Being transgender is tough, but being transgender in Taiwan, where I am, is even harder. Taiwan has a culture which gives little room for self-expression or even self-respect, and allows even less to transgender people.

Taiwan is not really Chinese, though it does share a lot of the cultural mores of China. Some of these include a very strong sense of the division between male and female, and a very different type of moral system than we usually see in the West.

In the US, a person is worth something regardless of their relationship to you. Even if you don't know someone, you owe them respect as a person. Of course, people don't always accomplish this, but this is the ideal. In Taiwan, though, the ideal is quite different. In Taiwan, the degree of respect you owe to a person is almost entirely dependent upon the person's relationship to you. If they're your grandfather, you owe them more respect than just about anyone else. If they're a friend, you owe them an entirely different kind of respect, and a different amount. If they're someone you don't know, you don't owe them respect at all, at least not necessarily.

I'm always amused by government ads in Taiwan which try to promote such things as traffic laws or obeying building codes. They often try to show people that doing so will benefit others, and they're always at pains to demonstrate that doing so will benefit our own selves. However, the proof always seems strained, and I get the feeling that they are struggling uphill. Taiwanese people in general do not feel a need to take strangers into consideration, so much so that I sometimes wonder if they understand other people as people at all.

Another example which comes to mind is the simple example of walking on the sidewalk. Due to the vast amounts of motorscooters, streetside vendors and poorly constructed buildings, the sidewalks are severely limited in size -- often only a foot or two wide, even on major streets. To make matters worse, Taiwanese people walking on the sidewalk simply do not take other pedestrians into mind while walking. They meander, hold bags across the entire sidewalk, hold hands and walk abreast with their four-person family even when the sidewalk is narrow, etc. etc. This kind of behavior in New York, for example, would result in either being forced out of the way or a fight or something else. However, Taiwanese people take this as normal, which it is in their culture, and accept it.

In the West, training oneself not to care about others is a pragmatic necessity, but it is not an ideal in any way, at least not in my experience. If you say, "Group X is the object of violence, but they always will be because they are inherently weird and different from the rest of us," people will label you Machiavellian. This kind of thinking goes on all the time, of course, and is necessary in a world with limited resources and limited time to think about others. However, this kind of thinking is not idealized in the West.

In Taiwan, though, this kind of thinking is the cultural norm. To put someone off to the side of one's thinking because they are not closely related -- in order to pay more attention to the closest relations in one's life -- is the Confucian ideal. Though many Taiwanese people would say that Confucius was a humorless blowhard, they are in fact laboring under his systems and even supporting them.

One of the best examples of how people are pushed off to the side is transgender folks. There is a common myth in the West that Asia is a land of mystery where transgendered people are accepted far more than they are in the West. Many people in the US, for example, seem to imagine some sort of enlightened Shangri-La where transgendered people are seen through enlightened eyes. This is far, far from the truth, though.

Transgender people in Taiwan are accepted in one small way: when they keep to their socially-prescribed niche, and do not try to break out of it in any way -- in other words, when they allow themselves to be the objects of disrespect from the culture at large. They are allowed to be club performers or hostesses, but if they try to gain true acceptance or equality, the culture at large quickly labels them freaks and walks away.

Of course, this is not purely a problem experienced by Taiwanese people. Handicapped people, non-Chinese citizens (did you even know there are aborigines in Taiwan?), gay and lesbian folks, women -- there are so many groups in Taiwan who are so far from any kind of equality.

But the kind of oppression experienced by transgender people in specific is so strong, so massive, it's hard to even express it. In Taiwan, it is of course completely legal to fire someone for such things as being transgender or being gay. Even protecting the rights of pregnant women is still far away. Naturally enough, the consciousness of the society at large is far from focused on the harms visited upon TG folks.

I have several friends here in Taiwan who work as karaoke hostesses. Unfortunately, I don't have space here to share all the problems of their profession, but suffice to say, it's not pleasant. It means drinking a lot and singing with tone-deaf, lusty, drunk customers and then having to ask them for tips (this kind of job typically has no base salary).

Plus, of course, the culture at large loves to laugh at such people. There is a Taiwanese newspaper which I now won't buy because of their vast arrogance and disrespect towards TG people. Once, in order to find a story on what I suppose was a slow day, one of their reporters asked the police to go into a TG karaoke bar and do a bust. The police were only too happy to oblige, and L. was out of a job for two weeks. And of course the portrayal in the newspapers, on TV and elsewhere is virtually never of the sympathetic sort, but of the "look at the freaks!" sort. To be fair, there have been a few portrayals which managed to pity the poor TG's rather than just laughing at them, but these have been in the vast minority. Actual gentle, considerate portrayals have been completely nonexistent.

The work of karaoke hostesses is basically one step away from street prostitution, but they do it because they have little choice. Maybe your reaction is "Get a job!" Well, they can't. I have one particular friend whose situation illustrates the problems facing such hostesses. Her ID says she's male, and there is no way to change it until after surgery. In fact, you can't change your ID in Taiwan unless your parents agree. If I'm not mistaken, both parents need to agree. How many of the people reading this could have gotten the agreement of their parents? And my friend doesn't even know her father.

