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LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Lesbian Buddhist wedding reflects cultural differences in Taiwan

(Editor's note: Allister Chang graduated summa cum laude in history at Tufts University, where he received the Tuft's Presidential Award for Citizenship and Public Service for his work on LGBT issues. He is working on a master's degree in public policy from Harvard University Kennedy School of Government. He currently is living in Taiwan, where he is studying Chinese language and literature at National Taiwan University. He is also blogging about LGBT issues in Taiwan and China, and writing gay travel stories.)

Re: In Taiwan, lesbian couple's wedding makes Buddhist history.

Although I am also very glad to hear that over 300 monastics helped to officiate a same-sex wedding in Taiwan, I would like to take this opportunity – Americans are interested in the Taiwanese LGBT movement! – to point out several cultural differences that (unfortunately) limit the importance of this event in Taiwan.

First of all, even after I spent a month living at a Buddhist monastery here in Taiwan, I don't personally know anyone who has gotten a Buddhist wedding. The monastics I met don't get married, and the laypeople don't turn to the monastery the same way that Americans turn to the Church to oversee marriages. Buddhism infuses the cultural life of all Taiwanese people, but few people are affiliated with Buddhist (or any other religious) institutions. Religious ideas are really not that significant to Taiwanese people; Confucianism (not a religion) remains the core of our epistemology.

Americans often assume that the debate regarding same-sex marriage is intrinsically tied to religion. This is not exactly the case in Taiwan. Whereas the Bible arguably condemns homosexuality as a sin, no Buddhist texts mention homosexuality either in a positive or negative light. Marriage is not so much a religious ceremony as it is family business.

One retired French Professor at the National Taiwan University once told me that he found Taipei to be more gay-friendly than Paris in the 1970s. How is that possible? In this culture, the pressures against homosexuality do not come from religious or legal institutions to the same degree that we see in the States. Instead, filial piety remains a priority, and pressure from one's family to fulfill the traditional duty of getting married and having a biological son forms the basis of LGBT individuals' concerns. The retired French Professor did not have any family in Taiwan, and consequently did not feel the bulk of the pressure that local Taiwanese gays would face for being gay.

I had the opportunity to speak with Master Shih Chao-hui – the leading venerable who officiated that same-sex wedding – and she said to me that since wedding on Aug. 11, she has received no opposition from other monastics. Yes, we should celebrate this event, but a Buddhist same-sex wedding does not cut against the grain to the extent that many American readers (and writers) assume it is.

The fight in religious settings is not unimportant in Taiwan, but only to the extent that it brings us closer to fulfilling Taiwanese LGBT individuals’ priority concern: the integration into fulfilling Confucian family duties, duties that do not necessarily rest upon religious or legal recognitions.

Allister Chang