The Resilience of East Asia’s LGBTQ Community

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The Resilience of East Asia’s LGBTQ Community

Amid challenges new and old, the LGBTQ communities in China, South Korea, and Taiwan are finding creative ways to move forward.

The Resilience of East Asia’s LGBTQ Community

Participants rally during the “Taiwan Pride March for the World!” at Liberty Square at the CKS Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan, June 28, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, marginalized communities across the globe have faced unprecedented challenges. The cataclysmic nature of the pandemic has compounded underlying social tensions and inequalities. LGBTQ people in particular have endured discrimination, entrenched prejudice, lack of access to medical services, isolation, and economic hardship, all while struggling for legal protection and recognition from often hostile societies and states.

LGBTQ communities in East Asia — we look in particular at China, South Korea, and Taiwan — each face their own unique set of challenges: entrenched conservative elites, reticent or hostile public opinion, demographic issues, or increasing nationalist sentiment. The pandemic has increased the visibility and vulnerability of the LGBTQ community, but increasingly embattled activists in East Asia have also shown resilience and creativity in their forms of resistance. These different ways to maintain community spaces, advocate for policy change, and influence public opinion should be a means for greater transnational cooperation and knowledge-sharing among LGBTQ movements in Asia and beyond.

China: Resilience Amidst Unfavorable Political Winds

In China, the COVID-19 pandemic raised new obstacles and exacerbated existing problems for LGBTQ people. Although the Chinese government is officially neutral on LGBTQ rights, it does not provide equal legal protections, address widespread social prejudice, provide inclusive health care access, or allow independent activism beyond a limited scope. Not only do national plans to raise the birthrate exclude LGBTQ parents, who lack legal recognition, authorities and censors increasingly target LGBTQ advocacy, likely for its perceived threat to heterosexual fertility. Recent instances of censorship suggest China’s LGBTQ community will face more explicit official homophobia in the future.

Chinese LGBTQ activists have attempted to adapt their messaging and activities to China’s cultural, legal, and political context. A wave of legal activism has had limited success, winning a national ban on “conversion therapy,” though the ban is poorly enforced. Even narrowly focused or failed cases give plaintiffs and activists a rare chance to make a public argument for LGBTQ rights and expand the interpretation of existing laws against gender discrimination. Some activists avoid the legal or NGO-based model, attempting new strategies like founding LGBTQ-focused businesses.

In 2020, organizers of Shanghai’s annual Pride festival, the largest in China, announced they would cancel all events after organizers were reportedly harassed by police. This year, activists throughout China held fewer events with less publicity, and increasingly self-censored their outreach activities.

While the internet provides alternatives to events and spaces closed during the pandemic, Chinese authorities have cracked down on online LGBTQ activism. Ongoing censorship of LGBTQ media representation and activism has worsened. In July 2021, the WeChat accounts of nearly 20 LGBTQ campus groups, important spaces of community support and education, were shut down for unspecified violations. Feminist groups and activists have also been targeted.

Amid heightened international tensions, nationalists accuse feminist and LGBTQ rights groups of being foreign agents of cultural and political subversion. This viewpoint has become increasingly mainstream. Central authorities likely believe feminist and LGBTQ advocacy undermines national unity and strength by challenging rigid gender roles among youth and encouraging independent political identities and activism. A recent directive to broadcasters banned depictions of “sissy” men, soon after a polemic in state-run media denounced effeminate men as a sign of corrupt Western influence in the entertainment industry.

Both LGBTQ activists and homophobic bloggers view increased censorship as a sign the political winds are shifting to an actively anti-LGBTQ policy, triggering more caution among activists and more aggressive harassment from their opponents. While China’s LGBTQ community remains active and resilient, its already limited opportunities to create social and political change have been sharply curtailed.

South Korea: Harnessing Online Activism

South Korea’s LGBTQ community has faced heightened homophobia amid the pandemic. In May 2020, the government’s contact tracing app texted the public that a COVID-19 patient had visited a gay club in Itaewon. Aside from the privacy concerns stemming from the identity disclosure, the incident released a wave of homophobic sentiment. South Korean media focused on the patient’s sexual orientation, fueling public stigma against the LGBTQ community as “disease-spreading gays.”

Despite obstacles from the pandemic, the Korean LGBTQ community fought back, turning public vulnerability into an opportunity for resistance by taking its activism from offline to online. A Korean LGBTQ activist group publicly denounced homophobic comments on LGBTQ people in a statement saying, “[A] person’s disease does not justify hatred and discrimination against one’s sexual orientation.” Another activist media group, Dot Face, created interactive queer parade posts on Instagram in 2020 and 2021. These online events successfully ended with a total of 3 million and 8 million participants, respectively. The SQCF group held an online queer parade on YouTube, featuring eminent drag queen Na Na Youngrong Kim and K-pop idol Tiffany Young.

Online activism has started knocking on the doors of South Korea’s National Assembly as well. In May 2021, an online petition urging the National Assembly to establish an anti-discrimination law was submitted and soon accumulated 100,000 signatures. The petition finally met the criteria to be considered by the Legislation and Judiciary Committee, where parliament members will review the petition and advance it to the National Assembly’s plenary meeting. Anti-discrimination laws have been proposed seven times since 2007 but support always ebbed after colliding with traditionalist Christian groups that oppose homosexuality.

Much of South Korea’s entrenched hostility to LGBTQ people emanates from the relationship of conservative politicians with traditionalist Christian groups. Since conservative politicians mostly secure votes from church-based communities, they are pressured to conform to traditionalist Christians’ core political beliefs, including opposing pro-LGBTQ bills to halt “the spread” of homosexuality. The political voices of traditionalist Christian groups, however, have diminished in the past two years. Quarantine measures have restricted church services and limited the scope of their political activities, such as holding mass gatherings at Gwanghwamun Square.

