Five LGBTI activists from Asia tell how they plan to mark this Valentine's Day

Vincy is an up and coming musician in Hong Kong who prefers to use the pronoun “they” to refer to their non-binary, transgender identity. They are 25 years old. They don’t really care about Valentine’s Day, and may not celebrate it this year.

How did you become aware of your gender identity?

I realized that I’m trans in the summer of 2015. I was dating a straight man at that time and he was asking me if I would consider myself gender fluid queer. Since then, I read a lot more about it, and talked with my non-binary, trans friends.

Have you found it more difficult to find love after you came out?

I broke up with my ex a couple of weeks after I came out, he was considerably progressive, but there were differences we couldn’t overcome. He asked questions that I thought were very invasive to me and made me very uncomfortable. When I first dated him I was more feminine, had long hair, and wore dresses. Further down the relationship I started dressing more masculine. I think that me coming to the realization of being trans definitely changed the nature of our relationship.

It is harder for me to love, especially in Hong Kong where the relationships we see are very cisgender [when people’s gender expression and identity accords with their sex assigned at birth] and heteronormative [presumption of heterosexuality or promotion of heterosexuality as normal]. Even within the LGBT community, people who have high visibility are cisgender gays and lesbians. People find it very confusing to interact with me because they don’t know how they should identify me: am I a male or female? Sometimes I see confused looks on their faces. When people have this doubt, it gets harder to get to know each other intimately.

I’m seeing someone currently. When we go out, a lot of people look at us as either a gay or lesbian couple. We get stared at quite a bit, especially on the days when I dress more masculine or days when I don’t wear much makeup. I do appreciate that he doesn’t care when people stare at us. We just do our own thing and are comfortable with that. It means a lot to me, that we are able to be out and about and don’t need to hide from the public eye.

What needs to be done for transgender people to live comfortably in Hong Kong?

There needs to be more education on general transgender issues in Hong Kong. As the queer community gets more visibility in media, we need positive representation of the trans community as well.

I would like to see more positive portrayals of trans people on TV and in film, for example people should stop making fun of men wearing dresses, it is not funny. There are all these small things that would make the lives of trans people easier.

While this is a pipe-dream at this point in Hong Kong, I hope this is something we can achieve in the long term.

Can you briefly introduce your activism in promoting trans rights in Hong Kong?

I try the best I can to talk about gender issues, if not specifically trans issues, when I am promoting my music. It’s definitely a difficult conversation to begin with as people don’t think there’s a problem.

It’s hard enough to talk about equality for women in the music industry, let alone other communities. So far the people I have worked closely with are more progressive and open-minded but otherwise I find it really hard to discuss trans rights with other people in the music scene.

Kris Prasad is a 34-year-old queer, Indo-Fijian activist based in Fiji. Although he thinks modern Valentine’s Day is a “capitalist scam”, he intends to celebrate it just like any other day. He believes loving each other and nurturing a queer community is the most important thing to do for LGBTI rights.

Have you displayed affection with your partner in public? If yes, what reaction did you receive then? 

The reactions are different depending on the public place we are navigating through and whether our bodies are seen as gender conforming or non-confirming. Some bars and nightclubs can be safe for queer people but displaying affection on the streets or on public transport can attract stares, laughter or jeers.

Compared to opposite-sex people, do you think there’s any difference in the way you built or experience relationships? 

There’s definitely a difference in the way we experience relationships. Firstly, in a small country like Fiji, it may be hard to find others to connect with but social media and apps have definitely made it easier. Queer people in relationships deal with everyday ups-and-downs just like heterosexual couples. However in a context where there could be isolation, homophobia and other social and cultural stresses, these relationships may not get the same support as heteronormative [the presumption of heterosexuality or promotion of heterosexuality as normal] relationships and many may struggle to maintain healthy and fulfilling relationships.

What do you think of Valentine’s Day? 

Modern Valentine’s Day is a capitalist scam designed to manipulate people into spending money in the name of love. It perpetuates the idea that some relationships are more “normal and natural” than others and deserve more emotional care. It also minimizes the importance of other forms of love. We don’t need a commercialized holiday to honour love. As tolerance of LGBTI people increases and our communities get access to rights and privileges, we must avoid buying into oppressive ideas about love.

