TAIPEI — Toward the end of his one-man production, the actor and dramaturg Huang Gia-Yeh steps out of a one-room theater and onto the outdoor balcony behind a rectangular window. Accompanying him in the cool night is a table lamp—its stem fading into the darkness and lampshade like an ocean buoy on the horizon—that illuminates Huang’s face from below. He tapes a smiling sunflower balloon onto the window. His stretched figure is partly obscured by balloons with “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” strung inside, but through the chiaroscuro shadows, Huang’s pensive gaze lands somewhere in the distance.

“Today is my birthday party—but it’s also my parting ceremony (gaobieshi),” he says moments before he steps outside. He is referring to a part of a traditional funeral, in which loved ones offer tributes and incense so the souls of the deceased may pass in peace.

But in this case, from this room of haphazardly arranged balloons and stacked shoebox gifts, the audience joins Huang as he bids adieu to the female body that he feels has long betrayed him and prepares for the one that he has longed for. In life and in character, Huang is a transgender man on the cusp of medical transition.

In his mostly autobiographical play, titled “Wait a Moment, My ID Card Number is Wrong?!” Huang recreates the everyday miasma of polite misgendering that has hovered over him for more than 30 years, from early childhood until the present. But he is just as quick to dispel any sense of tragedy. From training bras to the navy skirt of his middle-school uniform to a well-meaning-just-curious stranger playing devil’s advocate with his identity, Huang uses these props and characters to not only trace his story but prod at a society obsessed with having a claim on his gender. As I watched Huang impersonate the high-pitched shrill of a streetside auntie or the heel-clacking haughtiness of a school administrator—all erroneously calling him “Miss”—my laugh lines deepened and loosened as these mini-sketches coalesced into the portrait of a society yet to accept transgender people.

“Wait a Moment” is the first installment of a trilogy that chronicles Huang’s real-time medical transition. The play documents the experiences that led him to start hormone replacement therapy (HRT)—which he will begin in early 2024—while the second and third installments will take place after he completes HRT and top surgery, respectively. The trilogy joins a larger oeuvre of Taiwanese transgender storytelling that has grown in recent years to include drag performances, short films, full-length documentaries, podcasts and representation in reality TV.

Live transgender performers like Huang and stand-up comedian Kang Yu-Ni are also expanding the diversity of trans stories in Taiwan, enticing live audiences to bear direct witness while, importantly for both Huang and Kang, making them laugh. Against the backdrop of discrimination cases and other never-ending legal battles, these performers share a desire to expand the mainstream transgender narrative beyond one of grief and constant struggle, while also exposing the systems that discriminate against transgender lives—with levity, some nudity and a punch of reality.

The title of Huang’s play alludes to a major structural obstacle most transgender people face in Taiwan: the legal gender-change process, often symbolized by the leading figure of one’s official identification number: At birth, men are assigned “1” and women “2.”

With no formal law regulating gender recognition beyond birth, transgender folks in Taiwan are at the mercy of a highly medicalized concept of gender. Interior Ministry Order No. 0970066240, issued in 2008, stipulates that to change one’s legal gender marker, a person must present two psychiatric diagnoses that certify gender dysphoria and a certificate proving the surgical removal of reproductive organs. For those assigned male at birth, those are the penis and testes; for those assigned female at birth, the breasts, uterus and ovaries. Cracks in this system are emerging via courts; Taiwan’s judicial system has ruled against the surgery requirement for gender recognition in two instances. Yet legal changes remain to be seen, and gender reassignment without surgery (mianshu huanzheng) is still not legal. To be transgender is still perceived as an illness or other medical condition to be fixed.

Some 88 percent of transgender people have not yet undergone surgery, many citing safety concerns and highly prohibitive costs, according to a 2020 survey titled Current State of Transgender Human Rights conducted by the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights (TAPCPR). Indeed, the minimum cost of gender affirmation surgery in Taiwan—often not covered by the National Health Insurance System—is $5,000 (or more than 150,000 New Taiwan dollars), in a country where the average annual wage is about $22,000.

At the same time, Taiwan’s household registration system and National Identification Card touch nearly all areas of social life—from health insurance, education and employment to driving, voting and securing loans. A mismatch between one’s gender and ID card creates daily potential for harm, meaning nearly 90 percent of transgender people face the risk of being outed and exposed to discrimination or other forms of abuse. Huang’s play delves into how his life before medical transition was often determined by the eyes of beholders, not his own.

