From Tokyo to Taipei, a growing acceptance for LGBT people

In a region imbued with the Confucian ideals of filial respect and saving face, the toughest battles are within families. 

Chiang Ying-ying/AP
Revelers participate in a gay pride parade in Taipei, Taiwan, Oct. 31, 2015. Thousands took to the streets in support of gay pride in Taiwan last month.

When it come to homosexuality, the Confucian cultures of East Asia can be quite conservative, though they don't share the religious or moral objections of Judeo-Christian-Islamic countries. 

But across a region becoming steadily more urban and cosmopolitan, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT) communities are experiencing a changes in attitudes and a greater legal recognition that echoes the trend in the West towards much greater acceptance of equality. 

Last weekend some 80,000 people from around East Asia converged on Taipei for the Oct. 31 Taiwan Pride parade, the biggest such event in the region. It was followed by a record 10,000 marchers in the Hong Kong Pride Parade. In Japan, that same November evening saw the broadcast of “Transit Girls,” the first TV drama here about a lesbian couple.

To be sure, for many LGBTs in a region imbued with the Confucian ideals of filial respect and saving face, the toughest battles remain within families. Still, the overall shift seems clear across this diverse region, and is partly due to the influence of the West, including the legalization of same-sex marriage in the US and Ireland. Local media portrayed these changes as a progressive trend that the rest of the world will inevitably follow.

Rising acceptance among Korean youth

Earlier this year, two districts of Tokyo announced they would issue same-sex marriage certificates; the first couple had their union recognized in Shibuya on Nov. 5. The certificates are not legally binding, but rather recommending a set of greater rights, such as visitation rights to same-sex partners in hospitals and nondiscriminatory treatment by realtors. 

South Korea is something of an outlier in the region: Conservative evangelicals groups succeeded this summer in halting a gay pride parade in Seoul, even though the rest of the Korean Queer Culture Festival went ahead.

Still, among youth in Korea, 71 percent of those between 18 and 29 said "homosexuality should be accepted," according to a Pew Research Center poll this year. That figure is just ahead of the equivalent among US youth, and fewer than the 83 percent of young Japanese who agreed. 

The absence of overt gay-bashing or other strident opposition in most of East Asia may actually have slowed down the equality battle, some activists say.

"There's no violent discrimination against us here; nobody throwing stones or trying to kill us,” said Yuki, a gay Tokyoite who nevertheless asked to be identified only by his first name. “There's never been a law against gays in Japan."

"A lot of gay men in Japan would rather lead a double life,” Yuki added. “Many Japanese gay men went to Taipei to walk in the parade, but would be afraid to do so here.”

Yuki practices a form of “don't ask, don't tell” in his family. His mother has met his boyfriend numerous times, but he has never discussed his sexuality with her.

Masahiro Kikuchi (not his real name) has come out to his parents. But he has not yet confided to his older sister, whose reaction he worries about because she has two sons. Mr. Kikuchi works at a Japanese finance company, where he says it would be impossible to be openly gay. 

"They showed a video earlier this year at my office to educate staff about gay issues. It told people to be aware there might be someone gay sitting next to you at work,” said Kikuchi. “I was sweating and just hoping nobody was looking at me."

China documentary pulled from website

Societal and familial acceptance is a recurring theme for LGBT people. It's also the subject of "Mama Rainbow," a 2012 documentary by Chinese filmmaker Fan Popo, focused on six mothers learning to love their gay children. The film was taken down from streaming sites in China last year, and Mr. Popo is suing the censors over its removal. 

Attitudes in China are similar to the rest of the region, according to Popo, with no violent discrimination. But many people refuse to believe there are LGBT members in their family.

"But on LGBT issues, we are influenced more by the US than other East Asian countries. When same-sex marriage was legalized [in the US] it was big news in China, a lot of people changed their social media profiles to rainbows," said Popo.

Nevertheless, Popo believes that an anti-discrimination law would be more powerful in China than legalization of same-sex marriage.

Across the sea in Taiwan, Jay Lin decided it was time to come out to his parents last year when he launched the Taiwan International Queer Film Festival. He had already lived for two decades as a gay man. Mr. Lin believes that changes in attitudes are more important than legal reform since without an accompanying change in social views it could bring a backlash. 

"You need to allow people in families, in which it is so important to avoid shame in Chinese-Taiwanese culture, to come to terms with it,” Lin says. “If a lot of people are not out to parents … gay marriage is not going to work," said Lin.  

He added that having begun to think about starting a family, the idea of doing so in Taiwan without the acceptance and involvement of parents and grandparents “is farcical.”

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