Taiwan's Indigenous Drag Queens Rallying for Gender Diversity and Fighting Stigma, One Wig at a Time
Vilian, 28, a member of the Bunun tribe and a drag show performer, takes a moment while standing on stage at Belle's bar in Taipei, Taiwan. (REUTERS/Ann Wang)
At a rowdy gay bar in Taipei, 28-year old Vilian ends a Friday night drag show by putting on a traditional tribal tunic over his white silk negligee and dancing to an aboriginal song that has become a rallying call for Taiwan's indigenous minority.
An ethnic Bunun, Vilian is among a handful of indigenous drag queens who use their performances to fight against the double stigma of being part of the LGBTQ+ community and of the island's historically oppressed indigenous minority.
"As a drag queen, I am trying to speak out for the people of gender diversity in the indigenous community," Vilian, who goes by one name, told Reuters.
Known as a beacon of liberalism in the region, Taiwan legalised same-sex marriage last year - a first in Asia - despite stiff opposition from some Christian and conservative groups.
But Taiwan remains divided over other related issues such as same-sex parenting.
Gender diversity is an especially sensitive topic for many indigenous communities, where Christianity and traditional values play a major role.
Taiwan has made huge strides in protecting and promoting the cultures of the roughly 570,000 indigenous people who make up 2.4% of its population. President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016 offered a formal apology to aboriginal peoples for centuries of "injustice and sufferings".
But for decades they have faced discrimination and been forced to assimilate on an island where many people have Chinese ancestry, by taking on Chinese names and speaking Mandarin, their own languages threatened with extinction.
Some indigenous rights activists have to hide their sexuality when holding events to raise diversity awareness in aboriginal villages, said Ciwang Teyra, an academic at National Taiwan University.
"Coming out of the closet to families is a great challenge," she said. "They have faced the interweaving discriminations against indigenous people and the homosexual community since they were little."
Carefully adjusting an oversized wig before the show in Taipei, drag queen Draggy Boo Boo, an ethnic Paiwan from southern Taiwan, said he is part of "the minority of minorities".
"Our existence itself is a defiance," said the 27-year old, whose father is a retired priest and opposes homosexuality.
"All we can do is to appear in front of everyone repeatedly so that people will see us and understand the world behind us."