In Taiwan, Gay Life Has Zest

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shu Yu Shen shows off his wedding album as proudly as the next guy.

There he is on the big day, looking natty--and maybe slightly nervous--in his tailored Chinese suit. There are the guests, more than 300 of them, gathered in one of Taipei's poshest hotels to watch the exchange of vows.

And there's the other groom, Shu's Uruguayan partner, Gray Harriman, flashing a brilliant smile for the photographers and reporters who packed the ballroom to witness the ceremony that made headlines in Taiwan--and other parts of the world--in November 1996.

Shu, an author, got up on stage beneath a rainbow flag and gave an emotional speech.

"I'm just a representative for all gays and lesbians in Taiwan," he told the crowd. "I know many gay and lesbian couples who cannot get married and have the blessing of their friends."

It was a watershed moment for what has blossomed into the most progressive gay movement in the Chinese-speaking world.

Hong Kong has its gay bars, and mainland China its growing but underground gay and lesbian community. But in Taiwan, homosexuals have stepped out of the closet and begun knocking on the doors of society, politics and culture in a way not found among any of this island's neighbors.

Since martial law was lifted here in 1987, gays have been free to band together and carve out their own niche, following the example of other interest groups in Taiwan's raucous democracy. The island's new openness and political pluralism have given gays a visibility and an outlet difficult to imagine in Hong Kong or mainland China.

"Society changed," said Shu, 39. "Every group tried to fight for their own rights and have their voice in public. It inspired us."

The advocacy might seem tentative by Western standards, hampered as it is by still-strong social stigmas that discourage many gays from being open about their orientation.

But the gay scene in Taiwan also enjoys advantages that Western activists can only dream about. Anti-gay rhetoric and violence are virtually unheard of here. Religious proscriptions against homosexuality are almost entirely absent. In general, the public is far less polarized over the issue than in Western societies.

On Valentine's Day, the local gay community was even able to persuade one of the minor candidates in the March presidential election, Hsu Hsin-liang, to conduct a mock wedding between two women--with one role played by his running mate--to express his support for gay rights.

"Whether you're homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual, you should enjoy equal treatment," Hsu declared as the fake brides joined hands and the news cameras rolled, in a scene hardly imaginable in U.S. presidential politics.

Resources for homosexuals have grown by leaps and bounds in less than a decade. They now include a gay bookstore in Taipei, a community hotline, college support groups, a gay-friendly health clinic, at least two national magazines, and bars and nightclubs operating openly across the island.

As in other countries, the Internet has been a major contributor to the boom, allowing gays and lesbians to find one another--and perhaps themselves--while maintaining a low profile if they choose.

Cyberspace is "a place where you don't have to reveal your true identity and people don't know who you are," said Alexander Chang, the beret-topped creative director of G&L; Publishing, which puts out G&L; and Glory magazines. The two publications have a combined circulation of about 30,000 and are sold in mainstream bookstores, such as the popular Eslite chain, as well as in Taipei's gay bookshop.

When Chang left Taiwan in 1992 to spend a few years overseas, one of the only avenues on the island for gays to find one another was a film magazine that carried about a dozen gay personal ads in the back of each issue. The ads were somewhat furtive, couched in cryptic phrases such as "searching for true friends of the same sex."

Now, in a sign of how times have changed, Chang puts out magazines that each boast about a dozen pages of personal ads in every issue, free of the coy subterfuge people were forced to resort to in the past.

Through such publications and other media, pop culture has pushed gay themes into Taiwan's public consciousness with a forthrightness unseen in more conservative Chinese-speaking cultures in the region, from China to Singapore to Malaysia.

In 1993, director Ang Lee made the international hit film "The Wedding Banquet," which went on to become Taiwan's highest-grossing movie up to that point. The Oscar-nominated comedy traces the trials and tribulations of a gay Taiwanese man who schemes with his American boyfriend in New York to keep their relationship a secret from his parents back home.

A year later, author Chu T'ien-wen published her acclaimed novel "Notes of a Desolate Man," an account of the life and loves of the gay narrator. The book won one of Taiwan's most prestigious literary awards, the China Times Novel Prize.

Both works--as well as subsequent gay-oriented films and literature--touch on what many gays and lesbians here say is their most daunting challenge, one that relatively few seem to have conquered: coming out to their mothers and fathers.

"If you ask a hundred people, 'Who do you most want not to know you're gay?' a hundred people will say, 'My parents,' " Chang said.

