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  • Writer's pictureNatalie Tai

LGBTQ+ INCLUSIVITY IN TAIWAN'S GENDER EQUITY EDUCATION

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

How Taiwan's education system has helped shape the country's LGBTQ+ movement.

Picture: Jolin Tsai’s Official Channel (YouTube)

 

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A few months ago, my mother came home with a pamphlet she had gotten from the public school around the corner. It was titled Understanding Same-Sex Families (認識同志家庭), a government-issued guide introducing Taiwan’s local LGBTQ+ community and the country’s current legislature on same-sex marriages and parenting. Encouraging LGBTQ+ inclusivity and acceptance in the public service sector, what caught my attention about the pamphlet was its focus on the country's educational institutions. It shared ways for teachers to make classrooms safer and more inclusive to LGBTQ+ students and parents, referencing anecdotes from parents of LGBTQ+ children and academic sources on social science and gender studies.


This was not my first time seeing pamphlets like this one, aimed at promoting LGBTQ+ equality on school campuses. As a student myself, I’ve been able to spot a few around the guidance counselor's office at school too. But growing up in Taiwan’s LGBTQ+ affirming school environment as a Singaporean expatriate, being able to see for myself the steps Taiwan has taken to protect its LGBTQ+ students still puts me in an odd place of deep reflection, of gratitude, and of further yearning every time I come across resources like this. Taiwan’s road to establishing campus resources for the LGBTQ+ community wasn’t an easy one. This pamphlet alone tells the history of a decades-long fight against campus violence, gender discrimination, and homophobia during the early 2000s. It echoes the tragic death of 15-year-old Yeh Yung-chih back in 2000, and serves as a reminder of the bravery and solidarity that culminated in the passage of the 2004 Gender Equity Education Act, one of the first pieces of legislatures to actively promote a queer-inclusive education curriculum in Taiwan.


This pride month, let us look at the history behind Taiwan's Gender Equity Education, a major milestone in the country's LGBTQ+ education movement and a catalyst reshaping conversations around LGBTQ+ rights in Taiwan.


Yeh Yung-Chih Incident of April 2000

Picture: Pan Shao-tang, Taipei Times


On April 20th, 2000, the death of 15-year-old Yeh Yung Chih had become another statistic added to the rising cases of gender-based violence that was taking over Taiwan's school campuses throughout the early 2000s. However, the Yeh Yung Chih Incident had hit the tipping point of the country’s decades-long push for gender equity curriculum and anti-discrimination laws in Taiwan’s educational institutions, setting forth a new era of gender-equity activism across the country. Yeh's death stands as a grim reminder of the young lives we've lost to our ignorance against protecting gender non-binary, non-conforming, and LGBTQ+ students in our education system. Now more than 20 years after his tragic death, Taiwan’s LGBTQ+ education movement continues to echo the name of Yeh Yung Chih, now in memory as “the Rose Boy”.


Yeh’s story begins in 1985 Pingtung County where he would grow up with his mother, Chen Chun-Ju, on the local family farm. Described by his mother to be a thoughtful young boy with a preference for feminine things, Yeh was well-loved by his neighborhood but soon became the target of bullies into his schooling years. Throughout elementary to junior high school, Yeh would suffer from the constant torment of his classmates, getting beaten and mocked with slurs like “sissy”, and would often have his pants forcibly pulled down as people tried to “check his gender”. Falling, too, under the judgment of teachers (who stood by as the bullying happened), Yeh’s mother even recalls the boy's third-grade teacher suggesting Chen bring her son to the child psychologist to check on his gender non-conformance. In spite of the complaints filed by Yeh’s mother in protest of the school’s negligence to intervene in her son’s ongoing bullying and sexual harassment, things never took a turn for the better, leaving the young boy mortified and defenseless on his own.

“I have to tell you that your son is very normal. If anyone thinks he is weird, they are the one who is abnormal.” — Yeh’s mother Chen Chun-Ju recalls her son’s visit to the psychiatrist.


Yeh began the routine of only using bathrooms during the near-end of class periods as it was the only way he felt safe from his bullies. On the morning of April 21st, 2000, Yeh’s trip to the bathroom was met with a fatal end.


Found shortly after his trip laying in a pool of blood on the bathroom floor (which the school cleaned up before the police had arrived), investigations proceeded to find the cause of his seemingly sudden death. An autopsy later declared his cause of death to be a cardiac arrest, clearing the school’s administration of all charges as trials proceeded, but Yeh’s mother knew her son’s death was more than just an incidental event.


