Loud and proud

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 November, 2004, 12:00am

On Saturday, in brilliant sunshine, Taipei witnessed its second Gay Pride march. As pink balloons rose into a sapphire sky, different groups assembled - some dressed as the goddess Guanyin, others in black leather, and yet more in outfits that would have gone unnoticed at the pool side, but were very eye-catching on the street. Eventually, the cavalcade moved off, accompanied by music from DJs who work in many of the city's leading clubs.

It does not take an anthropologist to point out that marching in public to advertise one's sexual preference plays no part in traditional Chinese culture. What is not as widely appreciated, however, is that it does not play a part in any culture. To understand the phenomenon, its history needs to be examined.

Gay pride marches began in the US in response to a particular situation. For decades, gays had been told that their sexual tastes were illegal, sinful and disgraceful. If they were unable to change them, then the least they could do was keep quiet about them. These attitudes were backed by police intimidation, hostility in the workplace and, sometimes, imprisonment.

The situation finally became intolerable in the 1970s, against a backdrop of liberation struggles by a wide variety of other minorities. Some people decided that the most effective way to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy was to do exactly the opposite of what they had been told. So, rather than keep their tastes hidden, they paraded through the streets in as ostentatious and provocative a manner as possible. A natural instinct for theatricality took over from there.

To be left in peace by the dominant majority, in other words, was no longer a sufficient ideal. To force a public change of attitudes, prevailing perceptions had to be not merely resisted, but confronted, head on. Many gays and lesbians, however, were in favour of a low-profile lifestyle. But this, the militants argued, simply invited oppression.

Thus, Taiwan, ever conscious of the US role model, embarked on its first Gay Pride march last year. Was there comparable oppression here, where homosexuality has never been a crime? Perhaps not, but there are strong Confucian attitudes urging sons to father an heir. Even so, no assault on gays has ever been recorded on the island. This year's event had commercial sponsorship and twice as many marchers. No one, perhaps, can predict its effects. But they will have been felt by a wider swathe of the population than those who so bravely marched in the sun on Saturday, and handed out leaflets to a curious and dubious but - as far as it was possible to tell - not unfriendly public.