There has never really been a robust feminist movement in Taiwan, despite there being notable feminist icons, such as former Vice President Annette Hsiu-Lee, author Li Ang, and publisher of the feminist magainze, Awakening, Yenlin Ku. For better or worse, Taiwan owes its ideological origins to Western feminism, and Taiwanese feminists have always been careful to take into consideration the tradition of social hierarchies and the Confucian belief that women live in service to their husbands. This created a feminism that strived more to win social respect as wives and mothers in the home, rather than to actively subvert gender roles, and avoided antagonizing the male populace.
By being accommodating to mainstream (patriarchal) ideology and sensitive to cultural norms, feminists in Taiwan secured immediate, practical gains for women, especially those from low-income backgrounds. But making ideological concessions for pragmatic purposes was not without cost. In order to circumvent direct, ideological confrontation with the ruling apparatus, Taiwanese feminists avoided demanding full bodily autonomy for women, losing an opportunity to mobilize and radicalize women en masse.
Still, there were concrete gains for women in the late 20th-century: abortion was legalized (though under limited circumstances) in 1985, with other laws changing around the turn of the century, including legislation ensuring women can’t be discriminated against in the workplace (the Act of Gender Equality in Employment). The Taipei Women’s Development Center, which exists to support women surviving domestic abuse, was opened in 1983 (followed by the Taipei Women’s Rescue Association in 1987); the first Women’s Studies conference took place in 1985; and Between Us — the first lesbian group — was founded in 1990.
Taiwanese women seem to enjoy a high degree of equality under the law, but the country still has quite archaic divorce laws, regressive views on sexual activity and female healthcare, had criminalized extramarital affairs (for both sexes) until just last year (and nearly 70 per cent of the population still supported criminalization), and the Health Promotion Administration (HPA) only began to consider amending the law to allow married women to get abortions without spousal approval this year. Statistics show 300 cases of domestic abuse are reported every day in the island nation, and a report published last month found one out of every five Taiwanese women has been in an abusive relationship. Earlier this month, politician Kao Chia-yu revealed she had been physically abused by her boyfriend, but remained in the relationship because he threatened to share indecent pictures of her with the public. What this evidence doesn’t show is that most cases of abuse go unreported, as women fear shaming or stigmatizing their families. Some argue that the lack of a strong, Taiwanese feminist voice is is due to adherence to Confucian-based, patriarchal Chinese cultural values. Whatever the case, this is changing now with the prospect of a self-ID law being passed in Taiwan.
In September, the Taipei High Administrative Court issued a ruling allowing a trans-identified male calling himself “Xiao E (小E)” to change his legal sex to female without sex reassignment surgery — the first ruling of its kind. Until then, individuals could not change their sex on an ID card unless they provided medical certificates confirming a diagnoses of gender dysphoria and proof of a sex change operation.
Last year, Taiwan’s highest administrative branch (the Executive Yuan) funded research on public opinion regarding sex self-ID, conducted via an online questionnaire that was nearly impossible to find, and not promoted to the general public . The researchers leading the project are strongly biased towards a policy requiring only self-declaration of identity, and the organizations behind the research do not seem interested in including public opinion — seeking out participation only from a few select groups within the LGBTQ community.
My original article, published on Feminist Current, is the only one written by someone living in Taiwan addressing what is going on and demonstrating opposition to self-ID legislation. Taiwanese feminists read it, shared it, translated it into Chinese, and posted it across various social media platforms to galvanize others into action. Taiwanese women around the city began a campaign using messaging apps and online platforms to share information, as well as distributing flyers and pamphlets by hand, detailing the case and urging their friends, family, and members of the community to contact their local legislators to complain about the verdict. They continued to wonder why they had been strategically left out of the conversation about self-ID. The women leading this campaign told me that the country’s major parties have failed to support women, and that the current administration “went completely silent” after pledging feminist policies. Taiwanese news outlets are not telling their story or informing the public that there is any downside or opposition to self-ID.
It has only recently come to light that a trans-identified male competed as a woman in Taiwan’s National Intercollegiate Athletic Games in 2018. Many runners and coaches from other schools knew this athlete was male, and representatives of Taiwan’s National Tsinghua University questioned his ability to compete against female athletes in track and field events, but because there were no clear rules for transgender participation in Taiwan, he was able to compete in the female division, destroying the previous record held by a woman. No English language news outlets covered this story, and it was swept under the rug in the Taiwanese media. This information was only recently uncovered by feminists opposing self-ID and added to their growing list of concerns regarding males identifying as women.
I sought out four of the women leading this campaign, and they graciously allowed me to interview them as long as I kept their identities secret and used false names. They fear reprisals, threats to their jobs and family businesses, and attacks on their person, after seeing what vocal feminists in the West have endured who fight against gender ideology.
Ms. Lin is a lawyer, a graduate of National Taiwan University — Taiwan’s top ranked university — and one of those leading the opposition to the new self-ID law. When she first saw the information provided in the online survey, she was shocked:
“The survey was closed recently… The research [funded and directed by the Gender Equality Office of the Executive Yuan] is due next month, in January 2022, which will supposedly lead to a recommendation of a bill. In the intro page of the survey, a set a slides (suspiciously named “Transgender crash-course”) was shown before the actual survey.