Despite Taiwan's increasing tolerance, conservative notions of sex and family life still prevail among the older generation, setting up a clash between a modern society that embraces diversity and an ancient culture that emphasizes conformity to traditional norms such as carrying on the family name.

"Three things demonstrate a lack of filial piety," goes a famous Confucian proverb. "The biggest one is not producing heirs."

At 38, Webster Chen feels the full weight of that pressure. His parents are impatient for him to marry a woman and have kids. But he cannot bring himself to be honest with his folks about his sexuality, a hesitation that stems from a very filial sense of duty to shield them from hurt and grief.

"I don't care whether other people know. But I have to think about my parents," said Chen, who owns one of Taipei's most popular gay bars, The Source. "My parents would have a hard time accepting that their son is homosexual and would think that it's somehow their fault."

He shudders at the horror stories he has heard about parents accusing their children of disobedience or even dragging them to doctors in search of a "cure."

Allen Chen, no relation to Webster, has gotten only as far as telling his mother. He said she hopes he will "become straight after I finish my [mandatory] military service." Forget about telling his father, she warned.

"My mom knows that if my dad knew . . . he might kill me," said the 23-year-old recent college graduate, who found solace in a campus support group.

It would be wrong to characterize Chinese culture as unremittingly hostile to homosexuality through the ages.

Emperors are often recorded as having male consorts, including the tenderhearted Emperor Ai of the Han Dynasty, who legend says cut off the sleeve of his robe rather than stir his male companion, who had fallen asleep across it. Homosexuality is still occasionally referred to in Chinese as "the passion of the cut sleeve."

China's greatest literary classic, "The Dream of the Red Chamber," written during the 18th century, chronicles numerous sexual escapades between partners of both the same and opposite sexes. During the 19th century, homosexuality was common enough in China for a disapproving British emissary to note that "many of the first officers of the state seemed to make no hesitation in publicly avowing it."

And at the dawn of the 20th century, one of China's most revered scholar-reformers of the modern era, Kang Youwei, proposed the idea of marriage contracts that could be entered into by two people of the same or opposite sex.

It is this liberal vein of Chinese history that Taiwan's gays and lesbians hope to mine in their push for greater visibility and the same rights as heterosexuals.

"I don't want gays just to stay in bars or saunas," said Webster Chen. "I want them to be able to walk down the street holding hands."

But organizing politically has been slower to catch on than establishing social spaces, partly because many gays and lesbians continue to fear public exposure. Taiwan still has no openly gay politicians or famous gay public figures.

The gay community got one of its first tastes of political action two years ago, during a close mayoral race in Taipei, the capital. Sensing an opportunity to use their votes as leverage, a handful of activists crafted a statement for the candidates to sign to demonstrate their support for homosexuals.

Ma Ying-jeou and Chen Shui-bian, the two leading candidates, signed the statement and responded to questions put to them by G&L; magazine on the issue of gay rights.

Chen, the incumbent, was criticized for skipping writer Shu's 1996 wedding--although he had said yes to an RSVP--and for failing to hold a city-sponsored Christmas dance for gays and lesbians as he had promised.

"But my intentions have not changed," he insisted. "In the future, I hope that, through the power of the city government, we can help organize gay rights groups with the people and give our gay friends a better environment."

Ma also pledged his support. "Whether homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual, as long as you don't break the law . . . I am willing to protect your freedom of choice," Ma said. "Love is an undying human pursuit."

In the end, Ma won, and he has since set aside about $33,000 in the Taipei municipal budget for gay-related programs. The money has yet to be spent, but activists are encouraged by the show of support.

"That was the first time we knew how to play the gay issue in the political game," said Shu. "If we don't have our own candidate, then at least we can have our own voice."

The mayor's face now graces a photo used to promote the formation of the Taiwan Gay Society, the first such civic group to pursue official recognition from the government.

Chen, Ma's rival, became the president-elect of Taiwan in March. Gay advocates hope to press him to respond to their concerns on a national level.

For many gays and lesbians in Taiwan, however, victories are still counted on a more modest scale.

Ginger Lin finally mustered up the courage to come out to her two sisters, both of whom, to her shock, also turned out to be lesbians. Now she has a girlfriend of two years, and they occasionally discuss marriage.

"In just five years, it's changed a lot. Talking about [homosexuality] doesn't earn you strange looks, and maybe one day there won't be discrimination," said Lin, 28.

She shrugged her shoulders.

"This is the way I am. What is there to accept?"

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