«Fifth floor!» says Fei Fan, and buzzes us into the building. Fei meets us dressed in a long, black, cotton dress, and takes us directly to the bathroom where makeup is set out. Fei is getting ready for tonight’s WERK party, a monthly event which «validates all genders and orientations,» he tells us. Fei will be onstage to perform in drag.
Fei is shy, and laughs quietly between sentences. He lives alone in a Taipei apartment, earning money by renting out a neighboring apartment on Airbnb.
«It’s actually my parents, but I run it,» Fei explains.
He spends his weekends partying and performing on the stages of Taipei, all while dressed in drag.
Do you really dare to talk like that to a 2-meter-tall woman with a whip?!Christopher Wu
«I get to choose»
The drag scene in Taipei is relatively small. When Fei was first introduced to the concept, there were only three active «queens.»
«I call them the ‘big mamas.’ They’re a little older than me, and have helped me with so much,» says Fei. Today there are around 10 queens in Taipei. Several of them are expats; foreigners who live and work in the city.
Drag, simply put, is dressing up as a different gender than you usually portray. If you’re a man, you become a drag queen. If you’re a woman, you become a drag king. Drag can also be a stage performance, where a king or queen dances and lip syncs to songs.
Fei says he has loved performing ever since he was young. His mother was a dancer, and he wanted to be an actor. But low grades in school prevented him from following that dream, and he ended up studying set design instead. That’s how he found his way to drag.
«When you work on a play, you only get to do what the director says. In the end, he or she decides everything, and there’s no room for personal creativity,» says Fei. «That’s why I like drag so much. I get to choose the music, choreography, makeup, outfit, and how I’m going to communicate with the audience.»
I told her I was gay, and she didn’t say anything for a minute. Then she said «Well, don’t let those kinds of thoughts hold you back, you never know what will happen in the future.»Fei Fan
«You never know what will happen in the future»
Fei’s parents know about his performances.
«They see it as a costume, just entertainment. They don’t have anything against it, especially when they know I earn some money from it,» says Fei.
Fei is also gay, but his parents don’t support that part of his identity entirely. The first time he had a conversation with his mother about his sexual orientation, it was over the phone, right before he moved to Australia.
«I told her I was gay, and she didn’t say anything for a minute. Then she said «Well, don’t let those kinds of thoughts hold you back, you never know what will happen in the future.»»
«I think it calms her down a little bit. She probably read somewhere that gender and sexuality are fluid, so now she thinks I might change someday. And I respect that. I’m just glad she didn’t start crying, or try to hit me.»
Fei and his mother agreed not to tell his father, who was a general and spent over 35 years in the military.
«He’s had a hard time, under a lot of pressure. But now he’s retired. He plays a lot of golf and spends time with my sister and her children. He’s content, and I don’t want to ruin that for him,» says Fei. «But I don’t hide my orientation exactly. I’m like really gay. I’m sure he must have noticed something.»
I don’t have a bar or a husband, so…I don’t think I’m living the dream.Fei Fan
The best place in Asia to be gay
Gay culture has slowly become more acceptable in Taiwan. There is no punishment for being part of the gay scene or expressing one’s orientation. But there is not any legal protection for homosexuals, and they cannot get married. Even though they haven’t been drastically discriminated against in a legal sense, they also haven’t been recognized. It’s as though the authorities have simply turned away from them. Until now.
Taiwan is recognized as one of Asia’s best countries for homosexuals. There is a large gay scene, with the biggest Pride parade in Asia, which has been arranged each year in Taipei since 2003. Since then activists have also been trying to establish a law allowing same sex marriage, but year after year they are blocked by the reigning conservative party Kuomintang (KMT).
But in 2016 the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the election, and last May the supreme court decided that denying a same sex couple the right to marriage went against the constitution. The court gave parliament two years to change or establish a new law to secure same sex couples the right to marriage.
«I hope that the legislators will have the moral courage to pass same-sex marriage into law, however it is hard to predict how long it will take, at this moment,» said Yu Mei-nu, a member of Taiwan’s legislative body, in an interview with CNN. However, she explained even if a new law isn’t passed, gay couples will be able to marry in 2019. Unless other countries join the fight, Taiwan will be the first country to legalize gay marriage in Asia.
«Parents don’t want their kids to hear what we have to say»
Even though Taiwan has a reputation for being gay-friendly though, Fei says there are many who struggle with their identity. Conservatives protest against homosexuality, under the organization «The Happy Family Protection Action Alliance» which believes homosexuality is ruining the ideal nuclear family. During a demonstration in 2016, opponents of same sex marriage protested under the slogan «Marriage and family is a decision to be made by all citizens.»
Fei is familiar with that kind of rhetoric. He volunteers for the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association, which works to inform and offer help to gay individuals. Fei visits schools with the organization to talk about LGBTQ rights, and to tell his own story. But with increasing opposition, they are getting fewer and fewer invitations.
«Over the last few years we’ve done over 500 visits. But in 2017 we only did 221. We’re seeing that fewer principals are inviting us, because parents don’t want their kids to hear what we have to say,» Fei says.
