by Brian Hioe
On August 2nd, the Taiwan Tongzhi (LGBT) Hotline Association held its Taipei Hotline Evening Party, a fundraiser party event which it holds annually. The party also featured a variety of skilled performances, including dance performances, short films, and speeches. In the Taipei event, over 3,500,000 NTD was raised, and another evening party fundraiser was later held on August 9th in Kaohsiung.
Following the Taipei Hotline Evening Party, New Bloom’s Brian Hioe sat down with Jennifer Lu from the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association to discuss the history, current activity, and outlook of the organization. This is the first of a series of interview profiles that New Bloom will be doing with Taiwanese NGOs and civil society organizations, in an effort to present a picture of Taiwanese civil society to an international audience.
Brian Hioe: My first question is what is the history of Tongzhi Hotline? How did you start, and what kind of work do you try to do in the organization?
Jennifer Lu: As you know, a lot of different social movements began in Taiwan during the 1990s because of the political situation. The LGBT movement started in Taiwan in the 1990s during this time as well. During that period in time, LGBT teenagers were committing suicide, things happened, so lots of adults had already grown up tried to build some resources and a friendly environment for younger people. So we, in the Tongzhi Hotline, were founded as the first registered formal LGBT organization in Taiwan.
Four different social groups came together, the Gay Counselors Association, Queer & Class, LGBT Civil Rights Alliance, and the Gay Teachers’ Alliance, to form Tongzhi Hotline. We held our first fundraising event in 1998, 300,000 NTD or so was raised, and we began our first hotline because with phone you can go across locations. For the Taiwan of that time, because there was no Internet, phone was more convenient to connect to people who needed help. It began just one day a week, but as we grew, we added more days. Later, slowly, continuing to pick up the phone over and over, we discovered that only talking to people on the phone did not seem to be enough to help people.
We began slowly doing more, for example, going to protests on the streets, holding press conferences, etc. As many instances of discrimination against LGBT people, such as gay bashing or police harassing LGBT groups meeting in public places, continued to happen, we used different activities to try and get media attention to address these issues. We also began to give speeches in schools, hoping to begin change from the basics.
Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association logo. Photo credit: Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association
Eventually, we began to have many different issues appear, for example, teenagers in schools came to us and more and more mothers and fathers began to call us. Again, it seemed like we wouldn’t be able to help them through telephone so we began to do support groups and one-to-one counseling. We only do that with mothers and fathers, not people who just walk in through the door, because we don’t have enough manpower, and not enough resources. We do that for parents.
Because we’re a very small NGO, and we have limited capacity, we began to put out different publications. Apart from us going out and giving speeches and holding talks ourselves, having books was important because you can have books on hand. So we came out with publication targeting teenagers, parents, older LGBT people, and so we used these methods to put together a movement.
BH: What would the “practical challenges” of running Tongzhi Hotline be on a day-to-day basis? For example, finding donations, maintaining current activities, or looking for volunteers? How do you meet these challenges?
JL: The hardest everyday challenge would probably be…money. [Laughs] Very practical, huh? In Taipei, we have seven people working full time right now and in Kaohsiung one person. Just to have this many people, it requires each person taking on a lot of work. We don’t have enough money, because if we had more money, we’d be able to hire more full-time staff.
For example, when we give talks. No matter who invites us to give a talk wherever, let’s say, in Pingtung, we would do so, but the trip there and back for a one-day event would occupy the entire workload of someone in our organization for an entire day. On the other hand, for an NGO, we need our staff to be very flexible in order to reflect the course of events as they happen, so we need to have free time—if we arranged our schedule so that we were always filled up, we would be unable to respond to sudden events. As a result, much of the time, we have to train volunteers to take on tasks.
Another challenge in maintaining routine affairs in our NGO up to the present is because the government places more and more regulations upon NGOS. They want to firmly control NGOs, as a result of which there are many rules set upon us. For example, fundraising. We need to first write an application explaining what we want to do and after, we need to write a report saying how much we raised, and what we plan on spending this money for. But much of this process often becomes very restrictive.
Likewise, in Taiwanese society, it remains LGBT issues are not as open as in America. Companies or industry organizations, for example, would not donate money to LGBT NGOs because they don’t want to be associated with LGBT issues. LGBT rights has not achieved a positive connotation whereby companies would donate to LGBT NGOs. And LGBT discrimination is persistent, so many people who are concerned with this topic aren’t necessarily able to do so publicly. We can’t be like an American or Canadian NGO which can get corporate donors. As you saw when you came to the Evening Party fundraiser we held, we build up donations from different individuals, each of which donates a little and we accumulate the necessary funds we need. But it’s difficult.
BH: Addressing yourself to other people fighting for LGBT rights across the world, what are the problems specific to Taiwan, would you say?
JL: I think in regards to Taiwan, historically, the problem of the LGBT issue is that it has been ignored and Taiwanese people are not conscious enough of LGBT people within Taiwanese society. Some people think Taiwan isn’t bad, Taiwan doesn’t seem to have hate crime, or large amounts of hate protests, but that’s because they can’t see you, that this problem has been ignored.
