Heralded as one of the most progressive East Asian countries, Taiwan not only recognized same-sex marriage by legalizing it on May 24, 2019, but it has also been actively involved in challenging heteronormative discourses since the 1990s. With regard to gay rights, protection laws have been established to prevent workplace harassment; LGBTQ+ members can openly serve in the military, and textbooks have been shown to promote acceptance and tolerance for the community. In many ways, Taiwan has become a beacon of hope for those living in sexually repressed places like Aceh, Indonesia, where homosexuality is a crime worthy of 100 lashes. Despite these milestones, Taiwan still has ways to go; while it may have been taken great steps in terms of protecting non-conformist sexual orientations, it still has much work to do with non-binary gender identities. Taiwanese individuals who identify as trans or intersex are required to undergo sex reassignment surgery to change their legal gender on official documents, and are often the targets of sex-based discrimination.
In a similar vein, Taiwanese Indigenous peoples, who make up two percent of the entire population and are composed of sixteen legally recognized groups, are also no strangers to injustice and prejudice. The country has made what can be considered great strides towards equality through like the New Partnership Between the Indigenous Peoples and the Government of Taiwan document signed in 1999 and reaffirmed in 2002. However, tribes continue to be neglected, as exemplified by their recent demand for designation of traditional lands during the Indigenous Ketagalan Boulevard protest in February 2017. A survey conducted in 2016 also indicated that more Indigenous members are relocating from their traditional communities into the city, driven by low income opportunities in rural lands and the lack of government investment into these communities. Further statistics show that such financial conditions result in negative health-related and educational consequences.
Ironically, what ties these two subjects together is also what sets these topics apart: discrimination and inequality towards marginalized communities. We must remember, though, that the struggle for visibility and representation remains wholly intersectional, and never mutually exclusive. Yet, the battle for Indigenous rights remains, for the most part, separate from LGBTQ+ rights, even if the latter takes gender identity within Indigenous communities into account. Specifically speaking, resurgence theory—the current dominant political philosophy that argues that Indigenous peoples need to form their own independent programs to reclaim, restore, and revitalize their communities—tends to focus more on the rejection of the settler-colonized dichotomy. In other words, resurgence theory aims first and foremost on reconciling issues of representation, land claims, self-governance, and self-autonomy, just to name a few, all of which were taken from Indigenous peoples throughout the colonization process.
Unfortunately, what the settler-colonized dichotomy does not fully consider are the subtleties that exist within Indigenous culture such as Two-spirit that not only rejects in and of itself the imposed Western male-female binary, but that has existed in many generations before today. While recognized as tolerant overall, Taiwanese society has been deeply influenced by Christianity-driven Western ideology, developing the narrow understanding of “natural” and “abnormal” to distinguish between hetero and others. This oppressive perspective manifested beyond the capital city center and into tribes after they began adopting Christianity, thus further marginalizing LGBTQ+ Indigenous individuals.
It is not to say, though, that non-binary Indigenous peoples are not actively involved in the fight for Indigenous rights, but rather that, in those instances, gender identity is not a primary topic addressed. As such, while perhaps not in direct response to the lack of this intersectional platform, I would argue that the Miss First Nation Taiwan, the very first drag show in the country, launched in 2018 as part of the Pulima Art Festival’s programs, was an effort to reconcile the disparity. Done in partnership with Yirramboi, an Australian Indigenous contemporary arts and culture biennial founded by Jacob Boehme. In 2017, Miss First Nation Taiwan encouraged cross-cultural collaboration, including artistic exchanges and direct participation in artistic projects such as performances, exhibitions, and workshops, allowing not only for visibility, but the possibility for new ideas in public programming.
In realizing this event, the festival and the concurrent art award created a space of plurality where communities bound by the very same principle of discrimination could meet, engage, and create, not only by ultimately refusing to participate in the existing settler-colonized discourse, but by reappropriating the long-standing infrastructure and traditions of Western art institutions for themselves as well. And though some might perceive the festival as populist due to its scale, the art award, for example, held at the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei (MoCA TW), invests itself in widening the current art discourse through a queer lens (discussed further on).
