Discovering Taiwan as a LGBT Foreigner

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When I came abroad to Taiwan last summer to take a teaching gig in Taipei, there were a lot of lingering uncertainties in my mind about what my experience as a genderfluid transgender person was going to be like here: Will I be able to find community again and make LGBT friends? What was my access to healthcare going to look like? How were the staff and students at my job going to receive me? More than 10 months in, and I am happy to report that Taiwanese people, on the whole, have been pretty chill and laid back about it; those few who do end up being a little less than welcoming tend to dismiss my “queerness” as merely boilerplate “foreigner” weirdness. For me, that has also been the most interesting part of living abroad while queer too. Being “different” or “strange” is already baked into every interaction I have with Taiwanese people here, just on account of my nationality alone (United States). It can even be oddly comforting sometimes, when you are accustomed to the more targeted forms of social ostracization that come from being queer back home.
Similar experiences of life in Taiwan as a queer foreigner have also been echoed to me by friends too. One friend had told me that they were hanging out with a drag queen, Taipei Popcorn in her full regalia, before a show. While walking down the street, they noticed that one elderly passerby shook his head in defeat and sighed “外國人” like it was just any other form of foreigner antics. Taiwanese people may not always understand what they see, but at least they tend to mind their own business and let queer people exist as themselves in relative peace.
Where I have connected with LGBT community members the most in Taipei has been at the drag shows. So far I have attended several different varieties of drag performances, with themes like holidays, the seven deadly sins, watch parties, etc… But the best drag show I’ve been to has got to be the RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 16 finale viewing party hosted by Cafe Dalida. Not only did Taiwanese contestant Nymphia Wind’s entire drag family “Haus of Wind” perform there, but their drag matriarch also won the competition! There was a plethora of stand out performers that captivated the crowd including the drag veteran Bouncy Babs’ heartfelt lip syncing of strong feminine power ballads, as well as Haus of Wind member Tseng Chih Wei’s rendition of traditional Chinese opera with silk sleeve gown and intricate headdress. The show also headlined a stunning musical duo composed of Craig Daniels & Francis Bowers in vivid sequin jackets who suavely sang to Lizzo’s “About Damn Time” and “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross.
Taiwan still does have some room for improvement for its LGBT community like anywhere else. Taiwanese transgender people still cannot change the gender marker on their documentation without first undergoing expensive surgery that is still not covered under Taiwan’s National Health Insurance. A struggle that I have encountered personally with the healthcare issue is that Taiwanese pharmacies do not offer the type of injectable hormone medication I currently take. I had to ask my US doctor to write me a costly 2 year long prescription to stock up with before coming abroad, and it took up about a third of my suitcase space.
My current workplace has been a good litmus test for evaluating societal attitudes towards gender norms. My students are elementary age children, and have less of a social filter than perhaps Taiwanese adults do. Some of them have voiced their thoughts on my gender presentation in both English and Chinese. “Ms. Madison, are you a boy or a girl?” one second grade girl asked me at the beginning of the school year. Another student, a third grade boy, not so politely asked the same question in Chinese: “妳是一個男的還是女的啦?” Considering I show up to class on some days wearing makeup and a dress, and other days like a butch tomboy in a Hawaiian Dad shirt, baggy shorts, and Converse, I can sympathize with their curiosity/confusion; however, not all of them have been so befuddled. A group of six grade girls recently said about me while passing by “很漂亮! 西方美女一定不一樣” meaning “You’re pretty, Western women are definitely not the same” (I’m assuming compared to Taiwanese women/beauty standards) I was glad they felt accepting of people’s differences.
To finalize my thoughts on the matter, I will share an anecdote from when I was first scouting out potential workplaces last autumn. I was at a small school in Yangmingshan, and the academic director and I went for a walk through their village to the local temple. She told me an interesting story about the deity Mazu 媽祖, and how that within Taiwanese folklore the god’s gender presentation changes depending on the depiction. She had a very profound perspective on the matter saying: “With the gods, it doesn’t matter whether they are a man or a woman. Those are earthly concerns that do not affect them. They represent the embodiment of both aspects of humanity [masculine and feminine]”. And after knowing that was the background of Taiwan’s most chief deity, which millions of people worship and revere, I have felt very welcomed and comforted by Taiwanese culture ever since.

Madison Jones (they/she) is an American freelance writer and English teacher based in Taipei, Taiwan; they have written several other articles in Seattle Gay News and Taipei Magazine about life in Taiwan. For business inquiries or finding other published works, please contact her on LinkedIn:

[Haus of Wind Drag Artist Tseng Chih Wei –] [Singing Duet Craig Daniels and Francis Bowers: Instagram handles – @craig0212 & @francisbowers05] [Seven Deadly Sins drag show at Barcade Taiwan – Mach 2024]

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