I could see him out of the corner of my eye, dabbing across his glistening forehead with the back of one hand, and studiously puffing on his cigarette with the other.
Gavin has been my “sister” for a little over 5 years now. As far as I could tell, nothing fazed him – not even a party upwards of 15 strutting into the restaurant on a Saturday night without a reservation. Yet here he was, ashing his cigarette over what must have been half a dozen crumpled butts already sitting in the ashtray, the bounce of his leg visibly intensifying. I opened my mouth to ask him about it, but he beat me to the punch.
“I’m really nervous,” he admitted with a sheepish smile.
I quickly assured him that there was no need to be.
On May 24, 2017, a panel of 14 grand justices in Taipei had officially declared the law forbidding same-sex couples from marriage “unconstitutional.” This was a monumental milestone both celebrated and mourned around the world, for Taiwan was well on track to becoming the first in Asia to grant their LGBT community a right that had been denied to them all this time.
When I was tasked with writing a piece on the subject, his was the first name that came to mind. Gavin was an avid activist for the LGBT community, and was therefore personally invested in this historic win. On top of that, his was a story that was unique, but relatable.
Gavin was not one to hide his support for the community, nor was he the type to dance around the question when asked about his private life. Apart from selfies and candid photographs starring his boyfriend and Seven (their stunning sable-furred mutt), empowering messages, event shares, and articles topped off with trending hashtags made up every other post on his social media. In short, if there was one thing Gavin was not apologetic about, it was being himself, which made his jitters for the interview all the more curious.
Gavin, an insurance salesman in his mid-twenties, spent the first five years of his life in a quaint little village in Changhua County, where he was raised by his grandmother. By the time he was due for kindergarten, he was returned to his parents in Taipei. He discovered a love for anime and comic books some time in elementary school, and spent many an hour in internet cafes (or squabbling with his brother over the desktop at home), armed with a mouse and a thirst to level up. At school, he stumbled upon a love for writing and world history, and enjoyed shooting hoops, or the occasional volleyball game with his friends. After school, he hopped on the MRT and rode over to his cram school, where he endured another hour or two of English class before heading home to do his homework. Lather, rinse, and repeat.
Gavin could rattle off the common interests he shared with his peers no problem, but he was the piece of the puzzle that, no matter the angle, just would not fit quite right. His junior high school classmates were not shy about singling him out and identifying his “differences,” either. On the contrary, they taunted him with an onslaught of insults, the most memorable of which was “niang niang qiang,” which roughly translates to “sissy boy.” Kids in his class ridiculed him for his natural camaraderie with girls, but barred him from befriending them with their herd mentality and fear of the unfamiliar. “I was scared and alone,” he recalled. “Nobody wanted to talk to me and [be] friends with me. My fear turned into mad (anger).”
He was labeled “gay” far before he even truly understood what the word meant. It was such a foreign concept that he never questioned his own sexuality, not even when the insults dogged him to high school. It was a new school, but the fresh environment was tainted by a new, older band of bullies hurling harsher insults of a similar theme.
At the age of 15, Gavin landed himself a girlfriend. He described her as a “sweet and fun” girl who was just as nuts about Ragnarok as he was. They played next to each other or linked up from home just about every day, caught the latest horror flicks on the weekends, and took part in whatever mundane activity was made available to a pair of teenagers with limited budgets. They went together like sauce-heavy braised pork and rice.
Now that he had a girlfriend, even the bullies seemed to be on hiatus. For a while, it appeared as if things were starting to look up for him. That was, until his girlfriend insisted upon taking their relationship to the next level.
Gavin shook his head sadly as he recounted what he believed to be, in hindsight, the inevitable falling out of their year-long relationship. He could hold her hand, even peck her on the cheek, and most certainly cuddle with her, but something about being intimate with her made the hairs on his arms stir – and not in a good way. That said, it was not for lack of trying. He humored her on more than 2 occasions, but he could not shake the queasy feeling in his gut whenever she touched him, and felt an even sharper stab of shame when he could not perform for her.
