Taiwan: Masculinity, Sexuality

This is the sixth installment in a series of essays by jet-setter Jordan Barber, who is currently studying Mandarin at Donghai University in Taichung, Taiwan. Masculinity in the United States may be defined by the loner, antihero ideals of the Marlboro man, but Jordan finds that, in Taiwan, the patriarchal family hierarchy establishes one’s male bravado.

Let’s talk about what it means to be a man. The Western ideal is typically easy to pin down in terms of generalities and expectations, but in Taiwan (and other East Asian states), the same associations of manliness don’t exist. As a gay male, I believe I’m particularly aware of this. Masculinity in Taiwan is not contingent upon the differences between men and women. After all, East Asian men and women do look somewhat alike, and often times the more “beautiful” men are defined by smooth, delicate features that typify the feminine ideal.

Actually, it’s more than gender similarity that makes masculinity different here. For instance, colors do not have a masculine or feminine identity. The other day I saw a typical Asian jock sporting an Iverson jersey and mesh basketball shorts. He was also carrying a pink purse over his shoulder. It wasn’t his girlfriend’s; it was his own. Men wearing pink in the U.S. are still regarded as dubiously effeminate (or ignominiously preppy), but here it honestly has little association. Men here have as many tote bags as girls do, and they also spend as much time on their hair.

There are many other interesting contrasts, but I think masculinity here is most strongly defined by what is considered the center of typical Chinese culture: the family. If a guy can support and protect his family, then he is the masculine ideal.

I’ve come to this conclusion based on my experience with gay culture in Taiwan. For the Chinese, the gay identity is phenomenally different than the Western concept. In fact, it doesn’t really exist. When I say “identity,” I mean the whole lifestyle that encompasses someone who is openly gay. Similarly, it is the recognition of a difference in lifestyle that marks a gay identity; in Chinese culture, the gay male maintains a lifestyle cohesive with the rest of society.

The same vehement opposition to gay marriage is not present here—in fact, Taiwan nearly passed a bill allowing gay marriage recently. Rather, the aversion to a gay lifestyle and identity has to do with the central tenant of Chinese culture and masculinity: creating and supporting the family. Because this is such a strong cultural influence, the typical Chinese gay male is split between two different pressures. It is typical here for a gay male to marry a woman, have children, and then have sex with other men on the side.

As a Westerner, I feel that should change. But Chinese culture has always placed family and unity above individual desires, and this seems no different. The younger generation has become more aware of a gay identity, but you certainly don’t see anyone around here demanding gay rights. Taiwan seems to be a more gay-friendly East Asian country, but they’re a long way from establishing any sort of gay identity that is relatable to the Western conception.

Read more from Taiwan.

Jordan Barber is proud that the internet allows him to criticize, admonish, and irritate people from his own living room. And though this immense power only comes to the few, he promises to wield his hammer of judgment with a standoffish, thoughtful outlook.