Interview: Jennifer Lu

Jennifer Lu is currently a research fellow at the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline and is a leading figure in Taiwan’s marriage equality movement.


Brian Hioe:  How did you begin to participate in social movements? What kind movements did you participate in and why did you participate?

Jennifer Lu:  I probably began to participate in social movements in 2003, when I was 19. I began participating in the LGBTQ movement. This may not have been directly participating in the movement, but participating in LGBTQ groups in school when I was at National Taiwan University. I worked on some things with student groups and elders from the Tongzhi Hotline.

But I didn’t feel that I was participating in a social movement then, per se. I was just a young gay person and I was studying social work, so I wanted to understand myself more and see if I could help this group of people like me. I didn’t think that I wanted to participate in social movements, I just went to the Hotline, and they happened to have training for volunteers.

I attended their classes and because the Hotline did a lot of talks at schools, they brought me along with them. I thought this was fun, since I could go a lot of different places and meet with a lot of different people outside of Taipei, where I had grown up. I could also practice my speaking ability. It was quite fun.

Because of that, I continued to stay at the Hotline. At the time, there were also less lesbians at the Hotline, and I had the opportunity to get to know about different issues and they would hope for more lesbians to participate. I joined the family planning group to work with parents. And I would act as spokesman at press conferences. There was a lot of advocacy work and it had to do with lesbian issues, or women’s issues.

I think I spent most of my time in college at the Hotline. The Hotline also participated in a lot of movements, such as the early anti-nuclear movement, some labor movement issues, such as Autumn Struggle, the pride parade, the environmental movement, indigenous movement, and etc. In this way, I had contact with a lot of different social movements. But I still interacted the most with women’s issues and issues regarding sexuality.

Jennifer Lu at a fundraiser event held by the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline. Photo credit: 呂欣潔 Jennifer Lu

After I graduated from college, I worked for awhile. I was very interested in politics then, because I studied social work. As a result, I felt that the effect of policy on people is quite large.

I was interested in women’s issues, but I wasn’t sure what I should do, so I decided to work in the women’s department of the DPP. I worked there awhile, but I continued to work as a volunteer at the Hotline. It felt like working two jobs, I felt quite tired. I thought that if I continued to work at the Hotline, I was too busy, and I had a sick sister, so I had to take care of my family.

Later on, I left the DPP and went to Academia Sinica to work as a research assistant. My time working was more certain and I didn’t have to constantly work overtime and I could occasionally tell the professors that I had to go give a speech or hold a press conference, so I might be later coming to work.

In this way, I continued volunteering at the Hotline and working at Academia Sinica for a year. Then, the Hotline had a project. I applied and went through an interview process to start working at the Hotline, which was how I formally started working at the Hotline. That was in the middle of 2008, around August, up until now.

Brian Hioe:  What were you doing around the time of 2008? Because the Hotline also participated at that point in time.

Jennifer Lu:  The Sunflower Movement was in 2014. I was working at the Hotline then. I started working at the Hotline in 2008 and I worked until 2011, when I left the country to go study abroad. I went to Australia to study for my MA, studying social policy. And I came back at the end of 2012, starting to work again at the Hotline in 2013.

I think that studying abroad for a year affected me quite a lot. But I already leaned towards Taiwanese independence and I was already interested in politics. Earlier on, however, issues related to sexuality were quite marginalized in Taiwanese politics. When sexuality was discussed, this was usually in context of women’s issues, rather than LGBTQ issues. And organizing women’s organizations wasn’t really advocating policy for women. So I was interested in this, but there wasn’t enough space for me to work in politics then.

Yet I knew that I was interested in politics and I felt that issues of sovereignty were very important. But after leaving the country to study, I had a stronger sense of this, because most overseas students have experienced those sorts of experience with being categorized as “Chinese” by schools, or that there are a lot of Chinese and there’s only one Taiwanese there.

You would feel in the minority and that wherever you go, if you’re not squeezed in with Chinese people, you’re being squeezed out by Chinese people. [Laughs] It didn’t feel very equal. And because I started to concern with many international topics, I discovered that because I had come into contact with the LGBTQ movements of other countries, Taiwan actually doing quite well. Taiwan had many progressive points which many people didn’t know about. They didn’t the know what Taiwan was doing.