The slides, however, were nothing short of extreme bias. They combined trans-identification and intersex (DSD conditions) together as one thing, and described intersex conditions as a person having the genitals of both sexes, which is not accurate at all. Then, the slides went on to state repeatedly that ‘transgender,’ by definition, means that a person’s birth sex is different from his/her gender identity, essentially telling survey takers what to believe. We found plenty of flaws and wrongful citations, and some statements were just lies. The survey was extremely unacceptable, as every question was meant to mislead… it was not about asking opinions.”
Ms. Lin told me that the survey included a question about “self-ID” options in terms of looking at amendments to legislation, asking, “What do you think is better as the requirement of a legal sex change?”
The only options to choose from were:
Maintain the status quo/current law
Certificates of sex change only, but no surgery required
Complete access to Self-ID in law
The survey also included questions like:
“Some people feel like they’re neither male or female — do you think there should be another option?”
I don’t know / No comment
“That’s where the fire started for us. I jumped into an internet argument, and we gathered in a chatroom to discuss. The more we looked into the data, the more I could sense the whole thing wasn’t right. I am a lawyer — I know the law — and when I saw what the government was attempting to do I was extremely anxious and shocked.”
Lin and other women spoke out on the Taiwanese social media platform, Plurk, sparking awareness which led to a growing outcry against self-ID. Lin says, “My friends and I ignite fights online to raise awareness of this issue. We fight to prevent being erased as women.”
Another woman I will refer to as Ms. Chen has been active in the LGB community for years, supports the rights of trans-identified individuals to safety and dignity under the law, but does not support self-ID and feels betrayed by the movement she has always supported:
“I’ve been helping transgender individuals for more than seven years now. For over five years, I’ve contributed to the Women’s March Taiwan, advising on a wide range of feminist [issues], spreading awareness about consent, hosting three Women’s Day marches, live streaming Women’s Day events, and organizing more than a dozen workshops on women’s rights and related issues. During the past few years, self-ID has started to creep into Taiwan quietly as the country slowly but steadily joins many modern Western nations on human rights issues. After same-sex marriage in Taiwan became legal in May 2019, I thought everything would be fine, at least for a while. But suddenly we see the world crumble so fast as self-ID advocates are pushing through their agenda hastily, giving people no time to react. I instantly thought I should come forward and start acting since this is clearly not an advance of human rights or transgender rights. This is a clear breach of human rights and will only do more damage than benefit. As I’ve been a supportive of the transgender community for some time, I believe I also have the responsibility to stop this and lead the trans movement in a better direction.”
To Ms. Chen, a better direction would mean considering women’s safety, rejecting self-ID, and maintaining the previous ruling in Taiwan requiring verification from psychologists and surgery in order to change birth sex.
Ms. Tsai, another activist opposing self-ID, also felt a deep sense of betrayal when she tried to raise awareness about this issue:
“Honorable feminist scholars in Taiwan have publicly supported self-ID, such as Prof. Chen Yi-Chien and Prof. Fan Yun. More and more girls and women are worried about self-ID, so we turned to women’s organizations and politicians for support, but we got nothing but disappointment. It is time for us to call for attention.”
Prior to gender identity legislation being pushed in Taiwan, many women were not familiar with feminism and were hesitant to refer to themselves as feminists. Ms. Liao, who has personally handed out nearly 2000 flyers around New Taipei and Taipei City warning about the harms of self-ID, says:
“I didn’t consider myself to be a feminist before this movement hit. I got interested in self-ID after seeing some posts from one of my friends. I had never even heard of self-ID and had no idea what it was about. After doing some research, I understood how deep the problem went and how it could really impact us.”
Ms. Lin said something similar, explaining:
“I didn’t march in the street for any feminism issues in the past. I did talk about and argue about feminism and gender issues on the internet, but as far as starting a real a movement, this is my first time. I looked up the term, ‘gender critical,’ and decided this is where I stand.”
In October of this year, Chen helped create an online petition to appeal the ruling on self-ID, in an effort to protect women-only spaces. They needed 5,000 signatures from Taiwanese citizens or permanent residents of Taiwan in order for the government to review it and reply to it publicly. The petition is currently at over 5,000 signatures, meeting their goal ahead of the December 2nd deadline. The government will now have to publicly address their concerns.
Chen says this movement is growing, but not quickly enough, as it “clashes with the recent trend of the LGBTQ-inclusive agenda that was forced to be adopted by many mainstream Taiwanese feminists, human rights groups, and the government”:
“The Taiwanese don’t necessarily think that deep into an issue, as [gender gender identity ideology] looks very distant to the average Taiwanese. This creates a problem as it’s harder to gain momentum when we need to spread awareness. Political activism addressing issues that affect people financially, or dealing with things that might cause personal harm, like drugs or guns, tend to gain a larger public response in Taiwan, but because of this verdict, I believe it is possible for the movement against self-ID to grow.”
It’s truly amazing to see what a small (but growing) group of women have achieved under adverse circumstances, and how this reflects the strength of women’s collective energy and determination. I expect more and more women will be empowered by those who are brave enough to speak out against self-ID in Taiwan.
Jaclynn Joseph is a Hawai’i born — now Taiwan based — PhD student and university lecturer.