No Sex, Please, We’re Taiwanese?: The Deghettoization of Gay Spaces and Geography of Shame in Taipei

Maurice Hong-Cheng Chang

The [Giuliani’s] policy is, in effect, a shame punishment: it stigmatizes gay meeting places and gay bookstores, requiring them to hide themselves as if everything they signify is shameful.[1] (Emphasis added)


Taiwan is one of Asia’s most progressive countries as far as LGBT rights are concerned, and certainly the most liberal country among the Chinese societies. Not only does the government of Taipei print up its own free guide to the gay community, but also young school children are taught about homosexuality and tolerance for sexual minorities under the legal requirements. Taiwan’s first Gay Pride Festival was held in 1997 at 2-28 Peace Memorial Park (New Park) in Taipei, a favorite cruising spot at night, a location of Pai Hsien-Yung's famous gay novel, Crystal Boys. This tolerant or liberal attitude toward “homosexuality” in Chinese socio-cultural environment does not completely indicate a catalog of sexual identity, rather than a parallel life style. And the Chinese life style of love distinguishes itself with “sex.” That is meaning that in this discourse of life style, dimension of practical sex between men and women is ignored on purpose. The paradox is that the society of Taiwan is generally tolerant, or at least indifferent, to homosexuality as cultural identity in public; but when it comes to individual cases and family members, this identity immediately connects with the sexual behavior in private and is blamed as imbalance of the of yin and yang and as non-harmony of “Tai-Chi.”
Moreover, when this identification of sexual behavior flows into the public arena, it should be regulated and controlled to make sure the “sex” always stays in private. This sex panic helps the public sphere expand its geography of shame bigger and bigger in Taiwan, and therefore de-ghettoize the gay space in cities, such as Taipei. How does the distinction of public and private actually not help to protect gay citizens from the state’s interventions with their privacy or private life, or even reproduce the gay body as an object of law? This short essay that follows two cases about gay spaces in Taipei seeks to show the complex and problematic relationship between space, bodies, and law that forms the legal landscapes of these two locations. It will also show that in the geography of shame, there is no space for gay ghettos.


The meanings of space produced within the public/private binary make the distinction difficult not only to differentiate it from, but also to imagine, alternative spatial categories. As Michael Warner noted, “[b]ecause the contexts overlap, most things are private in one sense and public in another.”[2] The space of gay cultures builds a boundary that has sexual dimensions between subjective bodies and objective laws. However, space that is “public,” i.e. part of publicly owned facilities and /or open access to all, is not necessarily “public” in the sense that behavior in it necessarily affects non-consenting parties. The legal and social separation of public communities and private associations, moreover, contributes to social injustice. By means of their legal autonomy, communities and associations may exclude certain kinds of people and certain kinds of activities from their borders, and reproduce and exaggerate “the inequalities between places rather than leveling” or zoning them. I will argue that, when we think about the regulation of space and conduct, the good guidance is offered by John Stuart Mill’s distinction between space/conduct that is “self-regarding,” affecting only the interests of the doer and other consenting parties, and space/conduct that is “other-regarding,” affecting the interests of non-consenting others.

No Sex in “Public” Bathhouse’s Restroom…,

On December 20, 1998, a squad of policemen forcibly entered the AG Club, a well-known gay gymnasium and sauna located in downtown Taipei, and arrested two men found caressing each other in a private compartment under the charge of “obscenity in public”. Upon finding the two men, the policemen allegedly instructed them to remove their clothes and pose for photographs in sexually suggestive positions -- thus furnishing “proof” of the allegations. Condoms provided free of charge at the front counter and found in garbage receptacles were reportedly seized as evidence for these charges. In mid-February 2000, the Taipei district court found the two men innocent on all charges. The “AG Club incident” within a context of wider, disturbing patterns of police brutality toward gay community. They also have decried the highly biased treatment by the media, characterized by vilification of the defendants and the glaring omission of community perspectives highlighting police abuses of human rights.

Moreover, a heated debate in Taiwan over the appropriateness of this police conduct has contributed toward a change in the law under which the two men faced arrest for alleged conduct in an enclosed, private room at the AG Club, which is fined or arrested in cases of “overt lewdness in public places.” Recently, however, it has been amended, instead penalizing “overt lewdness, with the intention of public exhibition.” This amendment, while imperfect, at least appears to require the demonstration of an actor’s intent that his or her act be witnessed -- protecting private acts and persons from the voyeuristic intrusiveness of official surveillance, as well as from the vague vocabulary of a legal system elastically disinclined to restrict its definition of “public.”

