After overcoming anti-LGBTQ discrimination, scepticism about her age and criticism of her limited political experience, 31-year-old Huang Jie says her election to Taiwan’s parliament as the island’s first openly gay MP represents progress.
Democratic Taiwan is one of the most liberal societies in Asia and hailed as a bastion for LGBTQ rights as the region’s first to legalise same-sex marriage in 2019.
“I hope (my election) will bring courage to many people as I’ve demonstrated I’ve done it standing on the front line,” said Huang, who will be sworn in as a lawmaker on Thursday.
But her journey to the self-ruled island’s Legislative Yuan has not always been easy – she has been the target of discriminatory attacks for her LGBTQ identity and has faced distrust from voters due to her age.
So to be elected in the January 13 poll over her more established rivals for a lawmaker seat representing southern Kaohsiung city was a surprise.
“I find it incredible. I feel that politics is a field full of surprises and there are many unexpected changes,” Huang told AFP in a phone interview.
The former journalist and legislative aide entered politics in 2018 when she was elected to the city council on the small New Power Party ticket.
She later quit the party and successfully ran for re-election as an independent city councillor in 2022.
After joining the ruling Democratic Progressive Party last August, Huang was enlisted to replace an incumbent lawmaker who withdrew his candidacy over an extramarital affairs scandal.
“I had only 70 days to campaign after I was nominated and I had to overcome a lot of challenges and difficult conditions,” she said.
“I was not running in my own constituency and there were questions about my young age with just five years in politics.”
Some political commentators also predicted that Huang had “a very slim chance (of winning) due to my sexual orientation” as there are some church and anti-gay groups in her constituency.
– ‘Distrust’ –
Campaigning in Kaohsiung was a whirlwind of visiting temples and markets – sometimes with higher profile DPP stalwarts like President Tsai Ing-wen – to meet with voters.
Huang said she “did not emphasise” her sexual orientation during the campaign period, and there have been a few openly gay politicians elected at municipal levels.
Calling her win a “positive outcome”, she believes her election reflects “certain progress in Taiwan’s society”.
But it has not always been smooth sailing since she embarked on a political career at the age of 25.
“I was seen as a kid (to voters) with insufficient social experiences,” she said. “My age made people uneasy and caused distrust.”
In 2021, Huang’s sexual orientation made her a target of constant attacks, but she managed to survive a vote to oust her from the city council.
“The groups that launched the recall distributed flyers… to vilify and mock me. Online comments were even more extreme, such as being gay is like being mentally ill,” she said.
For her legislative campaign, criticism about her sexual identity remained largely in online echo chambers, she said.
“Taiwan’s society is progressive to a certain degree that if these remarks are too discriminatory, they will… be deemed unacceptable.”
– ‘Bring courage’ –
Huang is among 47 women who make up nearly 42 per cent of the 113-seat legislature – around the same percentage as the last parliament.
That figure looks good on paper but she believes there is a lot of room for improvement.
“There are many obstacles for women political workers. Politics is a masculine world and our gender is a disadvantage as… it’s harder for women to gain the trust” of supporters, she said.
“Some voters have told me ‘women’s rights are too high now’ and this shows that they do not accept that women are entitled to the same rights in their hearts.”
As the youngest lawmaker elected to this parliament, her priorities would be promoting gender equality and human rights, as well as speaking out about “generational and distributional justice” for young people who “feel deprived” due to low wages and a widening wealth gap.
There is also much more to do to advance LGBTQ rights after the legalisation of same-sex marriages, she said, such as revising the Assisted Reproduction Act to include single women and same-sex families.
Still, Huang remains hopeful.
“I believe the space is wider for everyone to try different things.”