(by Brett McDonnell, from The China News, 25 May 1991)
“I didn’t come out to my friends until last December. Only two or three close friends knew I told several friends. Most of them said, ‘Oh, I already know.’ This made me feel very relieved.”
“I always thought I didn’t need friends, that I was a rock. That was until I started to come out. Then I found, ‘Oh, I’m in paradise. Communication is so important.’ I feel closer to my friends.”
Few lesbians in Taiwan have gone as far as Roberta in coming out, that is, telling people they are gay. (Like everyone else in this article, Roberta asked that her real name not be used. No lesbian in Taiwan has gone that far in coming out).
Roberta’s comment helps convey some of the relief and sense of freedom that comes from not having to constantly hide one of the most important aspects of one’s existence.
For most of Taiwan’s lesbians that relief is far from sight. Most lesbians in this country live lives that are even more deeply closeted than those of Taiwan’s gay men, if that is possible.
Christine, another young lesbian in Taiwan, says, “Men tend to be more in the public sphere anyway, through work or other activities. It’s publicly accepted that gay men exist free. There are writers and artists who are gay and fairly public about it—it is associated with the artistic phenomenon. There are no famous lesbians who are publicly recognized.”
One clear sign of this greater invisibility is that lesbians have no public and well-known meeting place similar to New Park, where gay men can go to meet. As a result, lesbians must find more subtle ways to meet other lesbians.
“Where do people meet?” Roberta says, “Everywhere and nowhere.”
“In friends’ places,” Mary replies more prosaically.
Mary is the editor of the newsletter of Wo Men Zhi Jian, Taiwan’s first lesbian (or gay) organization. “I stay with lesbian friends.”
For those who have already found their way into lesbian society, one place to meet women is at the ‘T’ bars. Another place to meet women is the Wo Men Zhi Jian group.
Benetton, a Wo Men Zhi Jian officer, points out, “In this (Chinese) society, if I see a girl I like I don’t know if she’s a lesbian. If I go to a ‘T’ bar, I know the women are all lesbians. Our organization is a second way to find new friends.”
The ‘T’ in ‘T’ bar comes from the English word ‘tomboy’. In Taiwan lesbian society Ts are women who play a typically male role in a relationship. Their more feminine partners are called ‘pes’ from the Chinese word for ‘wife’. Ts tend to predominate in T bars.
Many lesbians of course face pressure from their families, says Christine. “Most people can’t tell their families because they will create a lot of trouble. A lot of people like to move out on their own and be more free. My own moving out was in part due to family pressure. I had a boyfriend before and now my mother always asks, ‘How’s your boyfriend?’ If you live away you usually don’t have to face constant pressure.”
This family pressure may show up in pressure to get married. This used to be a major problem for most of Taiwan’s lesbians. Changing attitudes toward women and marriage may have relieved some of the pressure. As Christine says, “There are now a lot of unmarried women in Taiwan, and that relieves some of the pressure. There are still a lot of Chinese men who are male chauvinists and at the same time many women who are independent and won’t put up with it.”
In many ways lesbians are pioneering in creating new forms of relationships to fit the changes occurring in Taiwan society. As Benetton says, “When I’m with my girl friend, both of us are equal. In ‘normal’ love affairs, the boy acts as a majority and the girl acts as a minority. In lesbian relationships, both of us are equal.”
As Taiwan society continues to change and feminism becomes stronger, the lives of lesbians will continue to change. Already, the growth of a feminist consciousness has helped give rise to a lesbian organization, Wo Men Zhi Jian, before there was any comparable male organization—a quite unusual occurrence compared to the pattern in most Western countries.
However, for now the changes are still at an early point. Women like Roberta who have begun to talk to others and wrestle inwardly with being lesbians still have few public resources to draw on. Roberta says, “I don’t want to have a movement here. I just want to have people talk to about being a lesbian, so I can learn to live with this identity. I used to dress like a T, but now I wear earrings and use lipstick. I don’t know how to live with my identity.”
[reprinted from the ALN Newsletter, c/o Anjaree, P.O. Box 322, Rajdamnern, Bangkok 10200, Thailand]