“It’s all about love, not sexuality.” This is the line that director Patrick Liu wrote down as he put together the story of his latest film, Your Name Engraved Herein. In early December, it became the first LGBTQ movie to surpass NT$100 million ($3.6 million) in Taiwan’s box office.
Taiwan managed to control the spread of the coronavirus early, becoming one of the few places where movie theaters are open to the public, and making Your Name Engraved Herein the best-selling movie for two months after premiering in September.
While the film’s universal theme of love helps it reach a wide audience, the vivid depiction of the challenges gay men faced in the past reflects just how far Taiwan’s LGBTQ community has come. Set in Taiwan in 1987, Your Name Engraved Herein follows the love story of Jia-han (Edward Chen) and Birdy (Tseng Jing-hua), two young men at an all-boys Catholic high school. Their relationship fits all the criteria of a typical coming of age story: breaking curfew, sneaking into a movie theater after hours, and making up excuses for an impromptu “field trip.” The central conflict, however, is that their family, friends, and society as a whole, are not ready to let them experience — and enjoy — this romance.
“That was a very suppressive period of time, as Taiwan just emerged from decades of martial law,” Liu told VICE. “[The] LGBTQ movement was non-existent and gay guys were still living the ‘underground lifestyle’ that wasn’t really accepted by mainstream society. The love between Jia-han and Birdy also remained largely suppressed.”
Taiwan ended its 38-year-long martial law — one of the longest in the world — in 1987, so the film is set during a transitional period of sorts, one executive producer and screenwriter Chu Yu-ning said brought major changes.
“Suddenly, regulations on haircut, uniforms, and even public demonstrations were all relaxed,” Chu, who went to high school with Liu, told VICE. “Prominent LGBTQ activist Chi Chia-wei was also pardoned after being imprisoned for five months due to his activism.”
Despite the more liberal perspective, being gay remained taboo.
“Most gay men still chose to live a very low-key life because the pressure of having their sexualities exposed remained high,” said Chi, the prominent LGBTQ rights activist who began the fight for marriage equality in Taiwan in 1986. “We used pseudo names when we tried to meet other gay men in parks, and we avoided sharing phone numbers with strangers easily.”
Living in fear and disguise
Apart from reflecting the suppressive social atmosphere, Your Name Engraved Herein also shows the harsh realities gay students faced in school. Retired military instructors and dormitory managers are seen using harsh physical punishments as a way to keep students’ behaviors in line. One character who is suspected of being gay is physically bullied by classmates.
Cheng Chih-wei, director of social work at the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association, one of the oldest LGBTQ rights groups in Taiwan, said that some of the scenes from the movie reminded him of the years he had to endure harsh physical punishment and verbal ridicule from teachers and classmates for not being masculine enough.
“When I was in the third grade, a teacher slapped me in front of the whole class because I didn’t speak loud enough,” Cheng told VICE. “After I cried, he slapped me again and said ‘you are a boy so why are you crying?’”
While Cheng wasn’t old enough to experience life as a gay man in the late 1980s, he did have to force himself to assimilate into the social norm that “man should love woman,” as a junior high school student.
“When my classmates began to talk about women’s bodies and pass around pornographic comic books, I had to force myself to talk about these topics with them,” Cheng recalled. “I was living under a lot of fear and I had to hide my identity as someone gay constantly. I couldn’t let anyone find out that I was different.”
Liu blends these struggles into the film, but said he did not want them to overshadow the love story.
“I don’t want the movie to be labelled just as a ‘gay film,’” Liu said.
“It is the love story of two young men, so instead of emphasizing the LGBTQ elements in the film, I want the film to make love more simple and universal.”
The film tracks the development of Jia-han and Birdy’s affection for each other. While Jia-han’s romantic feelings for Birdy grew as they went on different “forbidden adventures,” Birdy tried to avoid his feelings for Jia-han by dating an underclass female student, soon after their school started accepting girls. Birdy’s story reflects an unfortunate yet common decision many gay men in Taiwan made at that time.