At 39, Huang has a boyish demeanor, expressed in part by the animated voice impersonations sprinkled throughout the play. His hair is cut relatively short, wispy bangs swept to the right side of his forehead, length just shy of his thin eyebrows. In conversation, he carries himself with a swagger: back with the slightest of leans, eyes in direct contact with mine at the head of a joke, crisp baritone voice swinging in volume and speed to land the punchline.

Huang wears a New Power Party worker vest

“Of course I’m nervous not knowing what’s going to happen after HRT,” Huang said. “The worst-case scenario is that my voice remains the same.”

Huang was inspired to begin his medical transition at the end of 2022. The thought had previously crossed his mind as early as his high school years, but having grown up around family and peers that easily aligned his bravado with his gender identity, he never felt rushed. From early childhood, Huang recalled his mother’s patience during one kindergarten shopping spree, as Huang relentlessly scoured the racks for the least feminine skirts for a school event. (He landed on an oversized t-shirt instead.) Even later in life, Huang’s mother would help Huang diffuse their extended family’s confusion over Huang’s gender identity.

With more than 60 percent of transgender people reporting some form of familial abuse, according to the TAPCPR survey, Huang acknowledges the fortune of his family’s support. “I couldn’t imagine what life would be like if my parents could not accept my transgender identity because I don’t want to disappoint them,” he said. “But growing up in my household, I came to understand gender as no different from having single eyelids or double eyelids, or being short or tall.”

However, family is among the core reasons for his medical transition. While previously working as a legislative assistant in Hsinchu City, Huang read countless death records and regularly attended funerals. In a traditional funeral in Taiwan, sons and daughters are expected to perform different duties and stand in different locations, so when his father fell ill at the beginning of 2023, he said, “I wasn’t sure if I could handle grieving and being misgendered at the same time.” Indeed, in one of the play’s opening scenes of a parent’s imagined funeral, Huang politely informs the celebrant that he is a man, only for the fact to be forgotten moments later.

Huang’s play creates a collage out of everything from funereal rituals to a service culture that insists on calling everyone “Sir” or “Miss.” With his expert voice impersonations, he moves between comedic and dramatic registers to evoke his gender dysmorphia—or the dissonance between his own and others’ understandings of his gender identity. High school teachers shouting in high pitch, “Why aren’t you wearing your skirt properly?!” juxtapose against failed confessions of love, with Huang recalling his high school crush’s fateful words: “I would date you if you had the body of a man.”

The comedic impersonation of a lackadaisical bird shop owner’s bass voice accentuates Huang’s memories of working in the mainstream theater industry, where he heard a common refrain: “Transgender people do not exist; they are just a topic for creative discussion.”

But no matter what pain Huang feels in his play, there is always a follow-up if not a comeback: to prove a teacher’s assumptions of gender wrong, poke fun at old internet myths about transgender people, talk chromosomes with casting directors who deny his identity (and know nothing about chromosomes). In one scene, Huang hosts a Q&A session with a series of balloon animals, varied in shape, all endowed with exaggerated voices. A pink wiener dog-shaped balloon asks Huang: “If you were on a deserted island with no one else, would you still want to change your gender?” Without skipping a beat, Huang responds: “If there’s no one else on the island, no one would be able to help me with the surgery, so… next question!”

Of course, it’s not as though Huang wants to answer the next question—or a society insistent on asking it. Many transgender plaintiffs represented by TAPCPR choose to be anonymous in the public reporting of their legal cases, already burdened by having their lives on display as evidence inside the courtrooms.

A sculpture from TAPCPR’s “100 Ways to See Transgender” exhibition, which consolidated critical objects and symbols of transgender women’s experiences in Taipei

Indeed, as Huang recounts his own life for us, hints of fatigue and exasperation build until the emotional climax, when he recalls a moment from his final year of high school: “While preparing for college entrance examinations, I was solving physics problems with one hand and with the other, writing a suicide note.” For a moment, weariness settles onto his wrinkle-free forehead, his eyebrows no longer animatedly shifting up and down with punchlines. He takes out the note and asks if he can read it to us: “Dear all…”

In a sense, the play is the ultimate comeback. Every time Huang is called “Miss” or forced to write his legal gender—every time “a new wound opens before the previous one heals, and they each get deeper, bigger and still deeper,” as he describes in the play—he finds a way to laugh. His laughter cannot erase his exhaustion, but the sound of it means that he has survived past that moment of uncertainty and grown into the dramaturg, actor, son and human he is today, who can use his performance to assure other transgender people that their existence is not a mistake. While Huang is among 70 percent of transgender people who have contemplated or attempted suicide—as reported by a 2014 survey conducted by the Intersex, Transgender and Transsexual People Care Association (ISTSCare)—Huang says in conversation that he doesn’t want to write plays that “drown me in my own emotions. I’m not that pitiful; I just want to portray my circumstances in this wider context as it is. We all have uplifting moments and painful moments, don’t we?”