In fact, I would further challenge that Pulima does not attempt to propose a paternalistic representation of Indigenous peoples, their art, or their culture, as in order to do so, they would have had to portray this community as in need of help from the outside. As Pulima was created by the Indigenous Peoples Cultural Foundation (IPCF) to celebrate, and not victimize, the tribes, the events organized could not be considered as stereotypical—they are not aimed at increasing tourism or a cursory interest that leads to “othering.” Instead, Pulima actively tackles such superficiality by focusing their programming on the contemporary—demonstrating that Indigenous tribes and communities are not backwards-thinking and stuck in the past—and on inclusion—pointing to the acknowledgment of the hybridization of Indigenous traditions with current Western-influenced culture.
This becomes notable for various reasons. Since 1984, Taiwanese Indigenous groups have effectively “disengaged” with the settlers by founding their own groups and starting their own movements, such as the Return Our Land Movement in 1988, for a higher degree of political self-determination. Later examples include the establishment of public programs such as a television broadcast network, Indigenous Television Network (iTV), and a full-time Aboriginal radio station, Hi-ho-yan, which came quickly after the rise of Indigenous pop music, led by now famous international Aboriginal artists, that aim to represent these communities and preserve the diverse languages spoken. In its bold attempt to claim its spot in the contemporary arts discourse, Pulima has not only become a platform for Indigenous arts and culture, but an outspoken one for Indigenous LGBTQ+ members exercising queer curating.
To be clear, queer curating is far from organizing exhibitions that examine queerness as a sexual difference. Instead, I am referring to, as Isabel Hufschmidt defined it, the “decentered way of thinking social and cultural processes” and a real questioning of the binaries and normative structures that have become so deeply coded within our way of life. It would be too reductive to say that Pulima is a representation of successful queer curating simply because it encourages a plurality of audiences and interests. Arguably, most arts festivals attempt to appeal to masses and program something for everybody. But Pulima has become an effort for collaborative thinking and openness that not only tries to leave behind, or at least reappropriate, the traditional brick-and-mortar institution and its labeled hierarchies, but also engages in the intersectionality of identity politics.
Furthermore, Pulima and Miss First Nation Taiwan appear at a nationally critical moment in time not simply because they immediately preceded the change in the legislative law, but because they contextualized and gave meaning to drag in Taiwan, which was largely low-brow entertainment culture for the vast part of its existence. Although drag arrived in Taiwan as “a western import over 20 years ago,” it must not be forgotten that, like in many societies across Asia, Europe, and North America, cross-dressing is neither a modern concept—both men and women cross-dressed while performing in Chinese operas, the latter appearing as early as the Yuan dynasty (1271 – 1368)—nor a singular Western concept, as perhaps misunderstood by the current revival of drag in the States thanks to the popular television series, RuPaul’s Drag Race.
To contextualize briefly, as traditional operas began to die out, a new entertainment program emerged in Taiwan in the late 1990s, featuring RedTop Arts, a cross-dressing dance troupe founded by the Tsai brothers. Such programs launched RedTop Arts into fame despite censorship by the government, which claimed that such performances would have detrimental mental effects on children. Nevertheless, in an era where mass-media diffusion and technology were evolving rapidly, RedTop Arts’ performances, as well as the various variety shows in which they performed, were well-received by audiences because they purposely exploited sexual fascination that deviated from the norm, keeping the people interested and highly entertained. The awe, due in part to its outrageousness and its light-heartedness, could have also been understood as an outlet for the tense political climate brought on by various Western and global ideologies and competition with China.
That said, throughout RedTop Arts and cross-dressing television shows’ rise and fall, there were rarely cases of outward violence such as the ones witnessed and experienced during the Pansy Craze between 1930 and 1933, a historical period which is said to have launched the drag underground night scene. While it would be far too optimistic to say that RedTop Arts paved the way for a more democratic and equal platform for non-heteronormative individuals, it certainly started nationwide socio-political conversations. It is possible that the relatively late onset of these discussions coupled by the desire to combat the painful, and often repressive, history in Taiwan allowed for the creation of a much more tolerant society that ultimately considered hybridization of cultures and ideas, creating what is understood today as “Taiwanization”—the ideology of a national identity born from the complex histories and geo-politics of the island.