The transition of LGBTQ movements from offline to online shows the resilience of the LGBTQ community and provides a new setting for activism that opponents of LGBTQ rights have not been able to harness. South Korea’s LGBTQ activists found ingenious ways to continue their movements following the COVID-19 restrictions.

Taiwan: Building Off Success From Same-Sex Marriage Legalization

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the LGBTQ movement in Taiwan less drastically than elsewhere, thanks to a relatively open environment for LGBTQ activism. In October 2020, Taiwan held one of the world’s few in-person pride parades in Taipei, attracting an estimated 130,000 people. Since Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage in 2019, more than 5,300 same-sex couples have wedded as of January 2021.

COVID-19 has not left LGBTQ people completely unscathed, however. In July, Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je came under fire for calling “gay groups” a “problem” in COVID-19 prevention efforts, without offering evidence or explanation. His comments served to perpetuate stigmatization of the LGBTQ community and historical prejudice seeing gay people as “diseased.” Director of the Taiwan Equality Campaign Jennifer Lu responded that “being LGBTQ doesn’t cause [COVID-19] infections, high-risk behavior does.”

Stoking fear of LGBTQ people remains a tool used to cudgel election opponents. The LGBTQ movement historically has not been associated with a particular political party in Taiwan. Among older voters, opposition to same-sex marriage in both the Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) hovers around 70 percent, and conversely there are staunch supporters of LGBTQ rights in both mainstream parties. But since Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP took on the mantle of champions for same-sex marriage, LGBTQ rights has trended toward becoming a partisan political issue, with conservative pro-KMT and often religious elements spreading homophobic disinformation during elections in 2018 and 2020. Most recently, during a recall campaign against Kaohsiung City Councillor Huang Jie, who is bisexual, Huang came under personal, anti-LGBTQ attacks from her opponents.

The LGBTQ community in Taiwan continues to face entrenched social conservatism, lack of legal protections, and lingering prejudice. Since 2019, public support for same-sex marriage has made rocky gains. A May 2021 survey indicated 60.4 percent support for same-sex marriage, which is lower than the 78.4 percent level of public support in Japan, where same-sex marriage has not been legalized. Many LGBTQ people feel uncomfortable coming out at work. Encouragingly, however, polls show small increases in support for LGBTQ adoption rights, transnational marriages, and acceptance of LGBTQ public officials.

As LGBTQ groups in Taiwan have turned their activism to grassroots education and advocacy for LGBTQ adoption rights, surrogacy rights, transnational marriage, and access to reproductive technology, civil society has engaged in norm-building to increase societal acceptance of the LGBTQ people. In Taiwan’s relatively tight-knit civil society space, many activists in the digital democracy movement overlap with the LGBTQ movement. While Taiwan’s overall exemplary handling of the pandemic has allowed much activism to continue in person, recent lockdowns in 2021 coincided with many LGBTQ organizations’ efforts to increase online education workshops and activism, using social media and podcasts to reach broader audiences.

Common Struggles Can Engender Greater Cooperation

Activists in Asia have used creative means to transform vulnerability into activism. In China, Taiwan, and South Korea, but also in Japan, Singapore, and others not discussed in detail here due to limited space, common experiences are fertile ground for creating and deepening transnational activist connections and knowledge sharing.

In 2017, LGBTQ activists from South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan gathered in Taipei for a workshop to discuss ways to promote LGBTQ activism and cooperation across East Asia. The workshop concluded that each country faced similar pressures from right-wing religious groups and conservative elements. Discussions found that these conservative elements, with significant political and business backing, had developed strong transnational ties to bolster anti-LGBTQ forces within their societies. In comparison, LGBTQ networks in East Asia lacked funding and resources, with a deficit of regional cooperation and knowledge sharing.

While China’s political system is vastly different from its neighboring democracies, there are still areas for cooperation and shared experiences that can be useful for Chinese activists. In 2019, for example, Chinese LGBTQ activists travelled to Taipei to learn from Taiwan’s 33 years of struggle for LGBTQ rights, finding Taiwan’s similar language and cultural background more easily accessible than LGBTQ resources in the West.

Another commonality across East Asia is that anti-LGBTQ narratives have co-opted demographic crises and low birthrates endemic throughout the region to lobby against expanding LGBTQ rights. The argument is that the lack of natural reproductive capacity among LGBTQ people would contribute to low birthrates. Activists, such as recently in Taiwan, have sought to reshape the narrative by arguing that LGBTQ couples that want to have children can serve as a potential contributor to solving demographic problems, rather than a hindrance, and that they should be afforded equal treatment and a legal environment friendly to diverse forms of families.

In the past year, the pandemic has opened the door to numerous transnational virtual strategy-sharing and training workshops among different LGBTQ groups in Asia. Activists from Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and others gathered online to learn and share their experiences of LGBTQ activism in their respective locales. These activists should continue to harness and share creative responses through transnational cooperation and activism, advancing the movement as a whole.

The boundaries of space for LGBTQ activism in Asia are constantly shifting. The concept of universally applicable human rights has always been a realm of political controversy and contested legitimacy. States and societies have drawn from conservative Christian religious ideals in some cases and anti-Western sentiment in others to delegitimize LGBTQ rights. Domestic LGBTQ movements have had to combat this complex interplay of narratives, devising ways to resist further erosion of their rights while at the same time fighting for further progress on legal recognition and societal acceptance. Continued resilience and creativity combined with robust transnational cooperation can help propel the LGBTQ movement forward.