Taiwan government asks students to discuss LGBT issues
Chia-Wei Chung and his friends think that another student at their high school might be gay. But even though they're all friends, it's not likely that they'll know for sure anytime soon.
“In Taiwan, if you say, ‘I’m gay,’ or ‘I’m lesbian,’ some people might accept it, depending on their personality,” Chung said in a phone interview with a U.S.-based reporter. “But it’s still hard for the LGBT to tell others ‘I’m gay’ in public.”
A new program in schools in Taipei, Taiwan's capital, could create a new atmosphere, one where it's more comfortable for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students to be more about their sexual orientation.Starting next semester, the curriculum for Taipei students will include basic information about the LGBT community, a topic that until recently has been strictly taboo. Elementary and junior high school students will be asked to discuss how to respond to friends who are LGBT. The new topic will be added to a list of issues, including gender equality, that are already discussed in school.
Taiwan’s 2004 Gender Equity Education Act created guidelines for gender issues to appear in curricula and laid groundwork for LGBT topics in schools, but protesters rallied in March to pressure the Taiwanese parliament to include discussion of LGBT topics in elementary and junior high schools. Shortly after the protest, Taiwanese lawmakers approved a bill to revise school curriculum to include discussion of LGBT issues.
The new program isn't necessarily designed to encourage young people to come out, one education official said, but to equip students with the skills they need to communicate with friends and family members if and when they do announce their sexual orientation.
It's not clear exactly what the program will look like, Chung's mother, Hui-Lin Chiang, said in a phone interview.The 48-year-old elementary school teacher said discussions will fit into the four hours every semester that are already committed to promoting gender equality, but little is known how much time the topic will receive or whether the issue have a presence in textbooks.
Taipei is known as the “San Francisco of Asia,” said Dale Albanese, an American graduate student who is living in Taiwan to study innovative education. Taiwan’s main LGBT pride parade, Taipei Pride, drew 30,000 participants last year. By comparison, Japan’s Tokyo Pride parade ended its three-year hiatus last year and was only expected to have 5,000 marchers.
The march, along with the revised school policy, is a major departure from traditional Taiwanese culture. Until a few years ago, some schools required boys to wear blue uniforms and girls to wear pink uniforms.
“When the school started saying that boys can wear pink and girls can wear blue, that was the first step,” said Amy Lin, of the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline, as support organization for LGBT Taiwanese. “This is the next logical step.”
But the country is still very conservative, Chung said. The Gender Equity Education Act banned discrimination of gays and transgendered students and teachers, but few LGBT teachers express their sexuality.
Much of the stigma surrounding sexuality in schools is due to the Taiwanese culture of education, Albanese said.
“Taiwanese put a lot of importance on face. Teachers need to have the answers or else they lose face," he said. "If teachers have to start telling their students about LGBT and a student asks about sex, they’re going to need an answer, so I could see some teachers avoiding it if they feel uncomfortable."
In an ultra-competitive atmosphere, teachers’ words are given much more credence, Albanese said. Unlike in many Western countries, many Taiwanese students’ lives are consumed by school.
“Where you get picked on for being the nerd in the U.S., (in Taiwan) you could get picked on for not knowing the answer,” he said.
It is that reason, Albanese said, that institutionally recognizing LGBT concepts is more than merely paying lip service to LGBT groups.
Chung, 17, said that he only recently studied LGBT issues in a high school social studies class. His mother said that whatever curriculum change she will see, it will not be very comprehensive because elementary school students often would struggle understanding the complicated social issues surrounding the LGBT community. Discussion about gender equality will likely still dominate that timeslot in class, she added.
Lin said that most of the hotline’s calls come from young adults who have graduated, but she said the hotline has been increasingly receiving calls from teenagers asking for ways to come out to friends and family. The Tongzhi Hotline has also a separate line for parents looking for advice on support.
In Taiwan, where sons are expected to take care of their parents in old age, the LGBT presence worries some older people because it might cause confusion of roles, Chung said.
In spite of this, both Chung and his mother said they support the new initiative and think the people of Taiwan will adjust.
“Programs like that can’t do everything for gays,” Chung said. “But it can make them feel more comfortable, which is a good thing.”