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In Taiwan, Gay Life Has Zest

Nowhere else in the Chinese-speaking world are homosexuals as free to be open as they've become since the end of martial law in 1987. Yet a sense of duty leaves many people closeted within their own families.


TAIPEI, Taiwan — 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.

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