Because we were all working on LGBTQ issues, I could see that people were unfamiliar with us, that we were a blank to them. No matter whether this was Taiwan, this place, or Taiwan’s LGBTQ movement. So at the time, I felt that if I could, I would want to allow more people to know what Taiwan was doing. I might have been most familiar with LGBTQ issues and issues regarding sexuality, but regarding other issues, I also wanted to allow people to know what Taiwan was doing.

From when I came back from Australia onwards, I began to participate more in international conferences and some international opportunities, to allow people to see what Taiwan was doing. That consciousness is quite strong, that I’m a Taiwanese person and that as a Taiwanese person, I hope to be visible in the international world. I think this is very similar to the feeling of wanting to be visible as a gay person in society.

The Sunflower Movement was in March of 2014. At the time, the Ma government continued to try and steer Taiwan in the direction of China. I feel that for NGO organizations and for the LGBTQ movement, in the past, there had been some distance between LGBTQ organizations and sovereignty-related organizations. Because this sense of identity would lead us to feel that we weren’t included in the nation, so many of us don’t discuss issues regarding nationality in the movement, or political leanings.

There would be the feeling that all politics is bad, because we were excluded anyway. And our elders wouldn’t discuss what their sense of national identification was or how they looked at the issue of Taiwanese independence.

The Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline at 2017 pride in Taipei. Photo credit: 台灣同志諮詢熱線/Facebook

But I hope very strongly for everybody to have this consciousness in our communities. I felt very clearly at that time that democracy is the only path for LGBTQ people to continue to survive in Taiwan. I feel that what is important about that to me is that if we continue to lean towards China, if our democracy becomes weaker and weaker, LGBTQ people won’t have an environment to survive.

On the one hand, the Ma government was oppressing a lot of different social groups, and it would be worrisome regarding the circumstances of leaning towards China. Individually, I concerned myself a great deal with these issues, but I could sense that other participants in the movement didn’t know how to enter into these issues, because there might not have been that space.

When the Sunflower Movement broke out, that was a large event, and many younger volunteers at the Hotline were among the first wave to enter the Legislative Yuan. After going in, they took pictures and posted them on Facebook and checked in, or started livestreaming, so a lot of news spread from there. We were already NGO workers and the Tongzhi Hotline’s office is not far from the Legislative Yuan by Guting Station.

We started discussing right away what we could do. And I think the reason why we started discussing this was because we had a lot of volunteers inside. We had a very close relation with them and we wanted to support them doing what they wanted to do. So although it was in the middle of the night, we opened up our office for people that felt tired and wanted to rest. We had a co-worker who liked to work at night, so they stayed in the office on stand-by to take care of this.

We saw that among our volunteers, there may have been individuals who hoped to be noticed within the movement, so may have emphasized their identity as LGBTQ, waving a rainbow flag, to show other participants that there were LGBTQ people in the movement and that everybody is the citizens of this country, trying to protect our democracy. The situation was like that. But more people there were students. NGO workers such as ourselves have more set times in which we have to work. For example we have to go give speeches or things like that, we can’t suddenly cancel. We felt a bit conflicted, since we would want to do more things, but as someone who works, we had a set time in which we had to go to work.

In the first two days, when there were less people, we would link up with the Democracy Watch (民主平台) and Awakening Foundation. The role that the Tongzhi Hotline played was more supporting our volunteers and seeing what other NGOs wanted to do.

Brian Hioe:  Do you have any views regarding that the issue of identification is dividing within the LGBTQ movement?

Jennifer Lu:  I wouldn’t say that it’s divisive so much as that it hasn’t been discussed before by people. I think that before 318, it hadn’t been discussed before. My feeling is that it was only after the Sunflower Movement that we may have gradually realized that some elders may lean towards the KMT or towards unification. But we wouldn’t discuss this beforehand.

When Ma Ying-Jeou was mayor of Taipei or when Chen Shui-Bian was mayor of Taipei, they interacted with us, but afterwards, they left the issue unsettled. Many elders in the LGBTQ movement saw that s a wrong, that there wasn’t a political party which was a consistent ally for us. There wasn’t anything like this. They might try something, but then later go back on their promises, or not fulfill promises that they had made in the past. I think the view in the tongzhi movement was that politics could not be trusted. Politicians could not be trusted. And that there wasn’t a need to interact with them.