Gavin’s girlfriend became increasingly aggravated each time he chickened out and delayed the “deed.” Her disappointment turned into impatience, which soon spiraled into deep, resentful rage. Their gaming sessions and movie dates were replaced with back-and-forth bickering and hormonal accusations. She mocked him for his inability to perform and once again, slapped him across the face with the dreaded word he thought he had finally escaped. She demanded to know why he would not reciprocate, and bitterly reminded him about the alleged score of boys in their class who were itching to bed her.
Eventually, the pair parted ways, and when rumors propagated by her friends spread, the taunting made its swift return. Gavin had been catapulted back to square one. She wanted answers he could not give her, but he did not hold back to spite her. He had accumulated quite the arsenal of cutting retorts over the years of relentless bullying, but with her, his mind just blanked.
His ex-girlfriend’s words stayed with him. Gavin could not understand his lack of attraction for her, for she was an attractive girl, and felt even more lost the handful of times he tried to join in on the boys’ locker room talk. He was conflicted, to say the least, but nothing could compare to the inner turmoil he felt when he began to find himself gazing at this one boy in class. The lingering gazes turned into fluttering heartbeats and sweaty palms, which then escalated to playing out imaginary dates in his head.
Whenever Gavin caught himself, he ripped his eyes off the back of the boy’s head and scrambled to change the channel in his head at once. But what frightened him most was that when the boy’s face barged into his thoughts in the middle of the night, what his ex-girlfriend had deemed broken was miraculously fixed. To make matters worse, the boy in question was none other than his main antagonist’s partner-in-crime.
Gavin began to flirt with the idea of suicide, and when it became much too seductive of a notion, he turned to religion, and joined a local church. For the next 3 years, including his freshman year of college, he not only attended church every Sunday, he signed up for the choir, and was often asked to lead the songs during worship. He never missed a gathering, and did his best to make it to birthdays, weddings, bridal showers, and other community events. The more he kept himself busy, the less he saw of the boy, and in time, his feelings for him fizzled out.
Despite the fact that he was surrounded by all these godly folk, he continued to be plagued by this gnawing feeling that he did not belong. No matter how innocent their intentions might have been, G tensed up whenever his fellow churchgoers asked him if he was seeing someone, to which he stammeringly replied that he was single. When boys his age pestered him about what his “vegetable” (type) was when it came to girls, he felt compelled to pick out a female celebrity at random so as to avoid a repeat of history. But what disturbed him the most was how the pastor, whom he had grown to admire, spoke about the irreparable damage homosexuals were inflicting upon society’s values. The same pastor who preached about love, faith, and unity among God’s children was the same pastor who vilified homosexuals as the products of Satan.
It was at this point that he began to distance himself from the Church. He had not lost faith in God, but felt a disconnect with the peddlers he felt were distorting His word. He desperately wanted to know what it was about him that rendered him broken, but could not find logic in their biblical explanations.
Be that as it may, Gavin continued to lead the worship songs and sat through church sermons every Sunday out of obligation to his faith. He continued to clock in at the cram school owned by the church, where he stared working halfway through his junior year of high school. But over time, he began to show his face less and less at meet-ups outside the church, until he learned how to duck in and out of church and work without having to make more than 5 minutes of small talk.
As a college freshman, Gavin was determined to rebrand himself once again, but it soon proved unnecessary. He became fast friends with a pair of feisty, yet faithful young women, whom he credited with taking his hand and guiding him out of the closet. Most of his peers had either shed their adolescent biases, or were open to broadening their horizons. Others had simply developed filters. For the first time, he understood that the problem did not lay within him, but with the norms of traditional society.
The revelation transformed him – he could drop his “straight guy voice,” stop being so paranoid about his “girly” mannerisms, and whip off the suffocating mask he felt the need to wear for so long. He became an active member of his school’s version of the Gay-Straight Alliance, participating, then later helping to organize meetings and protests in his free time. A few months later, he began to date an older boy that he often ran into on campus – which he later learned was really no accident at all. Gavin remembered being the happiest he had been in a long time. “I felt more freedom, more different, because lots of people from everywhere, like a small society. [College students] are growing up. They are wiser.”
