TAIPEI, Taiwan — Ho Yu-Jung, a district council candidate in upcoming local elections, stood at a bustling intersection and addressed rush-hour commuters through a megaphone. She also displayed a campaign flag, and a rainbow-colored scarf.
That casual blend of sexual identity, liberal values and local politics would have been unusual until recently. But in the three years since Taiwan legalized same-sex marriage, the island has rapidly become a regional leader in LGBTQ rights. Inclusiveness toward once-marginalized sexual orientations and gender identities has been embedded across Taiwanese society, deepening the self-governing island’s sense of separation from China, where the ruling Communist Party strictly limits LGBTQ information and events.
Such progress in Taiwan’s LGBTQ movement motivated Ho to run for public office, in part to help people like her feel seen. The former radio DJ said she no longer fears talking about her own identity while campaigning, because “Taiwan’s democratization made the existence of diverse groups a natural thing.”
Taiwan’s 20th annual Pride parade in late October drew 120,000 people to downtown Taipei — just weeks after the last coronavirus border restrictions were lifted — and restored the city to its position as East Asia’s largest Pride destination. Revelers dressed in rainbow-colored costumes filled the plaza outside City Hall and marched alongside floats with corporate sponsors including Nike and the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.
The festive though rain-soaked mood lingered late into the night as many attendees flocked to gay bars. In one club, a uniquely Taiwanese scene unfolded when a drag queen danced to a remix of Für Elise, the Beethoven composition played by garbage trucks in Taipei to remind residents to take out their trash.
Nothing says it’s Pride weekend in Taipei more than a drag queen death dropping to a club remix of Taiwan’s bin collection song. pic.twitter.com/vUVnnKVuoC— James Chater (@james_chater) October 29, 2022
The movement here has developed rapidly in the past decade, said Hsu Chih-Yun, a former chairman of the LGBTQ rights group Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association. In 2004, when Hsu first attended a Pride parade, most people wore masks to hide their identities because few wanted to come out. “That was a really different vibe,” he said.
Today, nearly two-thirds of the population supports same-sex marriage. A survey by the nonprofit Taiwan Equality Campaign found that 60 percent of parents say they would accept their children being gay, up from 42 percent last year.
Hsu, who in 2015 became the first psychiatrist in Taiwan to provide counseling for LGBTQ individuals and their families in a public hospital, said he has been amazed by the shifting attitudes toward sexual minorities.
In early sessions, “when parents heard the word ‘gay,’ they would go nuts,” he said. Far fewer now react negatively or ask how to change their children’s sexual orientation, he said.
Taiwanese politicians commonly address issues of sexuality and gender identity when campaigning for office or speaking publicly. Two candidates running for Taipei mayor in this month’s municipal elections attended the latest Pride parade. The Taiwan Equality Campaign, which tallies gay-friendly candidates, counted more than 200 candidates out of 1,700 who have publicly expressed support for LGBTQ rights.
Activists and scholars have connected the growing acceptance of the LGBTQ community to the island’s vibrant civil society and the momentum from wave after wave of political and social movements dating to the late 1980s as well as the end of four decades of martial law.
In 2014, the success of a student-led “sunflower movement” in blocking ratification of a trade agreement with China reinforced many young people’s belief that activism can bring about real change, said Adam Chen-Dedman, a doctoral candidate in cultural studies at the University of Melbourne who has studied Taiwan’s LGBTQ culture. That optimism then propelled advocacy for same-sex marriage, he said.
Protection for the rights of sexual minorities has paralleled the emergence of a distinct Taiwanese identity, which has solidified in response to China’s aggressive posture toward the island, which it claims as its own territory. A survey in June from National Chengchi University found that 63 percent of respondents identified themselves only as Taiwanese, as opposed to also being Chinese — up 10 percentage points from a decade ago. The biggest jump in that period came in 2019 during the crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
In China, national identity is dominated by a state-molded vision of Han Chinese ethnicity and traditional cultural values. In Taiwan, people have pushed for a more inclusive and expansive idea of what it means to be Taiwanese, including supporting aboriginal rights, Chen-Dedman said.
The gap between Chinese and Taiwanese identities has widened as the Chinese Communist Party has censored LGBTQ content, shut down sexual minorities’ college clubs and promoted traditional gender roles. Shanghai Pride, the longest-running and largest LGBTQ festival in China outside of Hong Kong, suspended operations in August 2020.
“Chinese nationalism is developing in a very patriarchal and masculine manner,” said Wen Liu, an assistant research professor at Academia Sinica in Taiwan. “People at Chinese LGBTQ and feminist organizations that we used to keep in contact with have either fled overseas or gone silent.”
It’s why Taiwan’s LGBTQ community joined protests against the security clampdown in Hong Kong and has spoken out against authoritarianism in China. There is a “clear consensus that if Taiwan wants to have any progress in LGBTQ rights, we must first protect our democratic way of life,” she said.
Taiwanese activists continue pushing for more freedoms. Same-sex couples are still prohibited from adopting children to whom they are not related and cannot wed if one of the parties is from a country that does not recognize same-sex marriage.
A heated debate has arisen about whether transgender people should be able to change the gender on their ID cards without proof of gender-affirmation surgery. A 2021 lawsuit allowing a trans woman to do so was a significant step forward.
“Compared to the marriage-equality movement, discussions about trans people’s rights have only just started,” said Alice, a trans woman and former software developer who joined the trans march that took place the night before the Pride parade. Yet, with more Taiwanese coming out as transgender in recent years, she said, “it feels good that more people are living the way they want.”