I intend to celebrate Valentine’s Day just like any other day. For queer people living in a world that seeks to pathologize us, deny our humanity and make us invisible, loving ourselves and our families (chosen or otherwise) and nurturing our community is the ultimate radical act.

What do you think of the Fijian government’s treatment of LGBTI people?

While Fiji is one of the few countries in the world that has a constitution prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, the constitutional rights are limited for non-heteronormative couples along with other restrictions in the Bill of Rights.

Activists in Fiji know the reality is different for LGBTI people who face high levels of violence, stigma and discrimination. Two years ago, our Prime Minister slammed same-sex marriage as “rubbish” and advised same-sex couples to move to Iceland and stay there if they want marriage equality. Societal tolerance of LGBTI people is increasing but when powerful leaders make such statements, it promotes hate speech and puts more pressure on advocates to work harder to change attitudes and combat prejudices.

What change do you hope to see to enhance equality among couples regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity?

I would like to see the government hold true to their promise of equality and non-discrimination for all Fijians including those with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. I also hope to see our community moving beyond single-issue politics in our struggle for a better world. Freedom, autonomy and transformative social change can only be achieved if we unite against all forms of oppression and domination including capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy and heteronormativity.

J knew she was lesbian before she even knew the word. Now 27, she has come out to her close friends but not to any of her family, as she doesn’t want her family and other acquaintances to know. J works for a Korean non-profit organization and she met her partner two years ago when she took a short course at the SOGI (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) Academy. J is excited about celebrating Valentine’s Day with her partner.

When did you become aware of your sexual orientation?

I became aware I am a lesbian when I was a little girl but I was in the closet even when I was 20 years old. I felt so sad and lonely at university, as there was nobody I could talk with about this. Since then, I decided to come out of the closet and accept my identity.

How did your friends react when you came out?

All my friends know that I have a partner. Most of my LGBTI friends have met her, however, my hetero friends have never met her and I think they don’t really want to meet her.

I am affectionate with my partner all the time, such as holding hands, kissing cheek to cheek, and hugging.

I don’t really care what others think, so I don’t notice their reactions. However, one time, when I was stroking my partner’s hair while waiting for the subway, an old lady yelled at us saying “aren’t you a lesbian or something?” That was not a pleasant experience.

What challenges do LGBTI couples in South Korea face compared to opposite-sex couples?

We are not recognized as a couple in this heterosexual-oriented society. For example, my partner might not be able to come to my parents’ funeral because I didn’t come out to my family.

In South Korea, heterosexual couples can start and build their relationship naturally, sometimes even accidently in their daily lives, however LGBTI couples need the special ‘gaydar’ to meet someone. To meet someone, we have to make extra efforts. For example using a dating app, attending queer events or meetings or asking queer friends to introduce other queers, etc. I guess we have less options to meet people than heterosexual couples.

Are you excited for Valentine’s Day? Any unforgettable memories?

I like Valentine’s Day because I like chocolates a lot! On Valentine’s Day, there are many fancy chocolates out there and I love it.

Last year’s Valentine’s Day was special because it was the first with my partner. We gave each other very delicious chocolates. I still remember my partner’s face when I gave her chocolates and the taste and flavour of them. I always feel happy when I think of that moment.

How will you celebrate this year, did you pick a present for your partner?

I have a present for her, but it’s a secret! (Because she is helping me answer these questions now!)

What do you think of the South Korea’s government and wider society’s treatment of LGBTI people?

I think the Korean government and society try to erase us being here. The media often use “Bromance” (브로맨스) or “Girl crush” (걸크러쉬) when they describe two men or women’s love or affection,  they don’t want to recognize the existence of “gay” or “lesbian”.

We don’t have same-sex marriage or civil partnerships so LGBTI couples cannot receive any benefits or protection from the government even if they have lived together for a long time.

What changes do you hope to see to enhance equality among couples regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity?

I want to see our society accept diversity. In order to create this culture, we need to provide queer friendly education to schools and families. To provide such education, we need an “anti-discrimination act”. We also need to legalize same-sex marriage.

Soshi Matsuoka is in his final year of university in Tokyo. He is also an active writer, and gives presentations at seminars in schools to broaden people’s understanding of LGBT issues. He finds Valentine’s Day quite unrelated to him, as he thinks it is based on a premise of opposite-sex relationships.

