What Is “Perverse Taiwan”? An Interview With Howard Chiang
The Taiwan Gazette staff sits down with Prof. Howard Chiang of UC Davis to talk about about LGBT rights issues in Taiwan, and his new book, “Perverse Taiwan.”
By Jane Tien, Tiffany Kao and Daigengna Duoer
Taiwan’s LGBT community made a number of international headlines over the last year: Taipei hosted Asia’s largest Pride parade, Taiwan’s premier appointed a trans-gender person to a cabinet-level position, and the country’s top courts ruled in favour of same-sex marriage legislation.
This makes Howard Chiang’s new book “Perverse Taiwan” all the more timely. The book is a collection of essays written from an interdisciplinary perspective, and details the rise and transformation of Taiwan’s queer culture over the last 70 years.
The Gazette had a chance to sit down with Chiang, where he shared his insights on LGBT advocacy issues in Taiwan, and talked about his inspiration for writing and compiling Perverse Taiwan.
Q: What inspired you to write and compile Perverse Taiwan? Could you enlighten us on the meaning of the title?
Chiang: So Perverse Taiwan came out out of a collaboration with a friend of mine, Wang Yin (王穎), who teaches at National Cheng Kung University, and it’s the first anthology of its kind in that it showcases a new way of scholarship that is coming out of the field, and targets an inter-disciplinary readership.
The volume includes work by literary scholars like Chi Ta-wei (紀大偉), who is also a queer author. Another scholar is Hu Yu-ying (胡郁盈), who is based in gender studies, but has training in sociology. We also have a performance musical psychologist involved in the book. So it showcases a wide range of disciplinary approaches, and I think that is very important for capturing a snapshot of what the field is currently like.
I also didn’t want to call the collection “Queer Taiwan,” because there are scholars who have already started to divide the map of Asia. There is a volume on Queer Singapore, Queer Bangkok, etc. There is a lot “queer something.” When I talked about this concern with Wang Yin, we decided to name it something else. “Perverse” Taiwan is a good way to gesture to what we are doing, but also to not conform to this increasing multiplication of queer regional studies books.
The word “perverse" is also interesting because it functions somewhat similar to “queer.” The word “queer” can be considered generally as something strange or out-of-the-norm, while “perverse" suggests something is sick. It has a certain kind of shameful attachment to the concept. At the same time, we felt that it is actually a very good transit point to discuss not just the effective dimension of queer communities and experiences in Taiwan, but also its relation to different fields of queer studies and Taiwan studies.
For instance, Taiwan studies is a field dominated by social scientists or literary scholars. In Perverse Taiwan, we first established a relationship between Taiwan as an object of study and these different approaches as the method of study, making it inherently pluralistic and multiple. So “perverse" carries that connotation as well. You will also see a lot of the contributors are based in Taiwan. I felt it is very important that their work is published in an English-language book that could be accessible to non-Chinese readers.
Q: When it comes to accepting different kinds of gender identity in Asia, what role does Taiwan play? Is Taiwan more progressive?
Chiang: So with that question comes certain kinds of assumption because now we’re singling out Taiwan in this larger region we might call East Asia, or Asia. I believe there are both parallels and promises to that. This kind of comes across with the example of same-sex marriage that we will come back to momentarily.
First of all, the idea of “progressiveness” is actually something that some scholars have tried to complicate. So even as we see a certain degree of openness and flexibility within Taiwan towards the subject of gender and sexual minorities, we also know that the state is very strict in terms of dealing with other more marginal subjects.
So for instance, I've thought about the role that sex workers play, drug users, cross-dressers, the fetish community, and so forth. When we try to normalize lesbian and gay subjects, at the same time, there is a tendency to further marginalize those originally marginalized subjects. There's a danger in that. I think in comparison to some other parts of Asia, Taiwan is more progressive. But its neoliberal policies sometimes entail a certain kind of implicit oppression on other more marginalized subjects.
Back to the example of same-sex marriage. Legalizing same-sex marriage is a hotly debated topic within the queer studies community, and within the queer community itself. Is this something we want to strive for, and what are the implications? Does same-sex marriage become the ultimate benchmark on gauging whether a community or nation is sexually progressive? If you’re broadening marriage to the gay and lesbian community, are you trying to normalize them in some sense?
You can understand why people have reservations about the kind of respectability and moral overtones that we tend to attach to the institution of marriage.
I believe some of our friends in the gay and lesbian community would suggest that “yes, that’s precisely what we want, we want to be considered as normal.” So I always have an ambivalent feeling about that.
My own position on same-sex marriage always fluctuates depending on the audience I’m addressing. If it’s those ultra-conservative religious groups who have really backward reasoning for why gay marriage shouldn't be legalized, then I'm totally up for trying to use marriage to form some subversion to the status quo. But if I'm addressing for instance, the queer community, who argue that the gay marriage agenda is a battle needed to be fought because it will help the gay community become more respectable, moral, and normal, then I have a lot of problems with that. If you think about it, what does the state’s recognition do for you? On the one hand, it gives you some kind of state recognition and the legal rights that come with it, but it's also possible to get those sets of legal rights through other means.
It was very interesting when Taiwan actually proposed the idea of a “diversified family structure” (多元成家), in 2013. A diversified family structure actually points to the notion of family and maybe kinship rather than marriage itself. So in some ways, I think that had a lot of radical potential that got completely evaded, or reduced at least, to what we just talked about in terms of gay marriage.
I bring this up because, if Taiwan legalizes gay marriage or becomes the first nation or state in East Asia to legalize same-sex marriage, what are the implications? I think it has both positive and negative consequences and I actually think the negative consequences don't get voiced as much as I would like to hear.
Q: What kind of negative consequences can you think about?
Chiang: So for instance, I can think of people within the queer community who probably don't want to form a state-sanctioned monogamous relationship. So for these people, that means that their rights are out the window, because they will only get legal recognition if they participate in these marriage rituals.
We might think that it is an issue of options, about giving people who want to get married, the option to do it. But what we aren’t seeing, is that it implicitly imposes a certain kind of mentality. A mentality that says people who do get married, are better. Or at least, they have more legal rights than those who don’t get married. So in that regard, I'm very hesitant. There is a potential of further marginalizing those people who do not see marriage as the ultimate thing that they strive for.
Q: That’s an interesting perspective. A lot of people in Taiwan are very positive about this law. You don’t hear about the gay community in Taiwan not wanting the legislation because they’ll be marginalized.
Chiang: Yeah, so it creates a certain hierarchy among marginalized groups. I wanted to tap into that and question it too. So does that mean Taiwan is “progressive”? Does that mean Taiwan is a better or “queer-er” place than others? I think that’s debatable.
I am totally for same-sex marriage if participants of that institution recognize it as a moralizing and normalizing effect, and recognizes that there are other kinds of desires that need to be respected as well. Hopefully, people will participate in a way that transforms traditions and existing institutions, without having to conform to and assimilate to heteronormativity.