It could thus be suggested that in organizing Miss First Nation Taiwan, which actually originated from Miss First Nation hosted by the Darwin Pride Festival in 2017, Pulima has, on the one hand, acknowledged the existence of drag as a long-standing practice and, on the other, reaffirmed intersectional identity politics, openly addressing, rather than masquerading it in the way the ‘90s Taiwanese drag scene did, through public programming. By including the competition as one that is strictly limited to Indigenous individuals, but not reducing, altering, or even minimizing its format, Pulima elevates the “fantastical” and even Western-imported aspect of drag and offers a space in which representation of local marginalized communities takes precedence.
Yet, Pulima is not the first to “queer curate” a show around or to organize an exhibition that engages in queer theory. Coincidentally (or not), MoCA TW opened a show in 2017 titled Spectrosynthesis that “explored ideas of identity per se and sometimes unpalatable representations of queer experience” from a wide selection of Chinese artists including those from the diaspora. The show, although having fallen short of diving into a deep analysis of queer identity, was “borne out by the different historical contexts of LGBT organizing in Asia,” indicating yet again the existence of this discourse prior to the importation of queer discourse from the West in the ‘90s.
Despite not being the earliest, what this indicates, rather, is a reaffirmation, on Pulima’s part, of the necessity for these discussions to take place and encourages its continuity. Coupled with its activism for Indigenous rights, Pulima allows the capacity for a new way of exploring public programming and curating at large, generated by what the alliance of the Indigenous and the LGBTQ+ communities can offer. Whether done consciously or not, Pulima is tracing resistance within the histories of each community and in the act of curating itself, and shining a light on the various artists and art performances that have gone overlooked for too long.
But as José Esteban Muñoz so cleverly frames it in the first page of Cruising Utopia, “Queerness is not here yet. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.” Mentioned earlier, queer as a mode of curating, thinking, or even being, asks for an acceptance of the present socially constructed reality and then a complete rejection, or at least re-working of it. In looking at the ongoing fight for LGBTQ+ and Indigenous peoples’ rights in Taiwan, Pulima has offered a glimpse of what could be: a future that not only dispels the usual settler-colonized binary through its intervention on the institutional level (arts, education, government, etc.), as suggested by resurgence theory, but the full reconsideration of the theory’s heteronormativity, in part thanks to queer curating, at the same time.
It is clear that, like Taiwan and its progressive take on gay rights, there is still work to be done—the fine line between art, craft, and entertainment being difficult to steer. Even so, we must bear in mind that Pulima, Yirramboi, and other Indigenous arts and culture festivals launched elsewhere are examples of the desire for change, and the collaboration between festivals can be said to be further steps taken to reach Muñoz’s utopia. Specifically, for Pulima’s 2018 edition, for example, Rose Mary, an Atayal drag performer and winner of the inaugural Miss First Nation Taiwan drag competition, was invited as a special guest judge and performer for Miss First Nation (Australia). Competing against three other performers of Aboriginal descent, Rose Mary took a chance at the crown when she decided to incorporate Aboriginal elements into her drag performance. Rather than further exoticizing her culture, she saw it as a way to address the LGBTQ+ community that exists in the male-dominated group.
In a conversation I had with the artist, she divulged with me her experiences as an Indigenous Two-spirited drag performer working in the up-and-coming field of drag in Taipei City:
Jacqueline Kok: As far as I understand, drag is quite young in Taiwan. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and about your experience in drag?
Rose Mary: Drag as we understand it today, that is, as we see it on various media outlets—the glam, the lip-synching acts, the wigs—thanks to RuPaul, is only three years old in Taiwan. Lady impersonating and cross-dressing however, has been around for many years. There was once a very famous female impersonating group that started in 1994. Their activity ended in 1999 due to the earthquake in Nantou, Taiwan, where the theater collapsed. They fell off the map and never came back. So, to say that cross-dressing is a “new” trend is not entirely true; it’s actually distinguished between ‘before’ and ‘after’ the RuPaul era.
