Insights from the queer utopia of culturally conservative Asia
ANU Law student ambassador Cherish Tay is currently living in Taiwan studying democracy in East Asia at the intersection of queer studies, immigration and legal responsiveness.
I wanted to know what kinds of queer culture there is here and what it means to be LGBTQIA+ under the law in Taiwan because I am always wondering about the ways in which the law, culture and society talk to each other.

Ever wondered what it’s like to study abroad? ANU Law student ambassador Cherish Tay gives us the low-down on her adventures and experiences studying in Taiwan in her new blog series.

By Cherish Tay (student ambassador)

Like so many others, one of the things that attracted me to Taiwan was the island’s reputation for queer freedom. I wanted to know what kinds of queer culture there are here and what it means to be LGBTQIA+ under the law in Taiwan because I am always wondering about the ways in which the law, culture and society talk to each other.

One evening a few months ago I made my way into the city to visit the Sunshine Queer Centre, where a group of queer folk had gathered to hear a Taiwan-based family lawyer give a public lecture, titled ‘After marriage: What are we thinking?’*

When the talk turned out not to be about the same-sex marriage movement, as I had expected, but rather the origins and intricacies of Taiwanese marriage law, the evening turned in a more interesting direction altogether.

Taiwan’s system of codified civil law was established by the Japanese, who colonised the country in 1895. Today’s codified law stems from the Japanese colonial period where the Japanese not only replicated their own legal codes, which were heavily influenced by the German system, but also established the Survey Commission to undertake one of the most comprehensive surveys of existing laws and custom anywhere in East Asia.

Significant portions of custom that had not initially fit into the definition of law, an imported concept, were subsumed into legal codes during the colonial period. The Japanese also did extensive historical research into the Qing Administrative Records in an effort to find nativist origins for the law.

As a result, the contemporary Taiwanese legal system is both legal transplant and uniquely Taiwanese. This collage of imported laws and local custom allow for an open and diverse society to develop and thrive.

The queer scene in Taiwan was underground, but present during the period of martial law (1949-1987). Outward homophobia was imported through McCarthyism in the 1950s as a result of Taiwan being an anti-communist ally of the United States.

Still, calling out what is unacceptable brings a name to something that perhaps went unacknowledged prior. Queer film, theatre and literature was produced both through innuendo and illegally in the face of strict censorship laws. It was in 1983 that Crystal Boys (孽子) by Pai Hsien-yung (白先勇) was published, one of the most celebrated texts in Taiwanese queer literature.

At this time, queer writers and artists were ‘sexual dissidents’ who acted against homophobic propaganda and strict censorship laws. The end of martial law and the 1990s saw Taiwanese queer literature come into its own with a profusion of artists picking up international awards and accolades.

Queer writers found sci-fi a place of freedom and experimentation with some notable titles, including Qiu Miaojin’s (邱妙津) Notes of a Crocodile (鱷魚手記) in 1994 and Chi Ta-wei’s (紀大偉) The membranes () in 1996.

It’s no wonder that the largest pride parade in Asia, held in Taipei every year, celebrates Taiwan as a historic centre of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer literary culture.

Art exhibit at Treasure Hill in Taipei 'De-'

When I first read the Sunshine Queer Centre’s event description, I assumed it would be about the direction of queer advocacy after same-sex marriage was made legal here in 2019.

However, the speaker’s question turned out to have a simpler and yet, far queerer answer. What comes after marriage? Well, legally speaking, divorce. Which framed another way means, how do we, the queer folk of Taiwan, think about the heteronormative concepts of marriage and divorce?

Of all the warm and humanistic things that have occurred in Taiwan, chatting with a community worker and lawyer over night-market snacks about their experiences of being queer and Taiwanese has to be high up there.

Queer landscapes don’t map onto each other in simple or easy ways. In a way the very definition of queerness is to be marginal, outside of the centre, in the uncategorised, liminal space where things remain undetermined.

In that way, queerness may in fact be the very opposite of contemporary law as we know it. The hand of the law can be a harsh one that often assimilates where it could allow freedom and variety to thrive. Same-sex marriage law has been fraught with controversy, but it should be noted that the queer community is flourishing in Taiwan.

* This is my translation from the title 婚後有什麼想{}, which sounds better in Chinese as it contains a pun on the character which means ‘point of view’ here as well as ‘law’.