TAIPEI — In the days leading up to the Lunar New Year in mid-February, I heard a common refrain: “Taipei will be empty and everything will be closed.” Biking around on Lunar New Year’s Eve—an evening typically celebrated with nuclear family—the sidewalks felt twice as large, devoid of crowds and the wafting smoke of streetside grills goading pedestrians toward a snack. Accompanying me on the streets were 7-Eleven employees out on extended smoke breaks and stray cats, moonlit eyes squinting at you for half a second, unimpressed by your failure to offer food scraps.  

I had spent the afternoon collecting food symbolizing luck or wealth or the litany of other wishes for which a Han Chinese family yearns in the new year. Blofcks of glutinous rice cakes—sticky tokens of reunion. Dumplings and their sweet cousin, tangyuan—enclosed treasure troves of wealth. Bundles of fruit—more emblems of wholeness and abundance. I carefully stacked pears and tangerines in a ramen bowl I had bought at a discount. Its anonymous creator had abandoned it at the local pottery studio, and its base, slightly off-kilter, wobbles each time I take one out.  

This is the first year I spent Lunar New Year without my own family. In the United States, we alternated between tables topped with Dungeness crab and roasted duck and strolls through the confetti-filled streets of one of New York’s many Chinatowns. Last year, in my parents’ hometown of Fuzhou, in southern China, I came out to my cousin’s wife in a dark, neon-spotted karaoke room, the pounding drumline of a Chinese ballad, sung a little too passionately by my older cousin, underscoring our conversation. Because of the pandemic and 14-hour flights, I hadn’t seen my extended family in years. Yet under the influence of many shots of baijiu and the feverish, cigarette-scented humidity of that room, my cousin-in-law put her hand on my shoulder and shouted in my right ear: “As long as you’re happy!”  

Neither of us said much more. As she jeered her husband for his off-key croons, I faded into the pleather couch, equally surprised at my liquid courage and how normal that moment had seemed. 

My privilege—both to come out (at all) and celebrate Lunar New Year with family—doesn’t escape me. When I ask some Taiwanese friends about their relationships with family, they tend to answer with a candid tone that sits somewhere between guarded repression and acceptance—resigned, if only to move on with life. Many of my friends are out to their families. However, questions about marriage and children, spooned to them in the past with heaps of braised pork and string beans, have been reduced to brief pauses.  

I met a friend, a single gay man in his early 40s, a few days into the new year. Over fresh-brewed tea in an alleyway café, he told me that his sexuality is far from his family’s primary concern. Both his elderly father and older sister chastise him for not doing enough to care for the father—a responsibility that, as the only son, is his alone. Even though his sister earns a higher wage and lives in the same apartment building, he must be the one to handle his father’s meals and lurking possibility of another stroke. My friend had just emerged from various month-long hospital stays himself—pneumonia, a hemorrhage, a minor scooter accident—but his responsibility persists. His family had not visited him in the hospital, only bringing household goods on repeated requests.  

“If—when I have to go back to a hospital, it would be nice to have someone to stay with me,” he said sheepishly.   

Another friend, a gay man in his late 20s, came out to his parents and non-queer friends about two years ago. While friends have taken it well, albeit with noticeable surprise after years, even decades of friendship, his parents still speak of it as a temporary phase. Among some of my queer Taiwanese friends, there is a tacit understanding that their parents are likely worried. Beneath the silence is a barrage of questions: Without children, who will take care of you when you are old? What if someone bullies you for your sexuality? What if you aren’t able to get a job or a promotion?  

What if you’re lonely?  

In Taichung, Taiwan’s second-largest city located at the center of the island’s western coast, I clicked through a grid of floating torsos and anonymous faces on Grindr and asked where they hang out with other gay men. On a bicycle, the city feels sprawling; outside its downtown, an open expanse stretches in front of you in every direction, four-lane boulevards splicing the city into clusters of alleyways and open plazas. The primary modes of public transportation are infrequent buses that seem to descend on each stop at the same time and a singular metro line that circumnavigates the city in a semicircle; most people are on motorbikes, slipping between traffic.

Taichung Civic Square on a weekend in early March

The location-based hookup app was the most common response. When asked where gay men hang out and meet others in person, they texted back, almost robotically, “This isn’t Taipei.” This isn’t an isolated experience. In Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s third-largest city located on the island’s southwestern coast, an OnlyFans content creator told me about all the cruising spots in the city: parks, the seventh floor of an abandoned hotel and specific public bathroom stalls that circulate by word-of-mouth across generations. “That’s where we hang out,” he said, with a pause. “Both willfully and because where else is there to go?”  

In most cities outside Taipei, there is at least—but often only—one NGO with a living-room-esque community space, lined with couches and bean bags, stacked with video games and board games and rainbow-colored paraphernalia. Queer-friendly businesses, intramural sports teams and other interest groups also carve out little havens for those in the know. But for many people I texted or met—infrequent gay bar-goers unaffiliated with an NGO—life is split between home, work and an occasional date.  

Even after I exited Grindr and was marked “inactive,” I received more notifications in both Taichung and Kaohsiung than I usually do in the capital. They floated between messages of lust and loneliness. Most of the time, though, I was already many kilometers away in the sprawl.  