She has known she's TS for a long time, but in Taiwan, there is almost no 'infrastructure' for TG people -- very few surgeons, endocrinologists or even psychologists. Getting hormones usually means doing it illegally, unless you happen to be lucky enough to live near a major medical center. Those doctors who are willing to help are not aware of the Standards of Care. I once asked a doctor here for advice on how to find an endo, but he told me to just go ahead and take birth control pills myself -- and this guy is supposedly the leading SRS surgeon in Taiwan! Getting surgery, assuming someone gets that far, usually means going to Japan or Thailand. I know the medical establishment in the West is far from perfect, but at least there is one.

Thus, my friend can't change her ID, which means either working as a man (repugnant to her as I'm sure it would be to many people reading this, especially when so far into the process as a whole), or working in a job like the one she has. She also doesn't have much education (high school), and her options are severely limited. So she's just slowly saving up her money, hoping for the day when she can get her surgery and possibly find a job doing something as a normal woman. But even then, she may not have enough job skills to do anything else besides the stereotypical TG jobs: drag queen, karaoke hostess, prostitute.

In Taiwan, these are about all a TS person can hope for. Society puts so many obstacles in their way that they must resign themself to either working a terrible job which the culture denigrates or not working at all.

This is something I really have to emphasize. In the US, for example, I think most employers, even when conservative, will admit that they care more about how productive their employees are than what their gender identities are. This is at least in part because Western people tend to consider other people as humans deserving of respect regardless of relationship, or at a minimum realize that we should do so even if we don't. But don't forget, in Taiwan, Kant never caught on. Taiwanese people feel completely acceptable when disapproving of people they don't know. Someone as far from the center of one's relationships as a transgender person is not deserving even of consideration as a human being.

Another example of the disdain which Taiwanese culture seems to have for transgender people follows. The standard term used in regard to transgender people from Thailand is renyao, which translates directly as "human monster." This is used without irony, without self-examination. I have asked many people here why this word is generally used only for people from Thailand. None have been able to give any explanation which didn't seem dripping with either self-denial or ignorance. In fact, once I've pointed it out to some younger folks, they've acknowledged how negative it is, but that they just never thought about it. Again, Taiwanese people are not trained to take others' existences into consideration.

Perhaps the most disheartening thing about being transgender in Taiwan is that Taiwan has almost no cultural notion of "fighting for one's rights." To fight means to lose face, which is to say the respect of others. Strangely, people here don't really care about people who are unrelated to them, but they do care that they present a good image to others. Having face means looking respectable -- calm, cool, collected -- even when you're facing a situation which would get a Westerner screaming in anger, frustration or sadness. Taiwanese men will almost never fight with others, because doing so means a loss of face. However, if you ever do get into a fight with a Taiwanese man, be careful; once he's decided to take off the gloves, he has decided that the only way he can restore himself in others' eyes is to win, and to win viciously.

More importantly, though, to struggle means to upset the social balance. The notion of revolution is pretty foreign to Taiwan, though it has had many of them in its past. People just tend to think that fighting for something is childish, and yelling gets us nowhere.

This dislike of struggle has nice results, of course. For example, in the US, our love of struggling for our rights has meant the rise of litigation, which has in turn meant that doctors get sued far more often than in other countries, which has resulted in high malpractice insurance for doctors and higher prices for medicine. In Taiwan, on the other hand, medicine is cheap. Also, there's national insurance which, while it does not cover anything like electrolysis or surgery, can be manipulated to cover things like hormones (this just requires proximity to a doctor who's willing to do so, of course).

However, if you are a transgendered person here, the fact that struggling equals a loss of face means that your chances of achieving higher respect (in the eyes of people and in the eyes of the law) are virtually zero. An organization such as Transexual Menace is, in my opinion, utterly alien to a place like Taiwan. Even more indirect organizations have never gotten off the ground. In all of Taiwan, I only know of a few webpages and support groups (all attached to psychologists). There are, as far as my limited experience would lead me to understand, no actual self-organized transgender organizations in Taiwan, whether for social or political purposes. Personally, I think the only hopes for the significant advance of human rights in Taiwan are either Buddhism or the eventual death of the largely-conservative older generation.

I don't mean to say that Taiwan is an utter hell for transgender people. It isn't. As I already said, medicine is cheap (assuming you can get a doctor who's willing to give you a semi-legal prescription). And there is less tendency to go directly to violence when someone feels a need to disapprove of a transgender person. There are definite roles which transgender people are allowed to fill, if they're willing to put up with the low status which attends those roles. And I suppose it's probably easier for a Taiwanese transgender person to pass, as the differences between men and women here tend to be less pronounced than they are among (for example) Caucasians.

I also hope that no one reading this will therefore resign Taiwan to the trash heap. I think, while Taiwanese people are often guilty of failing to consider others in their own country, many Westerners are guilty of not taking people in other countries into consideration. How many supposedly "international" organizations have I seen which are in fact only limited to Canada and the US, or at most only English-speaking countries?

Please, don't forget to take other countries into consideration. If you're reading this, you probably live in a culture which views your trangendered status as a bad thing, but at least you have the vast advantage of living in one of the richest countries in the world. Taiwan is a terrible place to be transgender, but of course there is no place where it's easy, and there is no place which doesn't deserve our care and respect.

This page ( designed and ©2000 by Rachel Kronick. All rights reserved by author. Last significantly updated November 24, 2000.