Taiwan is witnessing a groundswell of support for LGBT equality. Gay hookup apps like Hornet are fueling the LGBT emergence by helping more gay men connect than ever before. Last year, 80,000 people marched at Taipei’s Gay Pride parade, calling for Taiwan to legalize same-sex marriage.
Unfortunately, the growing cultural acceptance of LGBT rights hasn’t changed the fact that gay men in Taiwan continue to be disproportionately impacted by HIV. Stigma is an ongoing barrier for testing and treatment, and the high costs puts PrEP out of reach for most.
We recently spoke to Stephane Ku, a Taipei doctor and advocate who is working to improve gay men’s health in Taiwan. He and his team conduct clinical trials, and offer HIV testing, counseling, and PrEP services. Ku also cofounded the organization HIV Education And Research Taiwan (HEART), which provides information, promotes testing and PrEP, and works to minimize HIV stigma.
Taiwan is seen by many as one of Asia’s most progressive countries. How does the Taiwanese society respond to the LGBT community? For the past decade, the attitude towards LGBT [people] from the general public has changed slowly, yet greatly. The majority of the society, especially the younger generation is now accepting [of the] LGBT community. Besides, we see more and more LGBT-friendly industries and companies appearing in the Pride [march] each year.
How would you describe the average gay man’s relationship to HIV in Taiwan? HIV remains a major health problem to Taiwanese gay men. There are around 2,200 new cases of HIV diagnosed each year. More than 60 percent of the new cases were MSM; more than 70 percent were less than 35 years old. However, most gay men don’t have enough awareness—let alone knowledge—of this viral infection, which can be treated and prevented quite easily.
How do you describe the benefits of PrEP to men in your community? PrEP can serve gay men as an alternative to condoms in terms of HIV prevention without compromising intimacy or sexual pleasure. Also, it provides gay men in a receptive role during sexual intercourse an opportunity to protect themselves.
What made you decide to be an advocate around HIV and gay men’s health? How have people responded to you being so open? I was born in the ‘80s when HIV/AIDS remained fatal and terrifying. What’s worse is that gay men [were] always linked with dying of HIV/AIDS. Growing up with such stigma and fear, I decided to become [an] HIV specialist as well as an advocate, hoping we can change the face of the epidemic, the atmosphere of the society, and also give our younger generation a stigma-free future. I think the gay community started to acknowledge what my team has done and I truly hope we can have more engagement from the community.
What do you see as the greatest challenges facing gay men in Taiwan? I would say negligence and a lack of proper knowledge about HIV is definitely one of the biggest challenges we are facing in Taiwan today. Panic over HIV is really bad, but ignoring its ongoing epidemic in Taiwan is definitely not good [either]. Mental health problems, such as depression and substance use, are becoming really important [issues] that require more attention and resources.
Gay sex is still taboo all around the globe. How have men in Taiwan been able to embrace and celebrate their sexuality? This is a really interesting question. Actually, Taiwan is blessed to have diverse historical, racial, political, cultural, and even religious backgrounds. Gay men embrace influences from Japan, Thailand, as well as the Western countries. Such openness to different cultures really gives a wonderful shape of our own gay culture in Taiwan.
How do men in Taiwan demonstrate resiliency in the face of homophobia? Homophobia has never been showing a sign of extinction here, unfortunately, despite the wonderful LGBT Pride we have in Taiwan every year. In fact, while the whole world is watching Taiwan possibly [becoming] the first country in Asia to legalize marriage equality, our advocate groups and legislators are under tremendous attack and pressure from some religious groups. I think the key component of resiliency is speaking out for your own rights, and solidarity from the community. People may have different opinions regarding PrEP or recreational drugs, but when it comes to homophobia or stigmatization issues, you can see people come out with such solidarity. That’s surely very encouraging and touching.