Gavin slipped his mask back on whenever he was at church, and avoided his cram school students’ questions about his private life like a dodge ball champion, but they ultimately learned about his “sinful” secret. He expected the earful from his pastor, and could even tolerate the nosy churchgoers who hounded him with bible verses and tips on “changing” his lifestyle. When he was suddenly told that he was, from thereon out, forbidden to lead the worship songs, however, he was devastated. About a week later, he was informed that he would no longer be needed at the cram school, but that the church doors were still open, should he choose to return and commit to making the “change” with them.
That was the last time he set foot in that church.
Gavin was gutted, but at the same time, relief washed over him: “I did not have to hide anymore.”
With the help of his friends and his newfound support group at school, he dedicated more time to his schoolwork, friends, hobbies, and nurtured his budding interest in makeup and current events. Even so, Gavin was in need of employment, which tightened the knot in his gut. He applied for whatever jobs he could find, but could not help but feel self-conscious about the way he was presenting himself to his potential employers.
After about a six-month stretch at a tea stall, followed by other irregular gigs, Gavin found a job as a part-time server at a burger joint downtown, one owned by a Canadian man whom Gavin described as much “sweeter” than he appeared to be. Within a month’s time, he felt more at ease than he had ever been in any other setting, work or otherwise. The staff, a vibrant and eclectic bunch, were a breeze to get along with. His new boss was a tougher nut to crack, but inside was a man who treated his staff justly and with respect, and above all, was a fatherly figure and a friend when they needed him most. When Gavin came out to his boss, the man barely batted an eye, and made it clear that all he cared about was Gavin showing up to work and doing his job.
The acceptance of those around him, coupled with the dwindling toxicity in his life, had him contemplating the possibility of coming out to his family. This was a subject that had never once been touched upon in their household, so Gavin decided to break the news to them one at a time. He was especially close with his mother, and keeping the secret from her had tore him up in a way no other family member could compare.
He chose to do the deed on his 21st birthday, for he had moved out, was now an adult by Taiwanese standards, and was paying his own bills. That night, after a scrumptious dinner at an upscale tepanyaki restaurant, he handed his mother an Eslite bag with a book inside of it. His mother chuckled at the thought of her son presenting her with a gift on his birthday, but her laughter quickly subsided when he urged her to look inside the bag. His stunned mother proceeded to pull out a copy of Dear Mom and Dad, I’m Gay, produced by the Taiwan LGBT Hotline Association. It was a compilation of real come-out stories shared by the Taiwanese LGBT community.
She remained speechless for a beat or two, but told her son she loved him, and though she did not fully understand the lifestyle, she was going to make an effort to do so. “I had a big secret, and I [was] only afraid [that] my mom cannot accept it,” Gavin admitted. “She is the only one in my family I don’t know what can I do if she cannot accept it.” His mother kept her word, and today, she marches alongside her son at Taiwan’s gay pride parade almost every year, wielding a rainbow flag with one hand, and an arresting homemade sign with the other.
What Gavin had not foreseen was his aunt’s ignorance towards the definition of confidentiality. Two months after his twenty-first birthday, his mother rung up her sister back in the village for advice on how best to handle Gavin’s news, but in the same call, underscored the importance of keeping it between themselves. A little over a year later, Gavin was summoned to Changhwa to help out with his grandfather’s funeral. Due to unrelated family politics, it was the first time he had been home in years, and if it were not for his grandfather, he would have passed on the trip altogether.
Gavin arrived in Changhwa with the plan to keep his head down, pay his respects, and leave, but unbeknownst to him, his aunt had ratted him out to his mother’s side of the family. In the absence of his mother, who was looking after his ill grandmother at the hospital, his relatives decided to ambush him with an impromptu intervention. He was ordered to kneel in front of his grandfather’s portrait, and made to apologize to him for desecrating the family name and damning them as the disgrace of the village. When he refused, his uncle reportedly pummeled him and kneed him in the face before the aggressor was finally yanked off him.
