How a Bullied Student’s Death Helped Pave Taiwan’s Road to LGBTQ Equality
On a rainy day in May, the self-governing island of Taiwan set a gallant, unprecedented example of tolerance in changing times for all of Asia — its legalization of same-sex marriage, a historic battle hard-fought and sorely won.
Like most of its Western counterparts, Taiwan’s long and arduous road to marriage equality begins at fundamental respect for human rights. As early as 2003, its Executive Yuan proposed legislation granting marriages to same-sex couples under the Human Rights Basic Law, but the bill faced massive opposition from members of both the Cabinet (or the Executive Yuan Council, formed by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party) and the Legislative Yuan (controlled by the Kuomintang-led, pan-Blue coalition).
While efforts from the grassroots to the top levels have been made through the years, it was in 2016 when proponents saw victory inching closer, as the general election resulted in a parliamentary majority for the Democratic Progressive Party — with most members now in favor of same-sex marriage.
By legalizing same-sex marriage, Taiwan may have become the most progressive place in Asia, but its struggle for gender equality persists. In June, a legislator and several civic groups urged the government to work harder toward achieving such equality in schools, at an event marking the 15th anniversary of a law that raises gender awareness among students and protects the rights of young people regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
That law is the Gender Equity Education Act, passed in 2004 in response to the controversial death of a junior high school student three years earlier. Yeh Yung-Chih, whose body was found in a pool of blood, was bullied at school for being “effeminate.”
Born in 1985, Yeh died at the young age of 15. In a 2015 documentary, his mother, Chen Chun-Ju, who works as a farmer, described him as a very thoughtful child.
“He would say, ‘Mom, how could you work so late? Go ahead and take a shower, we can have dinner after I stir-fry the vegetables,’” said Chen. “He knew I was too tired, so he massaged my shoulders every night. People who worked with me told me, ‘Your son is way better than our three children together.’”
Chen started to realize that Yeh was different in his third grade when his teacher informed her that he had “hobbies like girls” and suggested that she take him to the doctor. What she learned, however, changed the way she saw her son forever.
“The psychiatrist told me, ‘I have to tell you that your son is very normal. If anybody thinks he is weird, he is the one who is abnormal,’” Chen recalled.
Unfortunately, Yeh would spend the rest of his school years as a victim of bullying. During breaks, he refused to go to the boys’ bathroom, as some schoolmates would call him a “sissy” and forcefully take off his pants to “check his gender.”
“My son said, ‘Mom, they take off my pants every day. They try to catch me and take my pants off.’ They took his pants off. That’s how they bullied my son,” Chen said.
Chen’s anger reached its limit when Yeh left her a note asking her to save him from being beaten. Little did she know that it would prelude to something much, much worse.
“He wrote, ‘Mom, you have to rescue me. They want to beat me,’” Chen recalled. “I was so angry that I went to the school to argue. Because I called the teacher several times, they never paid attention to it at all.”
On the morning of April 20, 2000, Yeh asked for permission to go to the bathroom, just five minutes before the class ended. A few minutes later, the unthinkable happened: the 15-year-old was found lying in a pool of blood.
“When they took him to the emergency room, his mouth and his nostrils were bleeding non-stop. I said it’s doomed,” Chen said.
Yeh’s school, Gaoshu Junior High School, located in the Gaoshu Township of Pingtung County, reportedly cleaned up his blood without reporting the incident to the police. They denied responsibility and claimed that he died of heart disease.
“I went mad,” said Chen. “I would never agree with that. They told me that my son died of a heart disease. I asked them to check my son’s health insurance and look at his health insurance record. ‘Had he ever seen a cardiologist in his life?’”
Sadly, an autopsy did not bring Chen any peace. The Institute of Forensic Medicine, under the Ministry of Justice, concluded that Yeh died of severe brain injuries due to head trauma, which he sustained after collapsing following a heart attack.
On the other hand, the National Taiwan University’s College of Medicine rebutted such findings. There, experts argued that it was unlikely for a young and healthy boy to suddenly die of a heart attack, especially since he did not have any history of cardiovascular problems.
Yeh’s death prompted Taiwan’s Ministry of Education to modify its Gender Equality Education Committee (兩性平等教育委員會) — literally “the committee of equality education of two sexes” — into the broader Gender Equity Education Committee to promote gender education beyond the two sexes. Then came the Gender Equity Education Act, which states that the “school shall provide a gender-fair learning environment, respect and give due consideration to students, faculty, and staff with a different gender, gender temperament, gender identity, and sexual orientation.”
In 2006, the Kaohsiung branch of Taiwan’s High Court sentenced the school’s principal and two other officials to five months, four months and three months, respectively, in prison for “neglecting the degree of care required by their occupation.” In the same year, the Taiwan Gender Equity Education Association published a book in memory of Yeh, titled “Embracing the Rose Boy.”
Since then, tributes to the fallen teenager have referred to him as the “Rose Boy,” in the representation of boys with feminine expressions. The results of the 2004 law have also been visible in the island’s education system, particularly with the establishment of unisex bathrooms that “foster respect and equality between the sexes.”
The truth behind Yeh’s death may never be known, but Chen’s fight for justice continues in her support for the LGBTQ+ community. She has been attending local Pride parades, encouraging her “children” to continue fighting for equality.
“My kids, you have to be brave. God created people like you, there must be a light to fight for your human right,” she told attendees in a 2010 march. “Be yourself. Don’t be afraid.”
With Yeh and many others’ stories, Taiwan continues its fight for gender equality. Efforts to encourage teachers to uphold the law despite persisting opposition from conservative parties are in place.
“The reality, however, is that public opinion remains hostile toward teachers who try to implement gender equality education,”said Li Ya-jing, vice general secretary of Taiwan’s National Teachers’ Association. “Some have been sued … or have had their words taken out of context.”
Li vowed to guarantee the professional autonomy of teachers, which is stipulated in Article 8 of the Educational Fundamental Act.
“We will safeguard the rights of teachers who implement gender equality education in accordance with the law.”