But when we participate in social movements, we make the issue clearer and more visible. Right now in our activities, we try to aim for public education, but the biggest problem we encounter is anti-gay power everywhere. In the iteration of the Evening Party fundraiser in Kaohsiung, we had people try to criticize our advertising and activities, saying we consist of anti-social elements, how can people let us go to schools to give talks? Or that we pretend to be a group very supportive of parents but our actual aim is to “seduce” their children and destroy the family.
In America or other western societies, I think, it is very clear to know that this kind of harassment comes from conservative political actors or church groups. But in Taiwan, they won’t say this clearly. They will say they are parents caring about their children, doctors, teachers, experts, and specialists. They present themselves as coming from occupations which are highly respected in Taiwanese society and won’t say that they are Christians or from church groups.
The average person in the middle is unable to come to a clear understanding sometimes. Because it’s presented as though it comes from a doctor or an expert or some sort, these “experts” think they know what they are talking about. Especially in Taiwan, “experts,” and “professionals” such as doctors and teachers are very highly looked upon, so it’s thought that we should just follow their expert advice.
As a result, in schools, people that support us or support kids learning about LGBT issues suffer much social pressure because the school will receive calls complaining about them or they will receive hate mail.
This is what is harder to address, because it is a social issue and an issue of social pressure.
BH: Going off of that, it strikes me as that in Taiwan and Asia more broadly, the LGBT movement is much later established and in some way much less firmly established. For example, I’m from New York City, Stonewall is so close, you have this history, the notion of “pride” has been around forever and the notion of “coming out” is celebrated.
JL: “Pride,” this kind of concept, in Taiwanese society is very different from western society. For example, in America, “coming out” to be proud of who you are is a very firmly established as a concept. But in places in Asia, particularly amongst ethnic Chinese, it’s difficult.
Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association workers at Taiwan Pride 2005. Public Domain. Photo credit: Atinncnu
These kind of strategies don’t always work within this culture because of its traditionalism. When we ourselves go out and give public speeches or hold talks, we use the strategy of “coming out”; coming out with your story, etc., etc. That’s very good. But because Taiwan is a very small place and your family, friends, and acquaintances are always by your side, it’s not like in America or even in China—I know a lot of Chinese—they go back home only once a year. So they can “come out” in the city they live in, that’s all right, but it’s very far from mother and father. This is more difficult in Taiwan, it’s too small, and you tend to be very close to your original family. It requires more subtlety in Asian contexts.
BH: What do you think Tongzhi Hotline’s role is in addressing this issue?
JL: I think because Tongzhi Hotline is the first LGBT NGO registered in Taiwan, that this country could finally achieve the establishment of such an NGO through official channels is very important.
We still get kicked around from government agency to government agency in which different bureaucracies don’t claim that we are their responsibility or its not very clear who exactly we are in the government has jurisdiction over an NGO like ours. But I think from the public looking at Tongzhi Hotline, that we can used funding from the government, we have a “official” means to negotiate certain things with the government.
From last year and the year before last, there has slowly been more LGBT NGOs being founded, but we can count ourselves as a “pioneer” in some respect, because we’ve been working at it longer. If other people want to do things now, we feel like we’ve accomplished something. The more types of these organizations that appear, the more LGBT people are visible in everyday life, so it become clear that LGBT people have their individual ways of living and are many different types of people.
The other thing I want to mention is that we just don’t only limit ourselves to the LGBT movement or LGBT issues. There are many social issues which are connected that we also try to address. From the perspective of society, there’s an umbrella and underneath there are many different social movements, we also consider it very important working together with other social movements and letting people from different social movements get to know LGBT people. Some people, though they might address the issue from a human rights perspective or be supportive of LGBT rights in the abstract, don’t know the actual details, and don’t know LGBT people.
This is very important work for us. We try to let other people know that LGBT people aren’t only concerned with sex rights or gender issues, we also concern ourselves with the environment, politics, and other issues. Because we are citizens of the same society and all these issues are connected.
BH: Are there any particular organizations you work with?
JL: We are particularly close with gender education organizations but in Taiwan, there are also anti-nuclear groups we work with—we have participated in the anti-nuclear movement for many years. In the Sunflower Movement, there were many participants who were volunteers we had trained. As our volunteers go to speeches or protest, it trains their ability to consider issues, their abilities to take action, and discuss issues with people. In the broader Taiwan democracy movement, there is the sense that LGBT issues can only be addressed in a democracy, so it’s a natural connection that these issues are also important to address.
BH: Lastly, what would success mean for Tongzhi Hotline?
JL: I think if one day we don’t have people calling us at Tongzhi Hotline, and that one day we don’t have to repeatedly and repeatedly tell our stories, that would be success. But that might be very difficult to achieve.
Apart from LGBT issues, for example, issues of inequality are pervasive in Taiwanese society and also issues of democracy. If one day, sexual and gender equality is achieved and there’s no longer a need for an LGBT movement there might still be other issues to address. Like the issues of housing eviction and gentrification which have been prominent in recent years, I think this must be changed. So I think LGBT people in the LGBT movement need to participate in other movements as well, otherwise we have no way to continue. Maybe it’s like playing an RPG! Maybe the “gender” and “sexuality” quest will be achieved, but there would still be other issues to address.