The most controversial spatial dimension of the proceedings related to the domain of criminal law. The case draws attention to the way the criminal law may make its presence felt “behind closed door,” in the domestic and intimate space of the home, in a situation where “there are no victims.”[3] Leslie J. Moran argues that this kind of privatization of sex in public places is a boundary that “divides bodies by reference to sex.” This boundary creates a specific civil society, a society of two. By saying that, Moran argues that the boundary requires a subject with particular capacities and “act of consent” to enter other society with some specific criteria, such as “surrounding circumstances,” “the time of night, the nature of the place, lighting, and the likelihood of a third person coming on the scene.” Male bodies that fail to satisfy the various criteria of behaviors “in private” are and “remain in their same-sex genital intimacy always public bodies.” Therefore, it does not matter where the acts perform by gay men since they are always being seen as “public bodies.”[4]

…And in Your “Private” Bedroom

Private drug and sex parties, so-called “orgy,” have been a popular alternative to gay saunas and discos for many young gay men in countries around Asia for nearly a decade. Mixing drugs, including alcohol, with sexual activity has been shown to substantially increase the risk of transmitting HIV as safer sex practices are abandoned along with inhibitions. In Taiwan, it requires that all people testing positive for HIV be reported to the government and laws make it illegal for people with HIV to knowingly pass it on to others through sexual activity. Just few days before the Chinese lunar New Year 2004, the police in Taipei raided an underground gay party organized in a private home. They detained all 92 men, who were wearing only underwear as TV cameras filmed, and tested each of them for drugs and HIV. Footage broadcast on television also showed discarded condoms and tissues littering the apartment floor. The images of the cowering, naked men, interviews with next door neighbors was broadcast saying they were terrified of becoming infected with HIV and describing how they had disinfected their homes in a panic. The general public still equates homosexuality with AIDS. The condoms found in the apartment flat where the party was taking place were viewed as evidence of criminal activity, rather than as essential protection for sexual partners. The mishandling of the raid by the police and media has the effect of frightening people away from being tested for HIV. The public is being distracted from the fact that heterosexuals are at equal risk of contracting HIV unless they practice safe sex.

In the gay male community, there are nightclubs, bathhouses, and Internet groups that organize and participate in “group sex.” Different types of orgies may or may not involve switching partners. The social and legal issues of gay orgy are very complicated and multiple. Orgies often take place in private or clandestine locations, including homes, unpopulated areas like forests, abandoned buildings, or private clubs. The case here was that the orgy was organized on the Internet with strict selection and membership. It was a closed circuit that only offered information to applicants who were qualified under the scrutiny. Orgies are stereotypically associated with gay men by many people; their status in gay communities remains extremely contentious. Some people, including some gay men, argue that group sex is intrinsically unsafe and represents a juvenile and hedonistic aspect of some gay men's lives. Some argue that group sex among gay men is immoral; leading some gays to argue against group sex as an “embarrassment” for their community. Others note that group sex can, with a great deal of caution that it is extremely pleasurable, and that social restrictions on public sex or sex with multiple partners stem from religious or ideological perspectives they reject. Since the advent of the AIDS epidemic, orgy or group sex is widely considered a dangerous activity, precipitating crackdowns on venues where it takes place. In response to the threat of sexually transmitted infection, some people have begun to organize “safer sex parties”, in order to give people who enjoy group sex a risk-reduced way to participate in it. Because the case of orgy happened in holder’s apartment, a home, a private field, there were many issues raised on discussion the gay space and body. One of these issues is this case changed the functions of property rules, i.e. the power of private ownership to determine who is allowed to be on the property[5] is restricted. Another issue should be noticed is that, in my opinion, the differentiation of space also reduces the right to access to the public accommodations[6] and the functions of private places. This is what I think Michel Foucault warned us that when we discuss the history of spaces, we have to address at the same time the history of powers.[7]

The Closet Locked by Respectability

The two cases mentioned above created a problematic dimension of the distinction of public and private spheres. The difficulty of distinguishing these two concepts offers the broad discretions of interpretation and implementation to the governments. Michael Warner has used the language of moral panic to describe the reaction of the Giuliani administration, calling it a “sex panic” and rallying against it. With these two cases, we can also observe that few trends recently happened in Taipei or other cities in Taiwan, such as the closing of sex (strictly speaking, there is no gay sex video in Taiwan) video stores and sex clubs in the name of the health code, the fencing off and patrolling of traditional gay meeting places, the upturn in arrests of gay men for cruising, often on public lewdness charges, the general decline of available public space in the city, and the harassment of gay bars, dance clubs, and other sites of nightlife, often on technicalities of cabaret licence violations. These changes can be seen as a part of a policy aimed at making “sex less noticeable in the course of everyday urban life and more difficult to find for those who want sexual materials or consenting sexual behaviours.”[8]

