Gender and Diversity in Taiwan: A View Outside the Legal and Policy Framework

【這是我2015年3月18日受邀在 Foundation for Scholarly Exchange (Fulbright Taiwan)主辦的政大工作坊中的短講】

It has been suggested to us that we come up with “three things to know about gender and diversity in Taiwan.”  As the other panelists may have more to say on the issue of ethnic diversity, I will concentrate my observations on the gender/sexuality scene.  So here is my 10-minute worth of contribution at the risk of over-simplification, and whatever implications would be applicable to Hong Kong or China will be at your discretion.

Perhaps one initial response to this assignment would be an answer to the question of “how or why gender and diversity emerged to become noteworthy issues for Taiwan?”  Or, “how did the unique socio-historical trajectories of modernization in Taiwan foster different configurations of gender and diversity for the local context?”  An adequate answer would be impossible within today’s given time frame, so I will venture only to say this.

The profoundly religious, i.e. fiercely defensive, Christian culture that the US has been endowed with through its history finds only a minority presence in Taiwan.  The distinctly class-based racial structure of the US that continues to intensify racial tensions and conflicts in the US is much less manifest here.  In other words, if gender and diversity in the American culture are usually marked by strong convictions and deeply-engrained emotions, consolidated through fierce social struggles against religious forces and racial traditions since the 1960s; in contrast, since the 1990s most Taiwanese’ desire for the modern notion of equality that include gender and diversity is, at most, instrumental.  For these values were propelled to their politically correct status by the public’s pervasive aspiration to attain respectable international image and hopefully unproblematic nation-state status.  Consequently, much of these performances of modernity and civility are at best nominal or ceremonial: politicians stand to gain from presenting themselves as progressive and politically correct in relation to gender matters, while civil servants now grudgingly carry out required gender-equality tasks to meet the demands of quarterly evaluations of the gender mainstreaming project every year.

As history has it, this tendency toward a performative notion of gender equality and diversity encountered only limited resistance from traditional Chinese culture, as the new values and attitudes were enabled by the concentration of culturally-privileged Mainlanders in the urban cities of northern Taiwan where political and economic powers congeal.  In a matter of two decades, gender equality, as it is embodied in UN-decreed gender mainstreaming, has developed into an intense presence in the legal and administrative realms in Taiwan, hence also making it a key force in the drive toward more social discipline and regulation to achieve social order and security.  Implemented with limited conviction but ample legal rigidity, and performed through a myriad of gestures of bureaucracy and shadow-boxing, gender equality and diversity are unwittingly generating an undercurrent of distaste and hostility that is becoming only thinly veiled by half-hearted respect and patronizing amiability toward the so-called weak minority, be they women, lesbians and gays, teenagers, indigenous peoples, migrants, etc..

As claims of gender equality and diversity are closely linked to the aspiration for and performance of modernity and civility in Taiwan, their legalized enforcement on campuses and in work places tend to work with traditional disciplinary measures of surveillance and regulation than against structures of power already in place in those locations.  I will now move on to a couple of real-life stories to illustrate the consequences of such development.

One of our graduate students is now teaching in a local high school and she reports that after stringent sexual-harassment prevention regulations were set up and advocated among students, a number of obvious cases of sexual harassment have been reported and dealt with since 2005, but much more frequent are harassment cases reported by young girl students who have discovered that their boyfriends are befriending other girls.  Sweet intimate contact one evening could be interpreted as sexual harassment overnight when the boy’s multiple relationships are discovered.  But this is by no means the girl’s act of simple “revenge” on the boy’s infidelity as many would think.  Closer to the truth is that it is the girl’s defensive act against feeling being duped.  The logic goes like this: if you are dating someone else, that means you did not mean it when you were intimate with me last night, then you were merely taking advantage of me.  And as sexual harassment is understood as taking advantage of someone, the charge provides the girl a convenient way to exonerate herself from being seen as imprudent.  Unfortunately, once the harassment charge is filed, the sword of punishment resolutely descends upon the male, and any chance for all to explore the complexities and contradictions of modern intimate relationships, or to interrogate the reins of monogamy and fidelity, is also lost.

Another graduate student who teaches at a junior high school also reports that in Taiwan, as girl’s subjective feelings of discomfort and embarrassment are deemed as the sole criterion for determining whether sexual harassment has taken place or not, the students most often accused of sexual-harassment are often those LGBT students who are supposed to be vulnerable and hence to be protected by the idea of the LGBT-friendly campus.  These students are accused because they are quite liberal when talking about sexual acts and sexual fantasies with their peers, and the discomfort of those who are inexperienced or uncomfortable with open discussions of sex then becomes ground to indict those who are at ease with sexual matters.  A clash of values and sentiments is subjected to arbitration by the sexual harassment prevention regulations designed in the first place to protect the vulnerable.  Except, here, claims of vulnerability are reserved only for the sexually pure, never those who are the first ones to suffer the blunt of sexual stigma.  And talk of diversity is instantly silenced in the face of gender-based complaints of infringement.

So far I have alluded to the bureaucratization of gender and diversity in Taiwan, and the ironic but true consequences of protection-oriented, mostly gender-based measures of sexual harassment prevention.  Lastly, I would like to say something about diversity education in relation to gender/sexuality.  One FTM transgender activist has once said, and I quote: “Our seemingly diverse gender equality education puts its emphasis only on the diversity of empty, nominal identities, not the diversity of concrete, actual lives.”  He then complained about how diversity education in the schools is most often carried out by listing recognized slots on the spectrum of gender and sexuality identities and teaching students about the definition of each term in the growing family of abbreviations of LGBTQISQ…etc.  The list is then followed by the language of respect and tolerance as a basic civic moral value.  Such a program, in his words, is more interested in fitting subjects to fixed identities than helping them explore the vagueness, the multiplicities, and the fluidities that subjects face in their formation of identities and affects.

Furthermore, the diversity spectrum may seem warmly open and welcoming, but in fact it is always marked by an underlying exclusivity.  As my transgender friend has noted, seemingly nice and obedient subjects can always win social approval and support with their pitiful sobbing stories of victimization; while others suffer chastisement because they insist on using dirty language, they always act noncompliantly, and they rely upon self-empowering tricks to face up to daily life’s every difficulty through minor acts of lying and cheating, running away from home, selling sex on the internet, and other minor illegalities just to secure some warmth and balance.  These acts are often their only recourse for survival, and the harsh indictment they suffer exposes the real logic and moral demand behind the rewards of equality and respect.  As my transgender friend says frankly, “if you suffer and persevere without taking shortcuts or bending the rules, living up to a perfect victimization story, then you are worthy of sympathy.  But no allowance is made for those who refuse to buy into mainstream values and still expect respect and support.”  Respect is awarded only when obedience and good behavior are offered.

To conclude, it has been common to look to laws and policies and statistics to determine a nation’s achievement in gender equality and diversity.  But as I hope I have been able to demonstrate, laws and policies do not produce the fundamental changes that we hope to foster through work in the social and cultural realms.  When social activism is concentrated solely on the legal and political realms, it gives rise to what I have termed “the human rights vultures” in Taiwan in recent years.  These are political figures who have lost their platform elsewhere but are desperately seeking issues for their own political reemergence.  They are usually much more glib with political language and political lobbying, and they are good at creating media effects that move the movements further into the legal and policy realm where they themselves have more to play with.  This is another recent problem facing gender/sexual activism.  Thank you.