By all accounts, Taipei Pride was particularly joyous this year, following the constitutional ruling on marriage equality, months of renewed activism, and a general snowballing of efforts to ensure LGBT equality and human rights for all Taiwanese people. As I look back on those raucous days in the capital, a few things struck me most about Pride.
First, seeing so many people join the procession—happy, energized, and full of hope—was an electrifying experience. Civil society matters for the health of a nation, and in Taiwan, it is strong!
Second, I came to recognize the important role that corporations have in mainstreaming ideas, showing that their time has come. Companies can support citizen activism with economic resources, and even more crucially, offer complementary ways to influence the popular imagination.
Finally, I observed an interesting dynamic of foreigners, including visitors, diplomats and elected representatives, weighing in on gay rights and lending their support to the campaign for marriage equality. That support is most welcome—and everyone is invited to the party—but care is required to respectfully interface with the local, indigenous character of a social movement.
To illustrate these points, I highlight several groups to pay attention to in the coming year. Their engagement helps us assess the relative health and acceptance of the LGBT rights movement in Taiwan.
Global companies, household brands
On Ketagalan Boulevard, a rainbow Gap balloon drifted over a Citi float festooned with glittering, silver bunting. Enthusiastic delegations from familiar names, such as Airbnb, Google and Microsoft, marched in the Pride Parade. Giant letters spelled out “UBER” at the start of the parade route, while Air Canada staff handed out rainbow-colored maple leaf flags along the way.
I was originally somewhat skeptical of corporate efforts, believing they are primarily engaged in virtue-signaling or attempting to garner publicity when they take part in public events. However, witnessing their engagement with Taipei Pride changed my mind about the role companies can play in supporting civic causes.
For the parade, I embedded with the Airbnb contingent and was quickly welcomed into the group. Organizers handed me a #weaccept t-shirt, a nametag, and a colorful rainbow tattoo. I was also issued an Airbnb corporate sticker to complete the ensemble. While I donned the shirt and instantly felt like part of the gang, I was reluctant to apply the Airbnb sticker—I didn’t want to be a corporate shill.
My hesitation slowly thawed as the organizers warmly welcomed people into the Airbnb squad. As it turned out, it wasn’t the Airbnb corporation, but the employees and users themselves who had spearheaded the company’s participation. They wanted the Airbnb community to have the opportunity to come together in support of a cause they truly believed in. While the company provided shirts, stickers, and a green light, it’s hard to believe that a group would have coalesced without the grassroots organizing by the Airbnb community itself.
The crowd’s reaction to the Airbnb contingent was particularly affirming. Companies represent an important sector of society—entities that we interact with, buy goods and services from, or even work for, on a daily basis. People have a special affinity for the products they use in their daily lives and the services they’ve come to know and love. The positive feelings they harbor for those companies and their brands are consequently transferred to the social movement. When a popular company says, “Hey, this idea matters. We care about it, and so should you!” that can have a real impact on public perception. It designates an idea as mainstream, worthy of support, perhaps even worthy of investment.
While brands themselves cannot replace activists as the leading edge of a social movement, they can amplify activists’ messages of acceptance and diversity. They can leverage their visibility, corporate resources, and social cachet for good, producing another channel through which ordinary citizens might better understand an issue and be persuaded of its merits.
After seeing the show of force from these major brands, I strongly believe that more Fortune 500 companies will be joining in Taipei Pride in the future, especially as the annual gathering continues to be the most high-profile LGBT Pride event in Asia.
Asian American political leaders and the Taiwanese diaspora
Politicians from outside Taiwan have also been tracking the development of LGBT rights on the island. This year, Evan Low, an openly gay, Asian-American state legislator from California traveled to Taipei in October to promote marriage equality. He met with Taiwanese officials, including Justice Minister Chiu Tai-san and Digital Minister Audrey Tang, and legislators such as Jason Hsu (KMT) to share California’s experience implementing gay marriage laws. The meetings covered issues such as how the state handles adoption rights, health care access, and government services.