Moreover, I believe that there exists what Iris M. Young addressed the “behavioural norms of respectability” when we discussed the gay spaces in the cities. She defined the respectability as consisting “in conforming to norms that repress sexuality, bodily functions, and emotional expression.”[9] This is an idea of social order that “the respectable person is chaste, modest, does not express lustful desires, passion, spontaneity, or exuberance, is frugal, clean, gently spoken, and well mannered. The orderliness of respectability means things are under control, everything in its place, not crossing the borders.”[10] As facts addressed above, Young’s notion of respectability was completely reflected in the way the police and mess media looked at and reported of those two cases. For police or governments, the place declines its importance; behaviour occupies the centre of regulation of this social disorder. In turn, the governments use the distinction of public and private sphere to continue controlling the behaviours they disgust or shame of.

In other words, the governments sweep gay men out of the public space and private sphere, restrict them inside the “closet” and locked it with respectability. Since private places and public places between them exhaust all the places that there are, there is nowhere for gay men to perform these sexual actions. And since freedom to perform a concrete action requires freedom to perform it at some place, it follows that gay men have no freedom to do them.[11] Any restriction on the performance of those basic acts has the feature of being not only uncomfortable and degrading, but more or less unbearable for the people concerned. Of course, some may argue that this kind of “group” sex orgy is not unbearable for gay men, and it should be excluded out of the protection of freedom of sexual behaviours.[12] Even it is true, the privacy of home, the last castle of person, should not be violated if the behaviour is only “self-regarding” or “other-regarding” with consent.[13] The next question then will be how to distinguish these two concepts instead of the distinction of public and private.

Honosexuals?: Concluding Remarks

The struggles within many societies begin and end within the terrain of the space and human body, which though has no referential meaning becomes embodied by meaning within the context that ultimately has a stake in the body, in particular in the male body. Participating in the transformation of the private into the public or the other way around, the body is both an object in which one lives and a site of legal enunciation. Those two examples in Taipei show that the familiar distinction between the public and the private frequently offers bad guidance when we think about the regulation of space and behaviours. The issues involved in the two cases are both about the desire of the majority to hide away aspects of human behaviour that panic them, no matter in public or in private.[14] Shame and stigma is what they are both about. The law should not use shaming as a part of the public system of punishment, and we should refuse to make law whose primary or only purpose is to inflict stigma on vulnerable minorities. There is another interesting phenomenon getting more and more popular in gay communities in Taiwan: the generating of the gay cyberspace. Taiwanese, even in Taipei, are adept at cruising on the Internet and many prefer making a quick and easy online rendezvous anonymously rather than the expense and time required to hang around a bar or sauna. There are many forums, fetish groups and personalized websites and blogs. There are some cases indicated that the Taiwanese government is going to regulate this “disorder” of the cyberspace. It is necessary to notice how this new gay space develops in Taiwan and its relationship with reproduction of gay identity and law.


[1] See Martha C. Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law 269 (2004)[hereinafter Hiding from Humanity].
[2] Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, and the Ethics of Queer Life 172 (1999), reprinted in Derald E. Frug, Richard T. Ford & David J. Barron eds., Local Government Law 615 (2001)[hereinafter The Trouble with Normal].
[3] See Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986); Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003).
[4] See Leslie J. Moran, The Queen’s Peace: Reflections on the Spatial Politics of Sexuality in Law, in Jane Holder & Carolyn Harrison eds., Law and Geography 85, at 94 (2003).
[5] See Jeremy Waldron, Homelessness and the Issue of Freedom, 39 UCLA L. Rev. 295, at 296 (1991)[hereinafter Homelessness].
[6] Id. at 301.
[7] See Michel Foucault, The Eye of Power, in Colin Gordon ed., Power/Knowledge 146, at 149 (1980).
[8] See Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal 159, reprinted in Local Government Law 614.
[9] See Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference 136 (1990).
[10] Id.
[11] This is analogized from Jeremy Waldron’s arguments of homeless people and their freedom. See Waldron, Homelessness, supra note 4, at 315.
[12] For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the sexual activities are protected under the Constitution only within the relationship of marriage. See Grisword v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965).
[13] See e.g. Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557 (1969).
[14] See Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity, supra note 1, at 270.


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