosexual couples to register their marriage should the authorities fail to complete relevant law amendments within the given timeframe, it could pave the way for Taiwan to become the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage.

The constitutional interpretation was issued in response to separate requests filed by the Taipei City Government and gay rights advocate Chi Chia-wei (祁家威) in 2015. Chi has sought legal recognition of his union with his partner in the past three decades. His latest attempt, in 2013, was dismissed by the Supreme Administrative Court in September 2014, prompting his request for an interpretation.

Gay rights advocate Chi Chia-wei, who initiated the appeal to the Council of Grand Justices, waves the rainbow flag during the 2016 LGBT Pride parade in Taipei (photo: J. Michael Cole)

The case has attracted tremendous attention both at home and overseas since the Council of Grand Justices held a closely watched hearing on same-sex marriage on March 24 this year.

Supporters of homosexual unions staked their hopes on the Interpretation after the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration gave signs it was stalling efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in the Legislative Yuan due to pressure from religious and conservative groups.

Several amendments to the Civil Code to recognize same-sex marriage cleared a legislative committee in late December 2016, but they have yet to be put on the agenda for a plenary review.

The Grand Justices stated that allowing same-sex marriage would not only not affect the rights afforded to heterosexual couples by the Civil Code or alter the existing “social order,” but could also constitute the collective basis for a stable society, as the need and longing to create a permanent, committed union are equally essential to both homosexual and heterosexual individuals.

The delays were also partly due to divided opinions among lawmakers, even within the DPP, on whether to recognize homosexual marriage by amending the Civil Code — which is deemed by conservative opponents as detrimental to the traditional family structure — or enacting a special law, which has been criticized by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups as discriminatory.

Although Interpretation No. 748 fails to solve the dilemma between amendment of the Civil Code and enactment of a special act, many of the reasons listed by the Grand Justices to support their ruling today indicate that the judicial system is on the side of progressive social values.

The Grand Justices stated that allowing same-sex marriage would not only not affect the rights afforded to heterosexual couples by the Civil Code or alter the existing “social order,” but could also constitute the collective basis for a stable society, as the need and longing to create a permanent, committed union are equally essential to both homosexual and heterosexual individuals.

The ruling also refutes the myth that homosexuality is reversible, arguing that sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic decided by many contributing factors and that homosexuality is not a disease.

Another argument frequently cited by opponents to same-sex marriage was also dismissed by the Interpretation. It stipulates that since the Civil Code does not make the ability to procreate a prerequisite for a heterosexual marriage, reproduction should not be seen as an essential element of marriage nor used as an excuse to deny homosexual couples their right to marry.

So far the ruling has met with vastly different reactions. Opponents of same-sex marriage have threatened to request another constitutional interpretation or to take the case to the Control Yuan for an investigation, while supporters have expressed their pride in “being Taiwanese.”

Both the Presidential Office and Legislative Yuan Speaker Su Jia-chyuan (蘇嘉全) said they respected the Interpretation, pledging to handle future legislative efforts with a tolerant and understanding attitude. However, as lawmakers from different parties remain divided on how to legalize same-sex marriage following the ruling, the road to achieving marriage equality in Taiwan may still be bumpy.

 

Top photo: J. Michael Cole

TDB Vol. 1 No. 4: Trends in physical violence and assaults on the press

TDB Vol. 1 No. 4: Trends in physical violence and assaults on the press

Physical violence and denial of access to members of the press are two tactics that have been used with alarming frequency in recent months by civic groups bent on blocking legislation proposed by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. J. Michael Cole reports.

 

Same-sex marriage and pension reform are two pieces of legislation that have resulted in escalatory action since late 2016 by civic organizations. In the former case, conservative Christian organizations have spearheaded efforts to block a marriage equality bill; in the latter, retired personnel, as well as organizations such as the Blue Sky Alliance, have led the movement. While marginal, the Alliance has a track record of disruptive behavior and physical violence against officials.

As a result of the spiralling unrest, rather than be debated rationally the complex issues have become politicized, giving rise to a spectacle of emotions, crass party politics, divisiveness and disruptiveness. While passing off as normal civil society and purportedly emulating the student-led Sunflower Movement of 2014, the opposition groups are discrediting Taiwan’s democracy and undermine government institutions in the pursuit of goals that do not enjoy majority support across society and which tend to be diametrically opposed to the aspirations of younger generations.

More than 80% of young people in Taiwan support same-sex marriage; a majority of young people, meanwhile, support measures that will ensure the viability and sustainability of the pension system, which under current rules and after decades of abuse threaten to break the state coffers in the not-too-distant future.

Furthermore, the two groups mentioned above have taken actions that would have been inconceivable to the young members of the Sunflower Movement and groups associated with it, primarily violence against individuals and the systematic targeting of members of the press. Alarmingly, both trends have accelerated in recent months.

On several occasions since late last year, members of the LGBTQ community have been physically assaulted by groups opposed to same-sex marriage; in a few cases the assaults resulted in minor injuries. The use of violence against elected officials from the Tsai administration, as well as DPP legislators, has also become more frequent, with several incidents occurring outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei this morning (April 19). Despite a police presence at the scene — clearly insufficient and often disorganized — a number of officials were grabbed at, pushed, or body-slammed; Deputy Taipei Mayor Charles Lin was pushed against a police fence, injuring his hand; another (Tainan City Councilor Wang Ding-yu) was repeatedly pushed and had a water bottle thrown at his face. New Power Party (NPP) Legislator Hsu Yung-ming was also pushed and splashed with water.

On an evening talk show on SET-TV, a convener of the Changhua Military Civil Servants and Teachers Association argued that “DPP rhetoric” had made them “very emotional” and that they could not be held responsible if they “killed someone.” Worryingly, this was not the first time that a member of groups opposed to pension reform referred to “killing.” In an earlier protest, someone argued (arguably in the heat of the moment) that President Tsai herself should be killed.

According to Wang, the protest groups may have been infiltrated by Chinese trouble makers. There is also a possibility that members of crime syndicates, many of them pro-China, are also playing a role in the protests, not so much out of interest in the policies but simply to undermine democracy and destabilize the Tsai administration. With more radical elements highjacking the movement, the grievances of the more moderate members of society who stand to be affected by pension reforms, and who understandably will seek to lose as little as possible in the bargain, risk being lost in the noise.

During the April 19 protest, which also spilled to the DPP headquarters, several members of the press reported being denied access to the venue. Protesters routinely asked journalists to see their press pass; media that were deemed to be too closely associated with the green camp (DPP and NPP) were surrounded by protesters and ordered to leave the scene; pro-China media, meanwhile, were left alone. The windshield of a SET-TV news vehicle was also smashed with a hammer. (During the Sunflower occupation, a journalist from the China Times Group was heckled by protesters but was never prevented from doing her work; criticism of the incident ensured this did not happen again.)

Photo: Yahoo News

Similar disruptive actions against members of the press (also mainly pro-green camp media) have occurred during protests organized by opponents of same-sex marriage legislation since 2016.

Both controversies have undermined democratic mechanisms and tarnished Taiwan’s image, which for some protesters appears to be the intended outcome. Shortcomings in personal protection for elected officials by law enforcement agencies, as well as failure to arrest and prosecute protesters for physical assault, have also contributed to repetition and escalation. Police’s unwillingness to ensure that members of the press have full access to protest sites and can carry out their work without interference has also created a hostile environment for journalists.

(Top photo: Match.net.tw)

No More Articles