Diva Magazine, August 2014
IN TAIWAN’S CAPTAL, TAIPEI, A UNIQUE TEMPLE OFFERS LESBIANS AND GAY MEN RECOGNITION AND SUPPORT
WORDS AND PHOTO JENNY GREEN
A short, slight, young woman stands before a gaudy altar, wreathed in smoke rising from incense sticks. Her head is bowed and a heavy fringe overhangs her face. Her hands are clasped before her, and her eyes are closed in quiet concentration. Tsai Yi Shan is praying to the Rabbit God for help in finding love.
She is standing in a small temple, nestled in an apartment building in a quiet, narrow backstreet in Yonghe, a suburb of Taipei, Taiwan. Dedicated to the Rabbit God, or Tu Er Shen (兔儿神), the temple serves the spiritual needs of Taiwanese lesbians and gay men. It receives about 200 visitors a month, roughly half lesbians and half gay men.
The story of the Rabbit God comes from in 17th century China. Yuan Mei, a Qing Dynasty scholar, wrote Zi Bu Yu (子不語), a collection of supernatural folktales, which contains the sad tale of Hu Tian Bao (胡天保). A lowly official, he falls in love with a handsome imperial inspector but is afraid to confess his feelings. Hu spies on the inspector through a bathroom wall, and is caught. The inspector has him beaten to death, and his spirit appears to a man from his hometown in a dream. He tells the man that the King of the Underworld made him the Rabbit God, which serves and helps homosexuals in their earthly affairs.
Tu Er Shen had to wait until 2007 for a temple dedication. A member of a Taoist congregation approached a priest, Lu Wei Ming, and asked him to seek out the Rabbit God in the spiritual realm. She wanted to request the god’s services in listening to the prayers of lesbians and gay men. Mr Lu performed the necessary rituals, and, happily, the Rabbit God replied that he would help his followers find spiritual and romantic fulfilment.
Tsai Yi Shan, a bright and cheerful woman, is a typical visitor to the temple. Originally from Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan, she lives in Taipei to work as a nurse and to study. Aged 23, she has been unlucky in love recently, and visits the Rabbit God temple every two to three months to pray for help in finding a partner, and to talk to Mr Lu.
Ms Tsai’s age is average compared to the rest of the congregation. Most visitors are between 16 and 26, and have heard of the temple through visiting websites devoted to the young gay scene in Taiwan. Taiwanese people in this age range are usually completing university or military service and beginning their careers. Many are also living at home with their parents and will continue to for many years.
Asking the Rabbit God’s help in finding a soul-mate is the most popular prayer. As well as praying directly to the god, visitors write their prayers down. Later the temple volunteers burn the prayers with the belief that they travel to the Rabbit God in the spiritual realm. Mr Lu also performs rituals to give the Rabbit God’s blessing on long-term gay relationships and counsels troubled souls.
Taiwanese lesbians usually self-identify as either a feminine “po”, which means wife, or a “T”, which stands for tomboy. As they reach their 30s, pos sometimes leave their partners to marry men and have children, leaving their Ts high and dry. Lesbians rarely adopt children or become mothers naturally while remaining in a gay relationship in Taiwan. Mr Lu often counsels Ts when relationships break down.
Aside from her current dry patch, Ms Tsai finds living as a lesbian in Taiwan a positive experience.
“I’m open about being a lesbian,” she tells me. “Only my grandparents are unhappy. My family and work colleagues don’t care.”
When posing for photos, she’s more concerned about the state of her hair than any public exposure.
Physical closeness between women in public is normal regardless of sexual orientation, and Taiwan remains a largely patriarchal society, so it’s men who experience the greatest pressure to marry and continue the family name. One of the most progressive countries in Asia for acceptance of the LGBTQ community, in 2003, Taiwan hosted Taiwan Pride, the first gay Pride march in any Chinese-speaking city.
Taoism doesn’t condemn homosexuality but it offers little acknowledgement. Hundreds of gods are named in Tao, and many congregations are independent and run by individual priests, so the set-up of the Rabbit God Temple isn’t unusual, but the dedication to this particular god is unique. The Rabbit God Temple is the first temple serving the LGBTQ community’s needs in Asia, and worshippers travel from all over Taiwan and other Asian countries to visit and pray.
Tsai Yi Shan is happy and optimistic as she leaves. With luck, the Rabbit God has heard her prayers. I