The year I was convenor of the pride parade, when Su Tseng-Chang ran for mayor of Taipei in 2010, I felt from the beginning that if a politician was willing to support LGBTQ issues, this was a good thing. But many elders would worry that we would be tricked or taken advantage of. I think that this is a result of a history of being hurt. And there were similar incidents that took place in the past.

Photo credit: 呂欣潔 Jennifer Lu/Facebook

I feel that in the past, even if they didn’t discuss this issue, this didn’t mean that they might not change their views in the future. So I think that keeping them outside is not a way for other people to come to understand this movement. When Su Tsung-Chang planned to come to the pride parade, I was relatively more open about this, since I thought there could be discussion of this.

But journalists ran up to us and asked if Su Tsung-Chang was going to come, and this was reported on that he was planning on coming, this caused some elders to become angry that we hadn’t settled the matter and that we had already allowed journalists to know about this. This added to their feeling of lacking trust.

In the past, some people may have had some more positive feelings towards the KMT than with the DPP, because Ma Ying-Jeou did a few things for the LGBTQ community during his term. But this was very small, that he had a Taipei LGBTQ citizens’ movement event (台北同志公民運動), also known as the LGBTQ Play Day (同玩節), which had a few different names. It was a small initiative of the Taipei city department of civil affairs. Lin Zhenxiu was head of the department of civil affairs under Ma Ying-Jeou at that time, so they organized this event. Lin Zhenxiu was quite close to social movements and quite supportive of the LGBTQ movement. Even now, he’s still quite supportive.

So there was this event then. And many people may have felt that there were more hope if it was Ma Ying-Jeou. At the time, I didn’t think too much about what the views of elders were regarding their political positions or their stance on independence/unification issues. I didn’t think about that then. Looking back now, I think there had to have been some influence. Yet there wasn’t the opportunity to properly discuss this up until after the Sunflower Movement, in which it has gradually been discussed.

Sometimes it’s said that the queer don’t have a country, because LGBTQ individuals are often excluded from the nation. And so independence/unification issues didn’t seem very important to people, because tongzhi are used to oppression, and gradually finding ways to be a bit better off. This might involve leaving the country. Taiwan might not be so important for them as a place.

But I think that while many people may have thought this way beforehand, the Sunflower Movement shook them awake, and led them to discover that if the political situation is not bettered, there might not be any way to improve LGBTQ issues as well. Because of that, many people have come to support Taiwanese consciousness, not that they were supporters of independence beforehand.

Brian Hioe:  Did you organize any events then? Such as discussions.

Jennifer Lu:  Because the Hotline is a service-oriented organization, what we worked on more was less discussion of issues, but taking care of those among our volunteers who had been hurt or who were facing a lot of pressure, how we could help them. The Hotline has a lot of people that work on mental health issues or rehabilitation. We have a lot of doctors and teachers and psychologists, for example. So these people helped out.

After entering into the Legislative Yuan, some of our volunteers were criticized regarding their raising rainbow flags in the Legislative. After they were criticized, there was a lot of discussion of the issue online. Because this is something often discussed, regarding priorities in the movement.

For many nationalistic Taiwanese independence advocates, achieving independence is what is most important. Issues regarding gender/sexuality, that’s not a priority and it isn’t within their considerations. They would hope first for independence before any discussion of sexuality.

Of course, for those concerned with marginalized groups, there aren’t any priorities. If you don’t have a movement with equality and justice, even if you achieve independence today, we still confront an unequal set of circumstances.

There were some conflicts. For example, two men kissing on-site and being photographed would be criticized as improper behavior and there would be a lot of discussion online. These were all our volunteers. And those who took the rainbow flag onstage, those were also volunteers we had trained. With all these controversies, these were our volunteers. [Laughs]

Photo credit: Felix the Bear/Flickr/CC

But why not? Participation is diverse. Its because of different issues that people support this event. And seeing this together is a normal thing. But they would feel hurt and felt excluded or that they weren’t visible. They felt that in the long-term, they had been excluded by this country and that in this movement, they would be visible, accepted, and we could all work together, but they were still excluded.

Those few years, there were similar events. For example, one year during the yearly anti-nuclear protest, there was a play involving something like sticking a nuclear fuel rod into Ma Ying-Jeou and acting this out. This was to criticize Ma Ying-Jeou on the basis of his possible sexual orientation, and his relation with with King Pu-Tsung.