JK: Absolutely. Cross-dressing has existed for centuries, in both Western and Eastern cultures, particularly in theater. The RuPaul version, let’s call it, which is tied to the LGBTQ+ community supposedly originated from around the 1920s. Homosexuality at the time was outlawed, so many suffered oppression and prejudice. Have you felt any of that during the three years you’ve performed?
RM: Not at all. I’ve been lucky in the sense that I was born and am living a generation of acceptance and tolerance. Taiwan used to frown upon the LGBTQ+ community, but as history has shown, this country is one of the most progressive in East Asia. Luckily, my drag community is also very tight-knit, so despite the usual clash of personalities, there isn’t really a sense of isolation or exclusion. Even when I came out to my mother, I didn’t feel rejected. If anything, she simply worried about whether I would be treated the same in society. I have been extremely fortunate to not have had to fight for who I am or who I like.
JK: That’s amazing to hear. Although I didn’t grow up in Taipei, my mother, who is Taiwanese, had kept much of her prejudice, and it took a long time before she came around. I think we can both agree that our parents’ generation was far more conservative, and many lived in hiding. The fact that you are also of Indigenous descent is also another point that I wanted to bring up. Our parents lived in a time when the Indigenous community was thought of as less than. Do you feel that at all today?
RM: Again, not at all. There are certainly rights that we are still fighting for, such as land, territory, recognition, etc., but in regard to how I’m treated on a daily basis, I don’t feel the difference. Perhaps it also has to do with the fact that I don’t fit into the physical stereotypes like dark skin or body shape. My father is Han and my mother is Aboriginal. When she was growing up, on the other hand, she definitely felt the pressure and mentioned that my father’s family was especially unique at the time because they tolerated her background.
JK: It’s interesting that you say that, because in North America we speak of systematic racism or oppression where the system has been built to favor the oppressor. In other words, even if one were not to feel direct racism or discrimination on a daily basis, it appears and reappears throughout their lifetime in small but important ways like salary or career opportunities.
RM: I haven’t thought of it that way.
JK: Perhaps things have been changing rapidly in Taiwan. It’s just that when thinking about how the government has taken action in regard to restoring the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, it feels unsatisfactory. Tsai Ing-Wen was the first president of Taiwan to apologize to Indigenous peoples for their suffering, but it’s clear that that is not enough.
RM: Yes, in that sense we are still waiting for equality. On the legislative level, the attempts to repair and restore stolen lands have been but few. As mentioned before, we are still waiting for sovereignty as was promised back in 2002. There have not been concrete policies set up in favor of Aboriginal rights.
JK: This is precisely the trouble with resurgence theory: Indigenous communities are almost asked to fend for themselves by creating their own programs. Lasting external support is rarely given. Yet, in a way, I’ve found that the LGBTQ+ community, whose ethos is precisely tolerance, acceptance, and equality, has been an ultimate safe space. You’ve mentioned that you never felt rejected by this group for being Aboriginal, but has it been the same the other way around? Do you feel pressure when visiting your mother’s tribe?
RM: I don’t go back much to Taoyuan (the village), and my connection with my Aboriginal side blossomed later in life, when I started college (that’s when I began participating in the rallies and protests). But being non-heterosexual in the Aboriginal community isn’t hard to define in the sense that almost 60% of the Aboriginal people that I’ve met in my adult life identify as non-hetero! The necessity to label oneself is not as pressing as the older generations.
JK: That’s beautiful in its own way—to live in an environment where you can just “be.” Is this what is understood as being two-spirited?
RM: Two-spirited is almost like saying that you have both female and male, and other energies residing within. To me, everybody is two-spirited. It’s like a spectrum; some exude more masculine traits and some more feminine ones. And so, to express more than one over another even if it does not match your sexual organs isn’t considered strange.
JK: I love that perspective. It actually makes me think of one of the doctrines in Buddhism. Without trying to generalize or simplify the religion, it’s my understanding that there are four recognized genders: female, male, intersex (physically and spiritually), and finally, those who cannot reach Enlightenment.