No promise for real equality
When we asked Fei what he thought of the new same sex marriage law, he sat back in his chair and was quiet. Finally, he took a deep breath.
«If they make a law, I don’t think it will be done well. There are already several proposals from different organizations, just suggesting to make the current law gender neutral,» explains Fei. «But I think the authorities would rather make a whole new law. When they do that, they separate a group of people from the law we already have. What’s the point of that? Nobody gets a better law than anybody else. It’s ridiculous.»
How do you see the future of LGBTQ people in Taiwan?
«Oh god,» he says, laughing. «The world is on its way to destruction, and we’re bullying each other. The fight isn’t over. I think we have to wait at least 20 years.»
Brian Hioe is a journalist for Taiwanese magazine New Bloom. He writes that even if a new law gains traction, it won’t create real equality for homosexuals, who can still be denied rights which heterosexuals are granted. Those include the right to adopt, make medical decisions for a partner, or inherit assets. Hioe also thinks legalizing same sex marriage is a canny political move for Taiwan as a country.
«DPP legislators may wish for Taiwan to gain international recognition as the «first country in Asia to legalize gay marriage» as a way of distinguishing Taiwan from China,» he writes.
Fei doesn’t talk much while applying his makeup. Slowly but surely, his appearance changes.
«I’m going for an unapologetic, full-on look tonight,» he says. A few hours later he’s on the WERK stage in a light blue dress and wig, lip syncing to Rebecca Black’s «Friday».
After we stand talking with Fei and some of his friends. One of them is Christopher Wu, 22, dressed in green military pants and a dirty blond wig. When Chris dresses in drag he uses the name Awesome Bitch.
«During the week I’m in the military, so this is actually part of my uniform,» he says. Later he invites us to join him at next weekend’s party, a monthly event called CUM Party.
I feel most comfortable as Awesome Bitch. In a way that’s my real self. But Chris has some advantages too, so I like to be both,Christopher Wu
«They warned me against being gay»
The next Saturday we’re sitting at Chris’s kitchen table. We’re joined by his grandparents, parents, brother, and nephews. Chris’s parents know about both his orientation and his hobby, and his stepmother is his biggest fan. But his grandparents are clueless.
«One time they warned me against being gay,» he says. ««You can be what you want, but just don’t be gay. I’m begging you,» Grandpa said. That made me sad. So I’ve decided not to come out entirely under they’re gone. I don’t want to hurt them.»
Still, Chris thinks they’re not entirely in the dark. «They know something is going on, but they just don’t know what. When I’m old I’m going to have an open mind. I won’t be like them. There’s definitely a generation gap there.»
When Awesome Bitch goes out on the weekends, Chris has to wait for his grandparents to go to bed. Then he leaves, but not before remembering his knife.
«One night I went out, and someone yelled «freak!» after me. I had a whip with me that night, so I turned around and yelled back «Do you really dare to talk like that to a 2-meter-tall woman with a whip?!» Since then I’ve always taken a knife with me when I go out in drag. For protection. Not because it’s so dangerous really, but I’m still uncomfortable. There are still people who don’t accept us.»
Within an hour, Christopher’s face has been transformed into Awesome Bitch. She has ice-blue, almost white eyes, and lips painted a dark blue.
«Chris is shy, but Awesome Bitch is more extroverted and doesn’t care so much about what other people think,» Chris says. «I feel most comfortable as Awesome Bitch. In a way that’s my real self. But Chris has some advantages too, so I like to be both.»
Before we jump in a taxi to head to the CUM Party, Awesome Bitch takes us to the night market nearby to buy some fried chicken. Even though his face is Awesome Bitch, he’s wearing Chris’s clothes. And he’s nervous.
«I’ve actually never gone out like his before,» he says on the way out. All of a sudden he throws out his arms and struts down the street.
«But who cares? I’m fantastic!»
It’s like Chris and Awesome Bitch are fighting for space. The closer we get to the market, the more Chris seems to win. He wraps his arms around himself and whispers «fuck, fuck fuck.» People start to look at him as we walk through the crowd. Some of them do a double take. An old woman give him a thumbs up.
«Did you do your own makeup?» she asks, and Chris nods.
«Lihai!» she says, smiling. Appropriately, lihai means «awesome» in Mandarin.
At the CUM Party, Chris’s clothes switch to a skintight sequined dress and an elegant wig. Awesome Bitch has arrived. Amongst the dancers we also run into Fei. The two drag queens walk around the venue, talking to people and posing for cameras. They stop to take a selfie together with other partygoers.
Despite family members who don’t accept them, despite Awesome Bitch feeling she has to carry a knife when she goes out, despite the bullying, they’ve chosen to do their own thing. And at places like WERK and CUM Party they are celebrated. Are they living the dream?
«I don’t know,» answers Fei. «My dream isn’t to be famous or anything like that. I really just want to get married, like my sister. I want a man who will support me, and my mental health. And I want to open my own gay bar, give equal pay to everyone, and not act like an asshole boss. I don’t have a bar or a husband, so…I don’t think I’m living the dream.»
This article series is a collaboration with Framtida.no, with the support of Fritt Ord. Read about the project here.