Asian academics lend their own languages and experiences to the budding field of queer studies, says ‘godmother’ of the Taiwan LGBT movement
Earlier this year, Taiwan became the first place in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage. This made 2019 a milestone year for gay rights in Asia – but it was also the culmination of decades of education and debate about LGBT rights in Taiwan, whose universities have led the continent on gender studies research at university level.
“In the sense of promoting gay awareness, academic queer studies did work to promote a more tolerant attitude towards LGBT,” Josephine Ho, an emeritus professor at National Central University, told Times Higher Education – although she also noted that some queer scholars opposed the institution of marriage entirely, whether gay or straight.
When Professor Ho founded the Center for the Study of Sexualities at NCU in the mid-1990s, it set off a proliferation of queer studies activity. For her work, the prominent feminist scholar has been nicknamed the “godmother of the Taiwanese queer movement”.
The NCU centre was the first of its kind in Asia as a research collective. It hosted overseas experts and events with names such as the “4Sex Conference” and “Super Slim conference”. It even published a handbook for schoolteachers called The Gender/Sexuality Campus: Radical Education for the New Generation.
While Professor Ho acknowledged Taiwan’s activism, she gave credit to other Asian areas that have been at the forefront of queer studies. For example, the Institute of Sex Studies at Renmin University of China in Beijing, which confers master’s and PhDs, was established in 1991. Japan and South Korea also have histories of queer studies and research.
Nevertheless, queer studies are so nascent that perhaps no Asian state can claim to be a leader quite yet. “Queer-related studies as an institution are scattered and few,” Professor Ho said. “Whether any nation in Asia could claim to have queer studies as a legitimate field of study is still in question.” She described queer studies as residing in the “ghetto of the university”, with most courses offered under other disciplines, such as gender studies, English or sociology.
While Asian queer studies are inspired in part by work in the US, they have also taken on a life of their own. Since the beginning, Taiwan scholars have used different terms. Instead of “queer”, they called their studies “kuer” (which roughly translates as “cool kids”), “lanbi” or “yao”. “As kuer studies in Taiwan develop, they will acquire their own formation and line of thought,” Professor Ho said.
John Wei, a senior lecturer at the Media Design School in New Zealand, told THE that “queer/gender studies are still underdeveloped in Sinophone Asia, if we look at Western academics and the quality and quantity of their research outputs”, although he added that Western development “shouldn’t be our single benchmark”.
Dr Wei has experienced the ambivalence towards queer studies in the region. After his PhD, he was referred to a faculty position at a Malaysian university but was turned down because his research topic was “too sensitive”.
He is now working in New Zealand and finishing Queer Chinese Cultures and Mobilities, which will be published in 2020 by the University of Hong Kong Press, one of the more progressive academic publishers in the region.
HKU Press began publishing work in this field in 2008 with its Queer Asia series, which has an editorial board comprised of international scholars. While most of the books are in English, there are also editions in Chinese.
Dr Wei’s book examines queer issues across Sinophone Asia, which includes mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and the ethnic Chinese community in Malaysia. He hopes that queer studies scholars in South Korea, Japan and India will also find relevance in his work.
A state’s laws do not necessarily reflect how open academics are on LGBT issues. Malaysian laws penalise homosexuality, but there are prominent “out” Malaysian-Chinese artists and film-makers. Homosexuality is illegal in Singapore, but the National University of Singapore has been hosting forums and conferences with queer studies scholars for more than a decade.
Professor Ho stressed that Asian scholars should forge their own path. “Queer studies in the West and kuer or lanbi studies in Taiwan can be said to share family resemblances, but are quite different from one another.”