Living in Precarity: Poverty AMONGST LGBTQ PEOPLE in Taiwan

Written by Yu-lien Cheng.

Image credit: IMG_4043 by coolloud/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2019, Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. However, the long process of fighting for marriage equality was not without objections inside the LGBTQ+ social movement. In the 2014 Taiwan Nine-in-One Election, there was a new party called “Poor Queer Political Equality Party” (貧窮同志參政團, PQPEP ) whose main goal is improving the life quality of precarious gay people. The appearance of PQPEP highlighted a paradox: there were already many precarious gay people searching for help, but in the past twenty years, there has been hardly any LGBTQ+ NGO in Taiwan that stated “class” or “precarity” as its main focus. However, demonstrating they are facing a real issue, some NGOs are creating applications for Emergency Allowances(急難救助金). Still, the public  – and even the academy – seem to know very little about the real-life situation of gay people living in precarity.

Starting from September 2020, I have been a volunteer at a non-governmental gay health center that provides anonymous HIV, VDRL/RPR testing, so as to get to know gay people from different socioeconomic strata. I still don’t know why, but this center has gathered many gay people with poor economic conditions. Some are HIV-infected, while some are not. Further, some have been turned out of their house, whereas some still maintain a good relationship with their family of orientation.

Walter, the first informant I know, is 23 years old, and his parents are indigenous. Since elementary school, Walter has lived with his mother, aunt, and grandma in Taoyuan, Hsinchu, and Taichung, and now he lives alone in Shilin District, Taipei City. At the third year of college, Walter’s mother could no longer afford the tuition fees, so he had dropped out of school and started working. Walter had worked as a convenience store clerk, telemarketer, and recently as a mover in a warehouse. Almost all of these jobs had not lasted the year, and Walter quit them for trivial reasons.

I have met Walter five times, and he has always worn the same jacket and pants. He is about 178 cm tall and has light brown skin. He has curly, greasy hair, and his face is covered with acne scars. Walter had told me many times that he wanted a boyfriend, but other people on Grindr always choose not to keep in touch with him after exchanging their face pics. It is not easy for him to participate in the everyday interaction of the gay community, especially after he had been diagnosed with HIV in May 2020. Besides, he was ousted from his home by his stepdad due to having HIV. For gay people like him, making ends meet seems more important than developing intimate relationships, not to mention getting married or adopting a child.

Aiden is the second informant I know. Similar to Walter, Aiden has little connection with his family of orientation. After graduating from graduate school, Aiden has been a freelancer, doing film editing, temporary staff in filming site, short-term artistic administrator, etc. In the past two years, the average monthly income was about 20,000 NTD. Aiden used to study art and work in theater, and he had accumulated much cultural capital in the field of art. Although his economic condition is not so well, the cultural capital makes him capable of maintaining good relationships with others, both in the gay community and artistic community.

At the beginning of the research, I interviewed the secretary-general of Taiwan Gender Queer Rights Advocacy Alliance(台灣酷兒權益推動聯盟). He pointed out that TGQRAA has served many gay people in precarity. These gay people’s precarious condition is not because their family of orientation is poor, but also because their parents thought that having a gay son or having a son with mental illness would bring shame on the family. Hence, they turned them out of the house, making their economic condition worse and worse. This situation is much more common in rural areas outside of Taipei City. The TGQRAA could encounter cases in metropolitan areas because they are likely to flee there while searching for help.

Both Walter and Aiden have poor relationships with their family of orientation, which led them into precarity that has worsened their relationship with others. Still, differing factors affect their interpersonal interactions, such as having HIV, being an indigenous person, and especially whether having cultural capital or not, which is correlated to one’s demeanor and has a huge impact on face to face interaction. If PQPEP were still active in the political field, maybe Walter and Aiden would become their potential clients. Surprisingly, most LGBTQ+ NGOs in Taiwan do not state precarity as their main problem, which may be the most apparent issue among LGBTQ+ people after the legalization of same-sex marriage, thus becoming more important.

Yu-Lien Cheng is a Graduate student in the Department of Sociology, National Taiwan University. He’s conducting ethnographic fieldwork in a LGBTQ+ NGO, studying precarious gay people who lives in Taipei city.

2 comments

  1. “For gay people [whose livelihood is precarious], making ends meet seems more important than developing intimate relationships, not to mention getting married or adopting a child.” I guess that’s true for non-gay people also.

    “… there were already many precarious gay people searching for help, but in the past twenty years, there has been hardly any LGBTQ+ NGO in Taiwan that stated “class” or “precarity” as its main focus.” Perhaps class division is even more pronounced among LGBTQ+ activists than among the general populace. The progressive elite seems to be enamoured with upper class grievances while ignoring the misery of those who hardly manage to make a living, caused by growing inequality.

    “Surprisingly, most LGBTQ+ NOGs in Taiwan do not state precarity as their main problem, which may be the most apparent issue among LGBTQ+ people after the legalization of same-sex marriage, thus becoming more important.” Perhaps the social activist elite will turn their attention from lofty LGBTQ+ identities and rights to the profane causes of precarious livelihoods, a growing number of people from all communities suffer from. It would be about time.

    Mr. Yu-Lien Cheng, I hope you do not mind my polemical wording here because I admire your work and judge it highly relevant. I am looking forward to further results from your research.

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  2. Thank you for your article. I have seen evidence of the link between one’s gay identity and poverty in other parts of Asia (notably South East Asia). Some of that, to my mind, has to do with exclusion of gay people from mainstream economy by conservative societies (including more progressive countries such as Taiwan, Thailand and South Korea). Employers do not want to risk employing ostensibly “gay” people (and others) – dreadful official and semi-official statements about how to spot homosexuals make matters even harder for people who do not fit the prescribed mold. I am also aware of gay men from working class backgrounds who are routinely marginalised in the areas of work their families and communities had hitherto been involved in. Families who are embarrassed by them are not likely to recommend them to the workplaces with which the families have some connection. Once in the workplace, often legally ignored homophobic bullying and harassment serve to deepen the person’s precarity. To me, these are some of the structural problems impacting on the LGBT person’s precarity in Asia, including Taiwan.

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