As a legislator representing a heavily Asian/Asian American district in Silicon Valley, where many overseas Taiwanese reside, Low is well-positioned to engage on these issues. In an interview with Ketagalan Media, he lauded the country’s progressive politics, having elected its first female president and passed a landmark constitutional court ruling on gay marriage. “The world is watching,” Low said. “Taiwan is making history.”
He expressed hope that marriage equality could be completed through an amendment of the Civil Code, not a separate law for same-sex marriages. “Separate is not equal,” Low said. “When you have separate categories, it is not equal. It is not the same.”
At this moment, “all eyes are on Taiwan,” he declared, so it is “critical to be a leader in all of Asia.”
LGBT tourists bring rainbow dollars
Not every foreign visitor is as well-informed as Low. Plenty of tourists simply drop into Taipei to party hard during Pride. One sometimes feels a bit of ambivalence about this crowd: it’s not clear they are much aware of LGBT issues in Taiwan, or if they’ve been following the intricacies of the marriage equality debate. It’s not even clear they have a stake in how the question turns out.
All the same, Pride is meant to welcome every single person into a large tent, and as the visitors are keen to lend their support to the Taiwanese LGBT community, they should still be embraced.
As public awareness of Taiwan’s gay-friendly status builds, greater numbers of tourists may visit. More professionals may also choose take up residence on the island, so they can live in peace and enjoy the liveliness of a more diverse society. Such a move could help Taiwan attract additional tourist dollars (from LGBT visitors themselves, or their allies) while tackling its brain drain problem. As Silicon Valley’s experience with diversity shows, companies that set up shop in a more free-thinking, tolerant environment may often prove more innovative.
That said, for overseas visitors to more effectively support the homegrown LGBT movement, they can strive to educate themselves and learn about the perspectives of local activists. In parallel, publications such as Ketagalan Media can put Taiwan in dialogue with the global LGBT community. Covering stories with an eye toward foreign and domestic audiences, while elucidating the concerns of local Taiwanese, helps to bridge that gap and foster greater understanding.
Civil society shows its strength
Yet precisely because so many people participated in the Pride Parade, the event didn’t come across as exotic or foreign. It felt like something any group of friends could join in on a weekend outing. That sense of normalcy was a striking testament to the self-evident nature of LGBT rights, at least among Taiwanese youth.
But while gays, lesbians and transgender persons have achieved a measure of social acceptance, the collective social work is far from done. (Local activists seemed highly attuned to the ongoing struggle, whereas foreign tourists appeared less aware of this fact.) Advocates already plans to deploy appropriate pressure tactics to persuade lawmakers to do right and amend the Civil Code. They must also follow-up to ensure full implementation of the whole spectrum of rights.
Activists can keep up a relentless stream of communications to legislators. They can also question why the major political parties, the DPP and the KMT, and even the mayor of Taipei, were absent from one of the largest outpourings of empathy and civic action in the country. Most pride parades, after all, are an opportunity for engagement by city leaders.
In contrast, sizable delegations from new, younger political parties such as the New Power Party and the Social Democratic Party joined the procession. If parties led by older politicians cannot catch this wave, they will be labeled out-of-sync with youth opinion and could pay the price at the ballot box.
Looking forward to 2018
Developments with each of these groups—companies, foreign officials and visitors, and political parties—can all serve as bellwethers for progress on LGBT rights in Taiwan. The presence of popular, family friendly brands signals a powerful statement of support, marking LGBT rights as not a marginal movement, but one that is rapidly mainstreaming.
Politicians who lead communities of overseas Taiwanese likewise also offer a unique perspective on how to shift the needle, and offer examples of social progress.
And while the direct impact of foreign visitors is less clear, they do bring new economic opportunities and if the media aids in this process, they can become more informed over time. Moreover, their presence never overshadowed the remarkable show of empathy and support for the LGBT community from the Taiwanese themselves.
At the end of the day, high levels of youth participation and a vibrant civil society are also indicators democratic health. Taken together, this bodes well for LGBT rights, and the broader evolution of liberal values, in Taiwan.
(Feature photo by Victoria Chen)
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