For LGBTQ groups, this was very awkward, since we also participated in this protest and work together with many people opposed to nuclear energy. How could you have a play on stage like this? We felt that this was hard to endure, sitting beneath the stage, seeing them making light of things we cared about. This occurred several times

It wasn’t an isolated incident, it occurred several times, so I felt that for the tongzhi movement—and this was usually with younger participants—they had a lot of pent up feelings. A few days later, we could feel that some volunteers’ circumstances weren’t that good. They had a lot of pressure in continuing to protest and they didn’t feel accepted, or were criticized with statements like, “You’re not in the LGBTQ movement now, so this isn’t the place to raise a rainbow flag.”

After some people withdrew, we helped them to take care of their problems. Some volunteers may not have been in the occupation but come and gone in the surrounding environment. And some people may have also talked about issues of sexuality in the soapbox talks nearby. We left our office open 24 hours then, because there was also a shower at our office, and you could rest, or drink water. Everyone could come.

Later on, because some other NGOs gathered by the stage near Jinan Road and everyone was sick or tired, we helped assist some organizations and with some activities on-site. But issues of sexuality continued to be somewhat awkward and it was quite clear that issues regarding sexuality weren’t thought of as an important issue.

I would go help out myself when I had time and sometimes there were some professors who participated in the democracy movement or had many accomplishments in the study of Taiwanese history, but they would continue talk about things like, “The Taiwanese people need to have guts!”. And I would have to tell them backstage that, “Professor, I don’t recommend talking this way.”

I would introduce myself, because I was less well known then that I was from the Tongzhi Hotline and I would tell them that there were many LGBTQ participants and that their speaking about issues in this way would let them feel uncomfortable, as well as that I knew this was the speaking style they were used to, but could they try and change their way of talking. These were all elders. It was quite tiring, that also took a lot of energy.

Brian Hioe:  Do you think that there is any political orientation to Taiwanese social movement circles? They tend to be younger, and they also tend to be progressive on social issues ranging from support of gay marriage to indigenous issues and opposition to the death penalty. For example, why do the majority of social movement participants seem to support gay marriage?

Jennifer Lu:  I don’t think support for gay marriage leans left or right. Because there actually many KMT supporters that support gay marriage. We see that more people support gay marriage in the DPP and that a large majority of NPP supporters support gay marriage. Comparatively, less KMT supporters support gay marriage, but there still are KMT supporters that support gay marriage. Around 30%. And the DPP has around 50% that support gay marriage.

There may be less supporters of gay marriage the KMT, but there still are some. As a result, I think this issue goes beyond party affiliation in Taiwan, it doesn’t seem to be a divide between conservative and liberal, or left and right. I haven’t researched it in-depth, but this is based on my experience and statistical polling. The difference is not that large. The difference based on generation is larger.

The issues I think which divide more cleanly between left and right may have to do with social welfare. Or labor welfare. Marriage equality doesn’t seem to divide so cleanly. You can also see very wealthy male gay people that may lean towards neoliberalism and the opening up of the fee market and less government regulation but that strongly support gay marriage. So I think its much more a generational difference rather than a difference in left/right political values. That’s my personal take on it.

Brian Hioe:  Three years later, how do you think this movement has influenced Taiwanese politics? You yourself later ran for office, for example.

Photo credit: Duke Lin/Flickr/CC

Jennifer Lu:  I think that the influence is quite large. It’s because of the Sunflower Movement that I would want to run for office later on. I felt that this influence is that we still have some hopes for the next generation. Because when we were students, discussing Taiwanese independence advocates was almost like an insult in itself. When I was small, we used it as an insult to scold people. [Laughs] Adults would say, “Don’t be like those Taiwanese independence advocates!” I remember someone in my family said when I ran for office, “Ah, at the very least, you haven’t become like those Taiwanese independence advocates.”

For them, their impression is that Taiwanese independence activists are more easily stirred to emotion, more easily moved to violence, and have overflowing feelings. When you’re in the minority, you have to be like this to break through the limits of the system, otherwise, it’s very easy for the system to assimilate you or for you to not have visibility. Those of us who said directly that we advocated Taiwanese independence were quite few in the past, our classmates would think that we were very strange.

But after the Sunflower Movement, everyone’s banner suddenly changed to “I support Taiwanese independence”. There was one day when I even shed a tear, seeing this. [Laughs] The times had changed!

Compared to those that ran for office later on, I was older. I’m at the tail end of young people. I’m 35 this year. So it left a deep impression on me, that my views when I was in college were quite different from those in college now. In the past, people had no interest in political participation or civic participation. Including that if you were interested in these issues, you would be treated as being a very strange person.