Throughout our conversation, Huang would often return to these kinds of rhetorical questions drawing attention to seemingly banal facts like “We all grew up in different households, didn’t we?” It felt as though he were tossing questions back at the society insistent on not only misgendering him but making him out to be different from everyone else. Of course, transgender people are different. Huang will spend at least the next couple of years living a life tied to the medical system, from asking medical professionals about the way testosterone will interact with other parts of his life to contemplating the risk of any subsequent surgeries. From the perspective of social stigma, nearly half of transgender people report having faced discrimination or bullying in school settings and nearly 40 percent in workplace settings, the 2020 TAPCPR survey found.

But Huang aspires for these differences to be seen as just that—differences bred by disparate life circumstances, but fully accepted nonetheless. Recalling his experiences as a legislative assistant, Huang said he learned the range of issues that often reach a lawmaker’s desk. He impersonated a Hsinchu City-based auntie he once encountered at a forum, publicly demanding an immediate solution for local air pollution in a tone that Huang described as “sharp, fed up and maybe a threat.” While taken aback, Huang could relate; everyone holds on pain in their own way.

“No matter how I act, I’m made to feel wrong, as people continue to look for vestiges of my gender assigned at birth,” Huang said. “I do not want to be confined by my gender, but for now, I can only share my story, as one trans man’s story, as we work to change our entire society.”

Kang Yu-Ni’s life story offers a foil to Huang’s. Both explicitly acknowledge differences between the transmasculine and transfeminine experiences, with trans men often passing and integrating into society much more easily than trans women. While Huang’s fatigue is directed at strangers picking at his gender, Kang—before she became a Golden Bell-nominated television screenwriter, transgender activist with beginnings in the Taiwanese Independence and Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty movements, deputy director of the Green Party and founder of a trans-focused nonprofit in Kaohsiung—faced her hardest trials at home.   

Kang Yu-Ni performing live at Takaocomedybay, a venue in Kaohsiung

From a young age, she experienced frequent familial abuse for showing any signs of femininity. Even raising her pinky while drinking from a glass invited physical beatings by her parents. In high school, after receiving a teacher’s note that Kang had “too many female friends,” her parents dragged her into her room, slapped her, and forced her to say “I am a boy” with her pants pulled down. As soon as she graduated from university, she moved away from home in Kaohsiung, on Taiwan’s southwestern coast, to northern Taipei and began her own transition to a woman without her parents’ knowledge.

“I very slowly came to terms with my parents’ actions but I felt as though telling them that I had decided to be a woman would have led to complete rejection, so I never went home,” she said.

But when one of her aunts died, Kang’s parents texted her, coaxing her to return home. At first, Kang was hesitant but decided to use the moment to write a parting note (gaobiexin): She thanked her parents for their support growing up and announced that she has been and is still a woman. While she would love to stay in their lives as a daughter, she wrote, if they wouldn’t accept her, their relationship would end there.

Her parents conceded and rather quickly adapted to regarding her as a woman, going so far as to comment on her weight, makeup and clothing as many parents may to their daughters. At first, Kang’s parents, like many other Taiwanese parents, saw sexuality as an economic institution. The first question Kang’s mother asked was whether she would be able to achieve financial stability and social mobility as a transgender woman.

Kang does not know what led her parents to support her transgender identity but feels more unapologetic because of it. “I told my mom that if my parents support and accept me,” she said, “how can anyone else bully me?” In her talks and performances, Kang says she always makes a point to say that line to encourage trans youth to find a source of strength.

And she has not shied away from making strong statements in her comedy. In one segment of her stand-up routine, for example, she wants you to know that a dog leash has everything to do with Taiwanese identity.

Kang personifies as someone who enjoys BDSM (an acronym that encapsulates the sexual kinks and practices of bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadism and masochism). Specifically, she is a masochist who enjoys calling her partner “daddy.” One night, as soon as she enters a hotel room with her online hookup, she role-plays a daughter, even going so far as to say that she was born to service her “daddy.” She is wearing only a body-tight white top, black panties and a dog leash around her neck as she enacts her pleasure from the masochistic interaction.

