A Fire That Shall Not Be ExtinguishedFire Ex lead singer Yang Ta-cheng shows us what love (and the new Taiwan) is all about
Greatly needing a break from electoral politics, last weekend I began reading Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers, a monster of a book that, among its many plot lines, explores the theme of homosexuality through its main character, the octogenarian novelist Kenneth Toomey. Earthly Powers is a challenging book, filled with wonderful punning, references and uses of the English language that one can only hope was still in vogue today. Beyond its artistic appeal, the novel delves into the devastating socio-religious pressures on homosexuals to conform, to un-choose, if you will, that which wasn’t — isn’t — a choice to begin with.
Burgess’ novel is filled with linguistic assaults on homosexuality, the most disastrous by far coming from family members. The narrator, whose reliability is often in doubt, doesn’t always tell us how painful the arrows are and it is left to the reader to imagine the agony. As I read the book I couldn’t help but think about my personal experience, that of my mother’s coming out several years ago, a development in my family that allowed me to experience first-hand both the healing powers of tolerance and the devastating blows of intolerance. Luckily, the reaction in my immediate family fell in the former category, which greatly mitigated the potentially dislocating effects of that new reality.
My personal experience, which I discuss in depth in the second section of my book Black Island (Chinese version:《黑色島嶼：一個外籍資深記者對台灣公民運動的調查性報導》), made me understand that acceptance can be as true an act of love as a conjugal union — even when the ultimate consequence of that acceptance is the break-up of one’s marriage. Acknowledging that homosexuality isn’t a choice but a natural fact that doesn’t necessitate spiritual/physical/mental “healing” or the willful “abandonment of” is not a but the key variable, which then makes it much easier for all parties involved to seek true, physically/psychically compatible partnerships. There is no doubt that my father’s acceptance of my mother’s reality was an act of love: it allowed her to be who she is, and it made it much easier for me, their only son, to live with the consequences of that new reality. In fact, I am adamant that I am a better, more accepting, person for having been through what could easily have turned into a devastating family trauma, as is often the case in less open-minded households. Undoubtedly my father could have treated the whole affair as a form of betrayal, a lie. But he chose not to. And I am sure that is because he was aware of the socio-religious pressures that his wife had faced since childhood, pressures that sought to convince her, and perhaps succeeded temporarily, that a heterosexual union would somehow “fix” her, or at a minimum make her “forget” her true identity. Of course that’s not how things work, but you’d be surprised how many people and institutions (predominantly religious) continue to argue that one’s sexual preference and gender identity can be learned and un-learned, chosen and un-chosen, or passed on through imitation or “caught” as if by a virus.
And now Taiwan has its own example of acceptance, with the coming out of singer Enno Cheng (鄭宜農), who since 2013 had been married Yang Ta-cheng (楊大正), the lead singer of the popular rock band Fire Ex (滅火器). Rather than react angrily, Yang, whose band has been very close to Taiwan’s social movements in recent years and gave us the award-winning song “Island’s Sunrise” (島嶼天光) — the “anthem” for last year’s Sunflower Movement — went down the path chosen by my father years ago. Out of love, Yang said he would grant Cheng a divorce and “support her fully,” as in his wedding vow he’d said he would protect “her right to be herself.” The conservative religious organizations that oppose same-sex unions and claim to know what “true love” is are way off: This, my friends, is true love. Love isn’t possession or the desire to shape another individual, it is wanting happiness and fulfillment for the other without condition.
Yang and Cheng are part of the generation that has been transforming Taiwan and giving it a new, distinct identity. At a time when cynical politicians constantly engage in smearing and fear mongering, such displays of humanity, progressiveness and acceptance cannot but give one hope. That is the new Taiwan. And this is one fire that Yang likely isn’t prepared to extinguish.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.