When did you become aware of your sexual orientation?

I became aware of my sexual orientation for the first time in my early teens. I was naturally attracted to my friends of the same sex. At first, I wasn’t really sure if I really liked men or if I simply admired them. I thought, “Nah, it couldn’t be.”

I realized that I was gay when I was in junior high school. Due to the socially accepted idea that men are attracted to women, I felt vaguely insecure about this. What would I do in the future? Could I get married? How would I tell my mother?

In high school, friends would laugh at me for being the “gay character” of the group. Then they would ask me, “Seriously, are you?” I wasn’t able to answer.

I was living in Nagoya but ended up going to a university in Tokyo. The spring break before I left for Tokyo, I told my friends that I was gay. They responded really well and one of my friends was kind enough to say, “Being gay is just one of the many things that make up who you are. To me, you’re just you.” I was lucky to be among such wonderful people. Up to that point, I thought that my sexuality was a very large part of who I was, but I came to realize that, actually, this wasn’t really the case.

How did your family react when you came out?

When I was in the second year at my university, my mother visited me during a holiday and asked if I had found a girlfriend. I was like, “Oh boy, here we go again.” But then, she asked me if I had found a boyfriend! I didn’t think my family members knew about my sexual orientation at that time, but I guess she had somehow come to know it through the grapevine, and so I guess I had fallen into her trap!

My mother said, “It’s important that you have someone beside you if you get sick. That’s what worries me the most, since you’re so delicate. I don’t care if it’s a man or a woman.” She’s a pretty hip mom.

I once took my partner to my parents’ house in Nagoya to meet my family members. When I introduced him, they all treated him as “someone that I care for”, without asking our sexual orientation. Our sexual orientation and all that must have been on their minds, but they didn’t dig into that. They really accepted us naturally.

Do you show affection to your partner in public?

We don’t hold hands or show our affection for each other in public. I’m the kind of person who worries about what others think of me, and so I don’t do stuff like that.

We’ve been seeing each other for two and a half years now, but the intensity of our relationship is pretty much unchanged. We’re like a pair of old men. We don’t fight much, aside from minor squabbles. From the beginning, our relationship has been pretty stable without any sudden bursts of emotion.

What do you think of Valentine’s Day?

When I was a student, Valentine’s Day was an event when girls gave chocolate to the boys they had a crush on. It really didn’t have anything to do with me. That said, I love chocolate, so I was always happy when I got some!

In the case of some gay couples, the one in the “female role” or the “more feminine” one gives chocolate to the other, but that didn’t feel right to me. That’s why I figured I didn’t need to do anything.

On White Day, [March 14th – one month after Valentine’s Day, is a day in Japan when men are supposed to give return gifts to women who gifted them chocolates on Valentine’s Day] I did what I was supposed to do and gave something back to the girls who gave me chocolate. I’ve also given chocolate to my partner on White Day.

You could say my best memory of Valentine’s Day is the lack thereof. Since the entire premise is based on heterosexual relationships, I felt excluded. There was someone I wanted to give chocolate to, but the one who buys chocolate is usually the woman, so as a man I was reluctant to do that.

Do you have anything planned for this year’s Valentine’s Day?

I didn’t give much thought to it until now. Nowdays, it’s common for people to send stuff to their friends or colleagues. If Valentine’s Day is still celebrated in the future, I hope that it becomes an event where people show friendly feelings toward their family, friends, or anyone that they care about, rather than just a day for women to give chocolate to men. All people are different, and some people fall in love while others don’t.

What changes do you want to see for LBGTI people?

LGBT people need to be more visible. I would love to see more opportunities for everyone to feel close to and become friends with such people.

The media has created a divide between those who are LGBT and those who are not, so much so that the most common stereotype of an LGBT person is a transgender woman who is rather effeminate. Because of that, people are often surprised to hear me say I’m LGBT, because I look like the boy next door. That’s why I think it will be nice if they know that LGBT people are all around them.

It will be great if there is a fundamental anti-discrimination law, so that people don’t face prejudice when seeking employment or in other situations. Also, everyone has different ideas about the institution of marriage, and I think it’s not fair that heterosexual couples can get married, but homosexual couples cannot. I hope that gay marriage will be recognized in the future.