RM: I think that colonialism and the onset of Christianity really impacted the way we understand ourselves and the environment.
JK: But Two-spirit is, as I understand it, an Indigenous North American term. In Taiwan, “Adju” is more frequently used, no?
RM: “Adju” is actually a borrowed word. It means “sister” or “girl” in Paiwanese but more colloquially, like when you are greeting a friend. Today, it is used to refer to Indigenous peoples who are “on the spectrum” but mostly to men who do not display the conventional masculine characteristics.
JK: Going back to what you just said, if there is no need to label, does that mean that there is an open acceptance of what you do?
RM: It is a bit of a grey area. Of course, doing drag no matter whether you are an Indigenous person or not, is unconventional. When my mother first found out that I was doing drag, her first reaction was, “You look ugly!” I thought it was hilarious at the time, but I also knew that she was not fully against me performing. Nowadays, she tells me what I look better in. My stepfather, on the other hand, had a much more negative reaction. To each their own, really.
JK: It’s eye-opening to learn that the LGBTQ+ and the Indigenous communities are so closely intertwined on the sociopolitical level but never addressed as one whole unit. But even as separate entities, they are handled in similar ways—that is, the fight for equality, I mean—with the exception, as I’ve gathered from our conversation, that Indigenous peoples don’t find it necessary to classify their sexual identity.
RM: Absolutely. I also have a couple of drag sisters that I work with who are of Aboriginal descent.
JK: So just to clarify, the drag competition that Pulima held in 2018 was strictly for Indigenous contestants? I know the arts festival promotes contemporary Indigenous arts and culture, of course, but having worked only on the arts awards part of Pulima, I was completely unaware that they had integrated a drag competition into their 2018 program!
RM: Miss First Nation Taiwan was indeed the first drag competition ever, let alone for performers of Aboriginal descent. It was organized, rather, in collaboration with Yirramboi, an Australian First Nations’ arts and cultural event. In Australia, there were already two drag competitions for Aboriginal entertainers at that point. The partnership was great because it obviously allowed for cross-cultural dialogue to take place, and it heightened the visibility of Indigenous culture across both countries, but non-Indigenous communities are rarely aware of these events.
JK: I think that certainly is tied to the downside of resurgence theory as we talked about earlier. But what I appreciate about Miss First Nation Taipei is that it presented drag as an art form rather than purely entertainment. There must have been thought put behind the programming; a curation of some sort.
RM: Pulima definitely created a platform, and for that I am thankful. Through them, I’ve gotten to share my personal story and become a symbol to the young people in my tribe. The most touching compliment I received was from a young man from the same tribe who told me that his brother had to give up his dream of becoming a drag queen. Being able to be who I am and do what I do has become representative of his brother’s lost dream, and so he rallies for me in hopes that others can also find the courage and passion to pursue their goals. It’s ironic because we spoke of Indigenous peoples not needing to label themselves. However, as I said, the path I’ve chosen is not exactly the norm either. It would be great if drag could one day become a true profession; one that people could make a living out of.
JK: That’s incredible, and I couldn’t agree with you more. The purpose of art has been ideally debated but Lévi-Strauss did a fairly good job at synthesizing the diverse functions, breaking Art into two main categories: motivated and unmotivated. Drag, at least to me, covers both, including the many sub-categories: entertainment, social cause, imagination/fantasy, etc. Curating and creating a platform for drag subverts the superficial value of the performance and provides a space for discourse to take place. I cannot wait to see what you will do in the near future. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.
RM: The pleasure is all mine. Happy to have been able to share my experiences with you and the greater public.
Jacqueline Kok is an independent curator. She has worked in and with various organizations internationally including MO.CO. Montpellier Contemporain (France), e-flux (NYC, USA), Art in General (Brooklyn, USA), and the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei (Taiwan). She is currently the curator, creator, and moderator of Spaces of Exchange, an online initiative hosted by the International Chinese Fine Arts Council (Chicago, USA), as well as Art and Other Stories, a weekly podcast anchored in creating new modes of engagement with art via artist storytelling with Triptych Arts, a non-profit curatorial collective.
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