By Adam Liebendorfer
Edited by Gina Edwards
TAIPEI, TAIWAN - Chia-Wei Chung and his friends speculate one of their friends at their Taipei high school is gay. Though they are friends, Chung doesn’t expect he will find out any time soon.
“In Taiwan, if you say, ‘I’m gay,’ or ‘I’m lesbian,’ some people might accept it, depending on their personality,” Chung said. “But it’s still hard for the LGBT to tell others ‘I’m gay’ in public.”
A new program in Taipei’s schools may offer a way to improve this social constraint for LGBT individuals.
Starting next semester, the curriculum for Taipei students will include basic information about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community—a topic that up until recently was strictly taboo. When classes resume after Chinese New Year, elementary and junior high students will begin discussing how to handle friends who are LGBT in addition to gender equality topics already instituted.
Many of the details of the program remain a mystery, said Chung’s mother, Hui-Lin Chiang, a 48-year-old elementary school teacher. The discussions will fit into the four hours every semester already allotted to promoting gender equality, but educators still don’t know how much time the topic will receive or to what extent it will appear in textbooks.
“This is not designed to necessarily encourage young people to come out, but rather to equip our students with the skills to communicate with those close to them who do come out or if they’re coming out themselves,” said an Education Ministry curriculum official who asked to be referred to only as Mr. Wong.
Progressive social policy goals in Taiwan
The initiative follows Taiwanese policy to be one of the most open countries about LGBT issues in East Asia.
Taipei is known as the “San Francisco of Asia,” said Dale Albanese, an American master’s student living in Taiwan to study innovative education. Taiwan’s main LGBT pride parade, Taipei Pride, drew 30,000 participants last year. By comparison, Japan’s Tokyo Pride parade ended its three-year hiatus last year and only expected 5,000 marchers. Taiwan’s 2004 Gender Equality Education Act instituted guidelines for gender issues to appear in curricula and laid the groundwork for LGBT topics in schools.
Protesters rallied in Taipei last March to pressure Taiwanese Parliament to include LGBT topics in elementary schools and junior high. The bill passed shortly after, and Taipei’s schools promptly began planning a revised curriculum.
Some schools in Taiwan used to mandate that male students wear blue uniforms and female students wear pink. “When the school started saying [in 2004] that boys can wear pink and girls can wear blue, that was the first step,” said Amy Lin, of the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline, a support organization for LGBT Taiwanese. “This is the next logical step.”
Chung said, however, the country is still very conservative, globally speaking. While the Gender Equality Education Act banned discrimination of gays and transgendered students and teachers, few LGBT teachers express their sexuality.
Taiwan's education culture
Much of the stigma surrounding sexuality in schools deals with the Taiwanese culture of education, Albanese said.
“Taiwanese put a lot of importance on face. Teachers need to have the answers or else they lose face. If teachers have to start telling their students about LGBT and a student asks about sex, they’re going to need an answer, so I could see some teachers avoiding it if they feel uncomfortable,” he said.
In the ultra-competitive atmosphere at school, teachers’ words are given much more credence, Albanese said. Unlike in many Westerner countries, many Taiwanese students’ lives are consumed by school. “Where you get picked on for being the nerd in the U.S., you could get picked on for not knowing the answer,” he added.
It is that reason, Albanese said, that institutionally recognizing LGBT concepts is more than merely paying lip service to LGBT groups.
Limitations and future questions
Chung, 17, said that he only recently studied LGBT associations in a high school social studies class. His mother said that whatever curriculum change she will see, it will not be very comprehensive because elementary school students will struggle to understand the complicated social issues surrounding the LGBT community.
Discussion about gender equality will likely still dominate that time slot in class, she added.
Lin said that most of the hotline’s calls come from young adults who have graduated, but she said the hotline has been increasingly receiving calls from teenagers asking for ways to come out to friends and family. The Tongzhi Hotline also has a separate line for parents looking for advice on support.
Sons in Taiwan are expected to take care of their parents in old age, and some older people worry that the LGBT presence might cause confusion of roles, Chung said.
In spite of this, both Chung and his mother said they support the new initiative and think the people of Taiwan will adjust.
“Programs like that can’t do everything for gays,” Chung said. “But it can make them feel more comfortable, which is a good thing.”