As the news made headlines across the country, debates surrounding Yeh’s death began to surface in the media. Some argued that his death was completely unpreventable, and that nobody was at fault at the scene, but others began to raise questions regarding the circumstances of the situation.


If using the bathroom during class time alone was the way this child could feel safe from a matter as serious as sexual harassment, a matter that the school failed to protect him from, is nobody to blame for what happened? And even if his death were unpredictable, even if his death were unpreventable, and even in a scenario where he does not die that day, is nobody at fault for the existing dangers of the circumstances he was forced to accept?


Yeh’s incident wasn’t just a standalone example of an “unpredicted death”. The boy’s suffering had begun years before his cardiac arrest, and his story stands as one of the countless incidents of gender-based bullying and discrimination, suffered by gender non-conforming and non-binary students across the nation.


With the controversial round of court decisions clearing the school of all charges, the Taiwanese public began voicing opposition against the court decision. The LGBTQ+ community and gender equity advocates joined in to protest the injustices suffered by Yeh and his family, from the very beginnings of his bullying to the court decision. The case was finally overturned in 2006, charging three of the school administrators with negligent homicide.


Taiwan’s Fight for Gender Equity Education


Shortly after Yeh’s death, Taiwan’s Ministry of Education passed the Gender Equity Education Act “to promote substantive gender equality, eliminate gender discrimination, uphold human dignity, and improve and establish education resources and environment of gender equality”. Partially adopting the outlines for the ongoing drafting of an "equality of the two sexes" (兩性平等) curriculum during the Taiwanese feminist movement of the 1980s, the Gender Equity Education Act continues to place a heavy emphasis on sexual boundaries, consent, and sexual harassment prevention.


Additionally, Taiwan established the themes of “gender diversity” (多元性別, translating to "multiple genders") and “campus safety” as the framework for the Gender Equity Education curriculum. In efforts to represent a more holistic understanding of gender as a non-binary spectrum, the Ministry of Education likewise renamed the “Gender Equality Education Association” (兩性平等教育委員會, which roughly translates to “Education Association for the Equality of the Two Sexes”) to the “Gender Equity Education Association” (性別平等教育委員會, translating to its given English name).


So what is Gender Equity Education?


At the time of the Act’s passage in 2001, gender equity education mandated schools to teach the topics of sexual harassment, campus bullying, and gender diversity in an effort to shift the climate of education away from gender roles and towards a more inclusive and safer environment for gender-nonconforming students. In 2004, provisions of the Gender Equity Education Act pushed forward a further emphasis on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression in the Gender Equity Education curriculum.

Grade 8 General Activities textbook (Han Lin Publishing Co.) introducing biological sex, gender identity, and gender expression [left]; transgenderism, same-sex attraction, and gender nonconformance [right].

Picture Source: Fang Jun-Chuh (方君竹)


More than two decades after Gender Equity Education was implemented in the country’s education system, public school textbooks from elementary to high schools have begun touching on themes such as LGBTQ+ identities, gender diversity, and sexual harassment. In memory of the young boy who catalyzed the passing of Taiwan’s Gender Equity Education Act, the Yeh Yung-chih Incident had also been integrated into textbooks as an introduction to the curriculum. Taiwanese elementary to high school textbooks today teach the concept of biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation as independent spectrums, a modern scientific approach to gender studies still contested today.


Encouraging compassion and inclusivity toward LGBTQ+ identities, textbooks also introduce Taiwan’s LGBTQ+ history and document modern examples of successful gender non-conforming figures including Taiwanese fashion designer Wu Ji-Gang (known for designing First Lady Michelle Obama’s 2009 inaugural gown). Throughout the 12-year education curriculum, students are reminded that sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression doesn’t dictate or hinder their ability to live a full, happy life.


The White Rose Movement



孩子們,你們要勇敢,天地創造你們這樣的一個人,一定有一道曙光,讓你們去爭取人權。要做自己,不要怕。

Children, you have to be brave. When God created you, he created, too, a ray of light, for you to fight for your rights. You must be yourself, don't be scared.


Following his death, Yeh’s mother became a prominent figure in Taiwan’s LGBTQ+ movement, frequently making appearances at pride events, parades, and seminars as an advocate for gender equity and protection against gender-based discrimination.


The White Rose Movement first sprung up with Taiwan’s annual LGBT Pride Parade. In memory of the Rose Boy, the white rose has become a bittersweet symbol of bravery and pride in the face of oppression and injustice.