Parents would also worry about your future, feeling that this is a dangerous thing, and wondering why you have to do these dangerous things. Many parents still feel this even now. But regular students seem to feel that participating in these topics is quite normal, particularly with activist groups on different college campuses. Or that regular student groups are discussing some social issues. These are more common occurrences. So the stimulus of the Sunflower Movement led to a lot of changes.

My wife is a pretty good example. Her family is benshengren but her parents have been long-term supporters of the KMT. When we started dating in 2013, she even asked me, “Why would you work in a place like the DPP?” For her family, they benefitted economically from the rise of the KMT. Although they didn’t directly receive benefits, they indirectly did. As a result, they didn’t see any issue with the rise of the KMT or closer relations with China, and their views would be that the DPP was a group of rioters or were irrational. Or that Chen Shui-Bian stole money or that they were bad people. And that the DPP loved to get into fights. That, on the other hand, the KMT were intelligent and reasonable.

But later on, after 318, more and more things were reported on, leading her to reconsider and read books like “One Hundred Years of Chasing”, and organized a reading group called “Former 689 Alliance.” She formed this with a few of her friends that studied history or other subjects and found some people to read together and write their reflections. She’s from Zhongli, but didn’t know about the Zhongyi Incident, and so would research history. And they were called the “Former 689 Alliance” because they were all people that formerly voted for Ma Ying-Jeou. [Laughs] But they didn’t think that there any issues with that in the past.

It was this group of people, in their twenties and thirties, that this had a large stimulus. These people may have come to support the DPP later, but I think the majority of them came to support small parties. Or young people participating in civic issues. The proportion is very different from when I was young, when I joined the DPP. When I joined the DPP, there weren’t any other young people, they were all people that had been within the DPP for a long time. And the DPP was at a low ebb then. This generation of young people is quite different.

Brian Hioe:  Lastly, do you think that there would ever be a movement like the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan in the future? And do you think that this movement could influence the international world?

Jennifer Lu:  I think that depends on how the DPP does in office! [Laughs] But I’m already a bit pessimistic. I feel that in these two years, after elections, what I observe is that our system and structure hasn’t changed. Changing out a few people doesn’t help. In these few years, you can see this, that a few people have been switched out, but everything feels the same. Why would some person change once they’ve obtained a political position? Are they getting incorrect information? I don’t believe that people suddenly change their beliefs so fast, I think it is a structural issue. For those of us that study public policy, we tend to thank that it is structural issues and not individual issues. [Laughs]

Not completely, anyhow. There may need to be more long-term, deep-rooted change. I think it still depends on whether this government has sufficient strength and whether our government can establish itself to the level that it can allow us to have peaceful reform. If not, I don’t think it’s impossible for such an event to occur.

Photo credit: Abby Chen/Flickr/CC

But I feel that the reason why the movement would become so large is because people’s mood and sense of being anxious, and fear that we would lose what we have now, that is, our democratic system. So could it lead to this moment again? Perhaps if there is strong anxiety that we may lose what we have now.

As for international society, I think that the gender/sexuality movement and other social movements can be put together. Our civil society continues to develop and this affects different issues. The Sunflower Movement is an example. The marriage equality movement is another. We’re very clear that in next generation is very clear that we need to stand up for our rights, otherwise its very for other people to make decisions for you.

People don’t want for decisions to be made by other people, we want to have the right to make decisions ourselves. If the government continues to allow people to feel as though decisions are being made for them and that they don’t have the ability to make decisions, I think that this circumstance may happen again, and that this kind of movement could still appear.

As for international society, I still feel that its unfolding our civil society. For example, many people ask me why we would be the first in Asia to realize marriage equality. I think that the influence of civil society is quite large. Large events, such as last year’s Human Rights Day music festival, had 200,000, to 250,000 people that participated in it.

Civil society is a very important force for social change, not just the doings of a few people. The Sunflower Movement wasn’t the accomplishment of a few people either. It was the power of civil society.

In showing the strength of our civil society, we can establish clearly in international society that we are an independent polity and to illustrate the differences between ourselves and China. Will this help our international position? This is very hard to judge. But we are a polity and I think this has been seen very clearly by international society in recent years. That is also a value that we have chosen, which may be shared with other more progressive countries.