Taiwan’s Decision to Introduce a Third Gender: A Step Forward or a Step Backwards for Gender Equality? 

Written Caterina Di Via.

Image Credit: 20190524 凱道伴桌 by 小兔 ajustlove6/Flickr. License CC BY-NC 2.0 

In 2018, the Gender Equality Committee, a branch of the Taiwanese government, announced that there would be a third gender option for identification alongside the planned new electronic identity documents (such as eID cards, passports and other national identification documents) in late 2020. While males and females are categorised as ‘1’ and ‘2,’ the third gender option would be represented by the number ‘7’.

Although the government has not disclosed the complete details about implementing a third gender—such as no date for the introduction of this reform—its action prompts the following question: if transgender Taiwanese citizens can only legally change their gender when they undergo sex reassignment surgery (not covered by the national healthcare insurance), was this decision targeted towards transgender people who cannot afford the operation? Or would all transgender individuals be categorised under the third gender, thus employing a process of ‘Othering’ that is more regressive and discriminatory than progressive and inclusive? Or was this resolutionimplemented to include the gender non-conforming Taiwanese who identify as neither women nor men? 

The decision to implement a third gender in national identification documents could either favour transgender and gender non-conforming individuals or undermine their right to respectability and visibility in Taiwan.

Transgender visibility was boosted in 2016 with the appointment of Audrey Tang (唐鳳), becoming the first transgender minister in Taiwan. In addition, same-sex marriage became legalised in 2019, and transgender individuals can marry people of the same gender. 

Taiwan: Not as Much of a Gender-Equal Country as Once Thought?

However, Taiwanese culture, like most cultures, remains highly gendered. For example, University dormitories and public restrooms are usually divided between two genders. This poses a problem because a transgender man whose assigned gender at birth was female and who may still present a feminine appearance could risk being misgendered in these circumstances. Furthermore, the Tongzhi Hotline, founded in 2010 with the help of the organisation Taiwan Transgender Butterfly Garden, reports that 70% of transgender individuals in Taiwan feel uncomfortable using public bathrooms. 

The ISTSCare organisation (Intersex, Transgender and Transsexual People Care Association) reports that seven out of ten transgender Taiwanese have tried to commit suicide or have thought about killing themselves. This is twice the rate compared to numbers found in the United States. Moreover, it could be even higher, seeing as the actual number of transgender people in Taiwan is unknown given the absence of official reports on this particular demographic, states activist and co-founder of ISTSCare Abby Wu (吳伊婷). 

To Wu, one of the many forms of discrimination transgender Taiwanese citizens go through is class-based: “parent and child, employer and employee.” According to her, around half of her transgender friends are unemployed or hold temporary and precarious job positions. Moreover, many employers will still prefer to hire a cisgender person (someone who identifies with their gender assigned at birth).

Integration is Possible – But the Government Should Tread Carefully

Perhaps it is time the Taiwanese state come up with some suitable reforms to make the country a more inclusive environment for transgender and gender non-conforming people. Of course, the most obvious option would be increased inclusion and less stigmatisation. But how can Taiwan take that route through tangible implementations? 

Judging from the situation of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals in Taiwan and the statements made by ISTS co-founder Abby Wu (吳伊婷), there are two main resolutions the government can implement to ease their lives.

Firstly, laws against discrimination in the workplace – especially regarding job interviews – should be passed (such as the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 in the United Kingdom and the Bill C-16 in Canada). 

And secondly, there should be a different approach to sex reassignment surgery. Transgender individuals should not be required to go through sex reassignment surgery when they want to change their legal gender. Not only is it a costly operation, but sometimes they do not feel like it is necessary for their transition. Secondly, parental approval should be scrapped. And thirdly, such procedure should be included in the national healthcare system, but only if the applicants meet specific requirements, such as unemployment or homelessness. Or the Taiwanese healthcare system could take care of half of the surgery’s cost. 

In an ideal world, the procedure would be covered entirely by the state but doing so would give anti-transgender groups important leverage. Transgender citizens enjoying complete state support for their sex reassignment surgery could turn into resentment and increased hate and discrimination for these individuals. 

Implementing these changes – as small as they can- will prove tricky because Taiwan has recently seen a surge in conservative Christian groups, who have been quite successful in lobbying against what they perceive as immoral and sinful. The legalisation of same-sex marriage encountered strong opposition by the aforementioned Christian groups, funded and trained in lobbying tactics by American ‘super churches’.

Surprisingly enough, trans rights activists have also encountered backlash from feminist activists working with the state. Owing to the longstanding feminism-LGBTQ alliance in Taiwan, one would think state feminism had transgender rights on their agenda. However, many state feminists belong to a strain of thought that refuses womanhood to trans women. In essence, many ‘old school’ feminists do not believe trans women are women. 

This translates into a lack of substantial laws, which should be implemented to first integrate trans people into the workforce and, secondly, help them through their transition process and their life post-transition. But, unfortunately, there are no laws of the sort in the Taiwanese judicial system

Taiwan’s LGBTQ Rights in the International Scene

The decision to implement the third categorisation of gender will also have repercussions in the international sphere. Since Taiwan has been using its reputation as a liberal, progressive, and LGBTQ-friendly country to set itself apart from illiberal China, it could be hypothesised that this decision is also part of Taipei City’s international public diplomacy to be seen as the democratic antonym to Beijing. 

Taiwan’s decision to implement and legalise a third gender creates more questions than answers. Is this going to benefit or discriminate against transgender and gender non-conforming Taiwanese citizens? Was this decision part of the many steps state feminism has taken to make the country fully gender-equal or to appear even more liberal on the international scene and set itself even farther from the People’s Republic of China? How much does the current administration care for true gender equality? 

The government announced that this resolution would have been implemented by 2020; it is now January 2021, and still no news. Therefore, these questions will be answered when the government announces the official start of the resolution and possibly implementing such changes regarding gender equality.

Caterina Di Via is a postgraduate student pursuing a master’s degree in Gender, Society and Representation at UCL. Her topics of interest include women’s rights, LGBTQ+ issues, intersectionality, postcolonialism and the politics of ageing. 

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