I had visited Taichung to attend a day-long conference held by the Taiwan LGBT Family Rights Advocacy Association (TLFRA) called “The Road to Starting a Family.” The event was aimed at queer couples interested in starting families and included sessions on artificial reproduction, surrogacy, early education and adoption. Same-sex couples can adopt children, but while Taiwan’s national parliament, the Legislative Yuan, is expected to legalize assisted reproductive technology—specifically in vitro fertilization (IVF)—for single mothers and lesbian couples later this year as another pathway to parenthood, surrogacy has been put on hold due to cultural stigma. Consequently, male gay couples must make a case to the Taiwanese social work system that they are fit to adopt their children from foreign surrogate mothers with foreign donor eggs. Mainstream conversations about who can be a parent and form a family have excluded transgender, intersex and nonbinary perspectives.   

The couple that presented the session on surrogacy for gay men had moved through the process with little support outside TLFRA. The decision to have a child, they said, was an additional layer of coming out. In the backdrop of a society that approaches gay fatherhood with curiosity at best and discrimination at worst—largely due to patriarchal norms that label women as the only capable caretakers—they wanted to accumulate enough financial resources and emotional support for their child to grow up in a stable environment. The gay couple’s two-year-old toddler weaved between white fold-out tables at the front of the room, tilting his head mischievously at audience members when he wasn’t playing with his fathers. He audibly bumped his head multiple times but did not cry. He placed his head in his father’s lap each time, accepting a few words of discipline with gentle strokes on his wispy hair.

Past materials from Taiwan LGBT Family Rights Advocacy Association, including a 2020 illustrated guide titled “The Kaleidoscopic Journey of Rainbow Babies: Guide to Assisted Reproduction for Single and LGBT Families”

The sociologist Jung Chen writes that gay fathers both accept conventional scripts of family continuity as well as innovate new forms of relationships, via chosen families and emotional ties with surrogate mothers. Although they must confront layers of legal red tape, exorbitant costs and a “road full of permutations,” as the presenting couple clarified time and again, gay fathers-to-be are “determined to leave home in order to return… for the purpose of homecoming with children and reconnecting with their families,” Jung writes.  

In the Q&A sessions sprinkled throughout the presentation, the road “home” felt longer and more winding with each question. Audience members asked questions laced with anxiety. What did you say to your relatives to “come out” about wanting a child? How did you even find the right agent or clinic? What happens if there is a premature birth? Our session ran over about 30 minutes as the presenters gently responded and clarified, again, that even in the last four years since they began this process, a lot has likely changed.  

As gay men’s reproductive rights have been separated from current legislative conversations on artificial reproduction, diligent NGOs are forced to make do in these silos, filling in urgent information gaps while structural cracks in reproductive access expand. In another instance, members of a progressive political party told me that they would advocate for LGBTQ+ health and wellness centers for those who are not gay men, who make up a population still uniquely stigmatized with HIV/AIDS. A need addressed—queer women and nonbinary people lack these kinds of spaces—but another stigmatized silo reinforced.  

In his posthumously published essay titled “Hope in the Face of Heartbreak,” the queer cultural theorist Jose Esteban Munoz maintains that “hope and disappointment operate within a dialectical tension in this notion of queer utopia.” That is to say, to hope is to struggle with disappointment, both in the form of unrealized hopes and in how different our hopes can be. To be queer in a Han Chinese or Taiwanese bloodline is to open yourself to failure—be it rejection or denial or structural stigma—but hope for something else is more intense, more urgent because of it.  

Perhaps that is what pushed me to come out in the confines of that karaoke room. Hope that—as accustomed as I may be to not drawing attention to my queerness in family settings—future gatherings can be as simple as that: As long as you’re happy. Or hope that we are brave and willing enough to ask further: What would make you happier?

My wobbly fruit bowl

Hope that we can find each other in a cruising hotspot or in daylight, with or without the pretext of sex. Hope that we are no longer lonely, that we can form diverse families in a society that celebrates the crash of our differences, our permutations.  

After piling together a modest plate of dumplings, roast duck and blanched vegetables for my Lunar New Year’s Eve meal at home, I began to watch the annual celebratory concert on CCTV, a Communist Party-sponsored state media channel. Although I know the event glosses over ethnic conflicts within China’s borders and the country’s ongoing economic downturn, I think of my Brooklyn-based grandpa cracking sunflower seeds between songs on his brown, worn sectional, looking over at me and making sure I was well-fed on snacks and fried pork—a common ancestral offering in my household. I think of queer friends I met in Beijing, organizing vogue dance sessions in basement studios.  

This year, I have accumulated more rituals. One of my gay friends guided a group of us through a multi-floored Matsu temple in the northeast of Taipei, stopping at each statuesque representation of gods and goddesses to pray and light incense. A small pilgrimage of people hustled between us, mouthing their names, places of origin and invitations for protection in the new year.  

This country feels so small—you can take the high-speed rail from one end to the other in under three hours—yet so large, in the hills and paddies and incommensurate concerns that both distinguish us and leave the potential to see each other more fully. 

Back in my apartment, leaning over my wobbly fruit bowl, I wondered how many queer people were peeling tangerines alone on this holiday—a private prayer that no matter how many times we are let down in our hopes, we still find ways to each other.  

Top photo: Crowds descend on the Lunar New Year market at Dihua Street ahead of the holiday to buy food, decorations and gifts