“Instead of exploring their sexualities under the new social atmosphere, some of my gay friends still chose to form families with women and had kids,” Liu said. “Each family’s tolerance for gay people coming out was still different and unfortunately, some gay men weren’t able to pursue their true happiness.”
Taiwan’s journey to marriage equality
The film, which drops on Netflix on Dec. 23, was released a little over a year after Taiwan celebrated its one year anniversary of legalizing same-sex marriage, the first country to do so in Asia. To many LGBTQ individuals in Taiwan, the milestone is the result of 30 years of campaigning and lobbying.
“The level of acceptance for LGBTQ issues only became higher in the end of the 1990s, when the Tongzhi Hotline Association was founded,” Chi said. “They started to advance LGBTQ rights through social movements and outreach.”
The growing acceptance was also facilitated by Taiwan’s democratization, as the government relaxed control over media and public demonstrations, allowing feminist and LGBTQ organizations to express their views through these channels.
“We began to organize events related to LGBTQ rights and facilitate discussion about feminist or LGBTQ issues in schools,” Cheng, from the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association, said.
“I feel like society began to inform the general public about the notion that ‘there are some members of the public who aren’t straight’,” Cheng said. “At the same time, the government enacted a series of laws that allowed schools to promote gender equality education, which included some content related to LGBTQ rights.”
All of these efforts eventually paved the way for the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2019, allowing same-sex couples to form families and enjoy most rights straight couples already have. However, Liu, the director, noted that a small group of gay men were not part of this liberalization.
“While the LGBTQ movement is shaping up in Taiwan, some gay men remained in their ‘underground life,’” Liu said. “They still try to seek pleasure through random encounters in parks or gay saunas. The joy that others are enjoying seems irrelevant to them.”
Liu offers the audience a glimpse of this group of gay men’s lives in his film, through an older gay man that Jia-han meets in Taipei’s 228 Memorial Park.
“We can still find these characters in Taiwan’s society today, because some of them didn’t get on the ‘train of happiness’ like many of their peers did,” Liu said.
Sparking a conversation
While Taiwanese society has come a long way, both Liu and Chu hope their film could still spark a conversation about the LGBTQ community.
“This film is our tool to communicate with the world,” Chu said. “When we were promoting the film during this year’s Taipei LGBTQ Pride Parade, a big group of our supporters came out to march with us. I think this shows that they have accepted the messages we try to convey through the film and decided to come out and support the LGBTQ movement. We hope the film can help people start getting to know groups that they weren’t that familiar with before.”
To those who lived through the post-martial law era, the film is a reminder of how LGBTQ rights is closely connected to Taiwan’s fight for democracy.
“When there is no democracy, we will live in an environment where certain people will hold the power to enforce strict and suppressive laws, which is just like the military officers at the school in the film,” Cheng said. “During the process of democratic recession, I think LGBTQ individuals’ rights and freedom to express themselves could also be affected.”
For LGBTQ individuals who didn’t experience the discrimination during the 80s and 90s, the film offers a chance to connect with the history of Taiwan’s LGBTQ movement.
“I used to learn about the early days of Taiwan’s LGBTQ movement through books or articles, but it was hard for me to visualize how life was like during that time,” said Chen Nai-chia, a research fellow at Taiwan Equality Campaign, one of the LGBTQ rights organizations behind Taiwan’s push to legalize same-sex marriage.
“This film allows me to understand that the LGBTQ movement didn’t just come out of nowhere. I was able to reflect on the situation facing LGBTQ individuals during the post-martial law era and realize that there is actually some history about people like me.”
Taiwan is now celebrated for being one of the most LGBTQ-friendly places in the world but Your Name Engraved Herein is an important reminder that it took a lot of brave people to get to this point.
“I don’t think the younger generation of LGBTQ individuals need to specifically thank me for helping them earn the rights that they can enjoy now,” Chi said. “I view it simply as part of my destiny and to me, my advocacy work was simply paving the way for the future generation to enjoy a better life. Taiwan has gone from being a society that couldn’t accept homosexuality to one that has now granted its LGBTQ citizens the right to form their own families. Taiwan’s young people should just enjoy what they are entitled to now.”