Hiker Chiu only found out s/he is an intersex person at the age of 42. S/he was born with both male and female reproductive organs. S/he founded Organization Intersex International to promote knowledge and acceptance of intersex people in Taiwan. For this year’s Valentine’s Day, s/he hopes everyone can find their love.

When and how did you find out about your true gender identity?

I felt weird all the time, especially during my adolescence, when my biological changes were different from other girls. My mom only told me I was born with “two sets”. I was unware there was an intersex gender at that time. On my primary school diary, I wrote that I felt like a monster. I didn’t want to be a monster. My parents felt helpless. The doctor could do nothing to really help me.

I found out I was intersex at the age of 42, when I reread my medical case file about the operation I had when I was six, during which my “enlarged clitoris” was removed. I then Googled my condition, and gradually learnt that I was born a healthy baby, except that I had two sets of reproductive organs.

Does Taiwan society recognize the existence of intersex people?

Chinese societies more or less know the existence of intersex people but due to the traditional binary gender concept, there has been discrimination against people who are neither male nor female. As intersex people are seen to be unable to reproduce, and Chinese values focus a lot on continuing the family bloodline, many families think intersex people are useless. There is also religion and superstition, thinking an intersex baby is the result of the bad things the parents did.

When Western medicine came into practice in Taiwan in the 1950s, there was this concept of operating on intersex babies before they are two years old. This was meant to “help” the babies eliminate their “neither male nor female” condition so that they can integrate into society, and parents can also avoid “shame”. Intersex people have been almost “eliminated” from the society. Ever since I came out publicly around 2010, I haven’t received much news about other intersex people in Taiwan.

What can be done to improve the situation of intersex people in Taiwan?

It is really important to support our parents. My parents have felt sad, guilty and sorry towards me most of their lives. I had no idea why my body is a painful matter for my parents. My birth brought them so much pain.

Now I know intersex is a biologically natural variation. I hope parents understand that intersex babies are natural. Their intersex traits are not a disease and don’t need unnecessary treatment. Parents don’t need to feel sad about it.

There needs to be more education for the general public, letting them know that intersex people are common and not rare. They shouldn’t discriminate against us and see us as “shameful”. Why should we and our parents have to bear the consequence of society’s prejudice?

Doctors need to change their mindset too. Their intervention didn’t really help me. They need to rethink how to provide better care to intersex people. They need to respect our consent, our determination of our body, and stop treating intersexuality as a disease.

The government has yet to gain enough understanding of intersex people. They need to think about how to actively create a positive environment for us, and educate the public to accept us as valued members of society. In the past, people’s idea about gender has been quite narrow and restricted. Now they need to open their mind and recognize intersex people.

How has your activism changed the situation?

I’m changing Taiwan’s impression of intersex people and encouraging everyone to question if it is appropriate to operate on intersex babies without letting them have the choice. It also helps as Taiwan’s gender movement is now relatively mature, and the society has more tolerance towards gender diversity.

Love is all I’m trying to convey from my movement. Intersex people are also people, we love, we need love and we desire to be loved. It is the meaning of my Chinese name – love grass on a hill. My parents have been loving me wholeheartedly, and have helped me achieve what I have achieved today.

In Taiwan, do you think intersex people can love equally as others?

It is possible for intersex people to love, but if society still holds a negative opinion of us, it is difficult for us to start a relationship. For me, it is not that difficult as I don’t see myself as too different. But I have other friends who have this confusion as to whether the relationship shall be homosexual or heterosexual. We also face the pressure of reproduction.

What do you think of Valentine’s Day?

Valentine’s Day conveys the hope of love. I hope everyone can find their loved one.

After my coming out, many mainland Chinese friends have asked if I can find them partners from our community, as it is difficult for them to find an understanding partner. There is still heavy pressure in mainland China for people to get married and have kids. Ordinary people can’t really understand intersex people’s physical and mental feelings. We can’t fulfil ordinary people’s general expectations on relationships, marriage, reproduction and sexual behaviours.

We should be creative and not be trapped into the traditional mindset of marriage and having kids. Love has different ways. I’m optimistic about our environment in the future, as society develops a better understanding of this issue.