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FEATURE/Taiwan's 1st transgender legislative candidate vows to continue activism

01/19/2024 10:18 AM
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Abbygail ET Wu, Taiwan's first transgender legislative candidate, canvasses for support in downtown Taipei in this recent photo. Photo courtesy of Abbygail ET Wu
Abbygail ET Wu, Taiwan's first transgender legislative candidate, canvasses for support in downtown Taipei in this recent photo. Photo courtesy of Abbygail ET Wu

By Chung Yu-chen, CNA staff reporter

Despite a crushing election defeat, Abbygail ET Wu (吳伊婷), Taiwan's first transgender legislative candidate, has vowed to continue fighting to eliminate the burden of undergoing sex-change surgery placed on those wanting to legally change their gender.

In the Jan. 13 election, Wu's Green Party Taiwan secured 0.85 percent of the vote, totaling 117,298 ballots, leaving it the sixth-largest party in the country.

However, the rookie candidate was not discouraged and said she would continue holding activities, workshops and lectures to raise awareness of the challenges faced by transgender people.

The battle continues

Wu told CNA on Jan. 16 that she will keep pushing for the requirement of a person to undergo extreme medical measures in order to legally change their gender, to be abolished.

"We can properly seek funding sources for our campaign now that Green Party Taiwan has an office," she added.

Sitting in that cozy office in Taipei and surrounded by stacks of hand-made election campaign placards, Wu, in a pre-election CNA interview, explained, "I'm running for those who are marginalized, overlooked and discriminated against."

"I want them to know that they are not alone and that they have rights and are supported."

The 37-year-old transitioned from a man to a woman in 2012 after undergoing gender reassignment surgery in Thailand. She said, however, she did not want others to face the challenges that she has.

Wu said that if elected, she would continue working towards abolishing Taiwan's surgery requirement for legally changing one's gender.

Taiwan's first transgender legislative candidate Abbygail ET Wu reflects on her journey as a transgender activist, advocating against the necessity of gender-affirming surgery for legal gender recognition. CNA photo Jan. 16, 2023
Taiwan's first transgender legislative candidate Abbygail ET Wu reflects on her journey as a transgender activist, advocating against the necessity of gender-affirming surgery for legal gender recognition. CNA photo Jan. 16, 2023

Gender identity and ID cards

In Taiwan, to change gender identity on a national identification card, applicants need to submit a diagnosis certificate evaluated by two psychiatrists and a certificate from a qualified medical institution confirming that gender reassignment surgery has been completed.

For individuals transitioning from female to male, the required surgery involves the removal of the breasts, uterus and ovaries. For those transitioning from male to female, it entails the removal of the penis and testicles.

According to Wu, the cost for the former is NT$380,000 (US$12,208), and the latter NT$1.2 million.

In addition to the financial burden, there is a need for thorough psychological preparation before undergoing such surgery, Wu said.

"Surgery involving the removal of breasts, uterus, ovaries, or testicles, as well as the penis, is high risk and poses significant recovery challenges," Wu said.

For years, several human rights advocates in Taiwan have been campaigning for the abolition of the surgery requirement.

In 2021, a debate on the matter in Taiwan gained momentum following a groundbreaking court decision that permitted a transgender woman known as "Xiao E" (小E) to alter the gender on her ID card without providing proof of surgery, in the first instance of its kind in Taiwan.

Progress faces a backlash

However, Wu Wei-ting (伍維婷), a gender studies scholar, told CNA that the campaign has been facing resistance.

Those who oppose the change primarily argue that some individuals might falsely assert their gender identity and pose potential harm to others, she explained.

"What I often observe online is the concern that without undergoing surgery, some people might choose to say they are a woman to gain access to female-only spaces, for example, bathrooms," Wu Wei-ting said.

"We need to ask why gender is still classified based on reproductive organs," the academic argued, saying that such a "simplified" classification was made a few hundred years ago when the general understanding of gender was very limited.

She proposed that societies globally reassess their classifications, citing the evolving understanding of gender, specifically a 2017 National Geographic report that said there were 57 genders.

Meanwhile, Abbygail ET Wu showed CNA a photo of a packet of tissues issued by the Taiwan Solidarity Union that featured a slogan calling for there to be no exemption from the surgery requirement.

The image portrayed a bearded woman with the caption: "If I identify myself as a woman, the government will allow me to use female toilets, live with women, and be exempt from military service."

A tissue packet features a slogan opposing the elimination of the surgery requirement for gender change. CNA photo Jan. 16, 2023
A tissue packet features a slogan opposing the elimination of the surgery requirement for gender change. CNA photo Jan. 16, 2023
The reverse side of the tissue displays a slogan saying that the Taiwan Solidarity Union is the sole political party opposing the elimination of the surgery requirement for gender change. CNA photo Jan. 16, 2023
The reverse side of the tissue displays a slogan saying that the Taiwan Solidarity Union is the sole political party opposing the elimination of the surgery requirement for gender change. CNA photo Jan. 16, 2023

The campaign office of the party that issued the packet is right across the way from Green Party Taiwan.

Wu's life and fight

Wu also told CNA more about her experiences as a transgender woman, saying she has received support from some, but encountered intolerance from many others, including her estranged, Christian mother.

Wu, who is also the chairperson of the Intersex, Transgender, and Transsexual People Care Association, started to realize in sixth grade that certain male characteristics, such as a deep voice, did not align with her true identity.

After transitioning, Wu started living as a woman. However, she found it tough to land a job.

"[Potential] employers would consistently focus on gender-related issues, comment on my appearance, and directly ask about my gender during interviews, which I found quite absurd," she remarked, noting that unfriendly glances or remarks were also common occurrences.

"Some even asked me, 'Why can't you just be a normal guy?'"

For a while, Wu highlighted her transgender identity at the top of her resume. "If someone doesn't accept or doesn't want to engage with me because of who I am, I would prefer that they didn't invite me to a job interview," she said.

Out of frustration, she sent emails to major media outlets in Taiwan detailing her struggle to find employment. Soon after, she finally landed a job.

Although these experiences date back to more than a decade ago, when Wu had just graduated from high school, she said the nature of the discrimination she and those like her face, has not changed that much.

Wu said she has heard about numerous incidents of domestic violence affecting transgender individuals.

One case involved an 18-year-old trans woman being physically abused by her father and left destitute after being forced to flee her home, she said.

In 2023, a trans man in his 20s had his phone and identification documents confiscated by his parents because they disapproved of his identity, she added.

The Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association, one of the nation's largest LGBTQ+ organizations, reports that 32 percent of transgender individuals, to avoid unfriendly glances, prefer holding off the urge to urinate rather than using public restrooms, resulting in both mental and physical stress.

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