Gender Equity Education Today


With the rise of legal protections for LGBTQ+ individuals and LGBTQ+ education in schools, it would be logical to assume that the culture of gender-based bullying has come to a slowdown, but that remains far from the truth.


Taiwanese YouTube influencer Mitchell Zhong (鍾明軒), 22, has shared his experiences with bullying as a gender nonconforming youth in Taiwan. President Tsai Ing-Wen and Taiwan’s Head of the Ministry of Education Pan Wen-chung (潘文忠) have both met with Zhong to learn about his experiences with gender-based bullying and discuss Taiwan’s campus safety for students out of the gender norm. With his experiences echoing what 15-year-old Yeh Yung-chih had experienced more than 20 years ago, Zhong’s story is a reflection of the deep-rooted gender stereotypes we live in, and the long road ahead we still must fight for.


The Loopholes


Having studied in the Taiwanese education system most of my life (in public elementary education and experimental private education), Gender Equity Education has stood as a large part of my mandatory curriculum in my education career. Despite that, I find it hard to recall ever learning about gender diversity and LGBTQ+ identities throughout my time in Taiwan. After talking to some friends and doing some research, I’ve found that my experiences might not just be an anomaly.


One theory to explain my experiences would be that schools cherry-pick topics within the criteria of the Gender Equity Education Act to teach. Since the act outlines a list of topics schools should cover in their curriculum (sexual harassment, bullying, gender stereotypes, sexuality, etc.), schools could place a heavier focus on less controversial topics like campus bullying or sexual harassment while only brushing over LGBTQ+ topics in avoidance of conservative backlash. I say this because I do remember having life education classes in my public elementary school, learning mostly about puberty, sexual boundaries, and the equality of the sexes. Into middle and high school, the heavy emphasis on sexual harassment also makes me question if there is an intentional disproportion in topics covered in school. In both my experiences, gender diversity is something that I have no recollection of learning about. In fact, the constant usage of binary gender nouns (e.g. “girls and boys are equal”) in lessons almost made it seem like they were trying to strengthen the norm of the gender binary.

Picture Source: Wang Jin-Zhong (王顥中)


A second theory would be that individual teachers are pressured to skip content that may spark backlash from conservative parents. In recent years, the increasing implementation of LGBTQ+ material in public school textbooks has led to widespread criticisms from parent organizations, many of which argue that teaching children about gender diversity will lead to “gender confusion”, while others claim that introducing LGBTQ+ identities pressures children to identify themselves as something they are not (or more accurately, something parents refuse to accept their child to be). Additionally, there are parents who reject the idea of the non-binary gender framework, and many others who warp the truth of LGBTQ+ education as sexually explicit in nature and inappropriate for schooling children. This wave of backlash and opposition could be a key factor in causing an unspoken fear among teachers to prevent false accusations and criticisms from the polarized opinions of parents.


Regardless of what the truth turns out the be, the fight against conservative pressure and political opposition remain a reality that has set an undertone for Taiwan’s push for greater LGBTQ+ education. With still a significant sector of the population favoring the traditional ideas of binary gender roles and gender norms, the vision to expand the basis of Gender Equity Education from a middle ground of anti-bullying campaigns to the topic of gender diversity remains a work in progress.


Picture Source: The News Lens


Despite the ongoing controversy and opposition against the country’s provisions on gender equity education, what Taiwan has been able to accomplish in its fight for greater inclusivity and representation for its gender nonconforming and non-binary students over the last 20 years is beyond incredible. From the passage of the Gender Equity Education Act following the Yeh Yung-Chih Incident, to the shift towards greater emphasis on LGBTQ+ themed content in the years following, Taiwan has earned itself a reputation at the forefront of LGBTQ+ rights and progressive education in schools.


In its determination to put justice before tradition, Taiwan has demonstrated the power of solidarity for justice and the power of government resilience in the face of a changing world. The indignation and perseverance Taiwan has demonstrated in fostering mutual respect and compassion through education remain the catalyst for the fight against what’s left of gender discrimination and inequity in Taiwan. Owing to the unsung heroes who spoke out against the injustice of Yeh’s incident in 2001, and to all the Rose Boys out there, braving the unfounded hostility of society just to be themselves, Taiwan’s progress in freedom, compassion, and justice continues to stand as a token for LGBTQ+ progressiveness and inclusivity today.


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