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social sciences

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The island of Taiwan, lying off the coast of southern China, is today home to a hybrid society, incorporating elements of various Chinese, Japanese, and American languages and popular cultures. The expression of gender and sexuality in contemporary Taiwan mirrors this hybrid society.

With the transition from rigid authoritarian social and political control under the Kuomintang government to a nascent pluralist democracy following the lifting of martial law in 1987 has come a range of far-reaching social transformations. One of the most exciting of these is the emergence of a vibrant, politicized, and diverse public queer culture--a culture whose rise since the early 1990s has not, however, been without controversy.

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The Pre-Modern Period

Taiwan has been dominated for several centuries by Han Chinese culture, with Han Chinese inhabitants of the island vastly outnumbering the island's relatively small indigenous population. Little information is available on non-heteroseuxal and non-normative gender cultures in Taiwan in the pre-modern period, since the island was not a major center of the Qing dynasty's intellectual and bureaucratic life and hence relatively few pre-modern written records survive.

However, it is clear that the social organization of gender and sexuality in pre-modern Taiwan mirrored that of the Chinese metropolitan culture in at least one way: it lacked any single, coherent category comparable with the modern, Euro-American identity "homosexual." Of course the absence of a coherent homosexual identity does not mean that erotic behaviors between people of the same gender did not occur before the modern period. But such behaviors, when they did occur, would most likely have been managed according to local and specific cultural understandings, and always within the broader context of an agrarian village society that was economically and ideologically structured around the reproductive, patrilineal family.

The Modern Period: Legal Regulation of Sexuality

There are no legal prohibitions specifically directed against homosexuality (tongxinglian) in Taiwan's legal code, nor have there ever existed such prohibitions in the modern period. Neither nor tongxinglian is criminalized either by the Japanese criminal code, which came into force in Taiwan during the Japanese colonial occupation (1895-1945), or by the Republican legal code, which was brought into force with Taiwan's hand-over to China under the Kuomintang party and which remains in force today.

However, the lack of explicit legal prohibition of tongxinglian does not mean that people who engage in non-normative sexual and gendered behaviors have therefore been free from state harassment. During the Kuomintang-enforced martial law period during the 1960s and 1970s, for example, an article prohibiting "wearing odd outfits" (qi zhuang yifu) was vigorously enforced to persecute cross-dressing "T" ("tomboy," or butch/) lesbians and male cross-dressers.

Moreover, in Taiwan today, laws criminalizing behavior that is "deleterious to fine customs" (fanghai shanliang fengsu) or "deleterious to cultural morality" (fanghai fenghua) are routinely used to discipline men engaging in homosexual behavior in public. This occurs most prominently in police harassment of public cruising and in police raids of gay saunas.

In addition, while it does not actually criminalize homosexuality, neither does Taiwan's legal code afford any state protection for the rights of lesbian and gay citizens, for example by recognizing same-sex unions.

Changing Terms, Shifting Identities

As Tze-lan D. Sang shows in her book The Emerging Lesbian: Female Same-Sex Desire in Modern China, the modern European invention of the quasi-medical category, "homosexuality," was translated into Mandarin as tongxing'ai or tongxinglian in the 1920s from the Japanese doseiai. This sexological understanding of same-sex desire and practice was probably imported to Taiwan at approximately the same time.

But the existence of a local linguistic parallel for the modern European idea of homosexuality as a biological and psychological identity does not mean that distinctive local understandings of same-sex eroticism necessarily disappeared as a result. Contemporary Taiwanese sexual culture is a hybrid formation, neither the simple expression of an unadulterated local, traditional culture, nor merely an annex of homogenizing global gay culture. It incorporates multiple different ways of conceptualizing same-sex desire and sexual behavior; some local, and some imported from elsewhere.

Anthropologist Teri Silvio has undertaken extensive research on the all-female Taiwanese folk opera, koa-a-hi, which peaked in popularity between the end of World War II and the mid-1960s and still survives today. In the koa-a-hi troupe, actresses are trained to perform either male (sio sing) or female roles (sio toan), with sio sing sometimes extending their masculine stage personae into their everyday social lives.

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Participants in the public wedding ceremony at Taiwan Pride in 2006.
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