Excluding his mother, Gavin has since severed all contact with his Changhwa family. Though he has not made plans to rekindle the flames any time soon – if ever – he wishes them no harm or ill will, and can only hope that their prejudices cease with their generation. He still feels the pain of their rejection, but unearthing the roots of their prejudices has helped with the healing process. “They are close-mind[ed] and cannot accept it because in traditional [Taiwanese families], the oldest son in the family is responsibility to get married and have children. Now, I know I cannot change their mind. They are they. You are you.”
Still, Gavin was quick to point out that a rural or small-town mindset did not define one’s capacity to embrace change. When Gavin came out to his grandmother, the matriarch of his Changhwa family, the woman withheld her judgment and reiterated her unconditional love for the grandson she helped raise. A few months before she passed away, she told Gavin how she wished she could still walk, for she hoped that she could one day walk him down the aisle, and hand him off to his boyfriend (at the time).
Gavin has chosen to leave his past where it belongs, and to devote his time to plucking out silver linings instead. He asserted that acceptance and an open mind are qualities that can be found in all walks of life, regardless of background or religion. While he felt wronged by his church, he understands that his experiences were with one community, a world view that has been expanded by the LGBT-friendly church groups he has since come across. Today, his faith in God has remained unchanged.
Gavin now strives to make an effort to peel back the layers of one’s intolerance, rather than make the immediate leap to anger or hatred, for he knows that he, too, is not immune to prejudice. He had been more than reluctant to do his mandatory service in the army, for instance. He kept himself up at night by replaying what-if scenarios in his head, and convinced himself that the hundreds of straight, adult males would be out to get him if he were so much as to show the faintest sign of effeminacy.
What he found instead was a squad leader and fellow trainees that had no qualms about his bedroom preferences. Some even expressed their fascination with a lifestyle they knew nothing about, and made sure to tread carefully as to not offend him. He seized the opportunity to share with them his experiences, but made sure to drive home that he was only one shade in the infinite color spectrum. What was more, he found it refreshing that he was not given any grief or special treatment by superiors who knew and evidently did not care about what he once held as his deepest secret.
Gavin, like many others, uses ink as a medium to tell his life story. One of his most striking tattoos is the inverted cross on his right wrist, a symbol supposedly synonymous with satanism. “This [was] my first tattoo. For me, to watch my tattoo, it is a cross, so I know I am a true Christian, but for other people, when they watch me, or look at me, and they see I have many earrings, I am a gay, I do tattoos, I smoke – maybe I am a bad kid in other people’s eyes, but for me, I know, I am a good guy, I am not doing bad things. Even if I am a gay, I am still a good Christian.”
Being gay is an important constituent of his identity, but that isn’t all he is. He is a son, a brother, a Christian, and a friend – one loyal to a fault. He is both a dreamer and a realist, driven and passionate about his future, and like many others, wants nothing more but a loving family to call his own. “We don’t want to be special. We don’t want to be – like – unique, we just want to be the same. We just want to [be] equal.”
Gavin, like the LGBT community and their supporters in Taiwan, rejoiced when they heard the verdict of the nation’s grand justices. He sees it as a massive step forward, and while he recognizes that there is still a long and winding road left untraveled, he is optimistic that with the shift in societal perspective and the change he hopes will be brought forth by the up and coming generation of Taiwanese millennials, it is not a matter of if, but when they will get to their destination. In the same breath, he is thankful to live in a society that is progressing forward; the horror stories of the modern day persecution of the LGBT community and minorities in other countries only heightens his gratitude.
Next, he hopes that the Taiwanese courts move forward with legalizing adoption for same-sex couples, and the publishing of more laws that safeguard the rights of the LGBT community in the workplace. He pushes for more education in Taiwanese schools regarding human rights, particularly the transgender community of Taiwan, for they are not only incredibly lacking in visibility, they are still met with intolerance by the general public, including many members of the gay community.
Gavin chooses to end the interview on a positive note: “[We still] have to fight for gay rights – but not just gay rights – racism, and many other of the problems in the world. It is just the beginning of the fight, but I know it will be getting better.”
By Janis Rae