But “Taiwan’s greatest transgender stand-up comedian,” as Kang refers to herself, isn’t onstage to show off her sex life—although she isn’t shy about it. She breaks out of character mid-scene, stands up and directly faces the audience members. She asks if they think the situation is strange: Kang didn’t know this man, and yet as soon as they pass through the door together, she seamlessly slips into the role of his daughter.

The author with Kang and two of her friends in Kaohsiung

“All of you,” she proclaims, “are M[asochist]s. Taiwanese people are Ms. Before 1949, we didn’t have anything to do with the Republic of China, and yet as soon as he stepped foot onto our nation’s ports, he became our daddy. He became Chinese Daddy.” In this case, “he” refers to the authoritarian regime that swept Taiwan in 1949, whose successors are known for their pro-China views.

She takes the leash off her neck and tells the audience: “Let’s stop being masochists.”

Under her wide-rimmed glasses and symmetrically parted bangs, Kang spoke in a sweet, measured tone for the first few seconds of our conversation. But within a few minutes, her humor was rumbling beneath the slight rasp of her voice. “Everything has to do with being transgender,” Kang said. “Where there are people, there is sex. And where there is sex, there is a transgender angle.” For Kang, the transgender angle is one of subversion.

Because of the difficulty of legal gender change, Kang insists that people bear witness to her trans body. Back in the early days of her activism, she created a set of lighters featuring censored nude photos of herself. Only after people are drawn to the photos do they notice the words on the lighters: phrases like “Taiwan independence,” “Hong Kong independence” and various jabs at Chinese and pro-Chinese leaders across the Taiwan Strait. She ended up selling over 4,000 of the lighters at rallies and online, cementing a link between sex and nationalism.

At the heart of Kang’s repertoire is the question of reclamation: How does a trans woman recover her dignity in a society that treats her body like an object of intrigue? How does Taiwan restore its sense of self amid a history of being called “China?” How do we reclaim insults or derogatory terms—much like “queer” in the Western context, which Kang raises—and find pride in who we are?

She’s especially obsessed with that last question. She used to call herself Taiwan’s greatest disanxing (or “third gender”) stand-up comedian—as a way to popularize and lighten that term: “third gender.” It derogatorily refers to transgender women—the politically correct term for which is kuaxingbie nüsheng or kuanü—and has roots in the sex work industry. Brothels and bars were created especially to showcase transgender prostitutes in the past, and a gender hierarchy developed with disanxing at the bottom.

Kang “wanted to make people think of disanxing as a cool, high-end term with pride,” but she doesn’t know if it’s the right time. Indeed, sex work is still a common profession for transgender women who are unable to find other employment, and she received online pushback from transgender women who associate the term with shame. While Kang was deeply affected by the backlash and still hopes to one day host a giant program celebrating the term, she also gets it. After all, she is living in a society that economically disadvantages transgender people.

I later found out that Kang also modeled for a photograph exhibited at TAPCPR’s 2023 “100 Ways to See Transgender” exhibition, hosted in Taipei. The photo portrays a homeless transgender woman sprawled on a cardboard box, wine bottle in hand. There is a pile of clothes to her right, a toe protruding from her left high heel, one of her breasts exposed from under the tatters of her dress. Titled “I am a Woman Now, and I’m Also Poor,” the photograph satirically highlights the unseen struggles behind the stereotypically glamorous image of transgender women.

Behind those compliments of beauty and bravery are the emotional and financial burdens of surgery—also known as “gender reassignment poverty”—under a medical system that still regards being transgender as a medical condition.

Like Huang, she says she doesn’t want to tell another sad story about transgender people. Rather, as someone who has undergone HRT and some surgeries, Kang wants to serve as a “lighthouse. I want to show them that it is not only possible to live past the age of 30, but to do so successfully and unapologetically.”

I asked Kang if she’s ever worried about taking it too far. “I’ve learned how to be this way from a young age,” she told me. “It’s a little frightening thinking about how outspoken I was as a kid but I knew no one else would protect me.” Without knowing Kang, one might think that humor is just a defensive mechanism against the everyday violence she experiences, but she assures me she doesn’t take herself that seriously. These days, she wants to just play in subversive joy. In one popular segment of her routine, Kang exposes a nipple for ten seconds, imploring audiences to think about the digital censorship of women’s nude bodies alongside public confusion about transgender bodies.

A screenshot of the livestream of the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR) event hosted by ISTSCare

In another, she explains the story behind her stage name, Ni-Ni, which evokes a Taiwanese celebrity criticized for her pro-China views named Ouyang Ni-Ni. One time, a sexual partner asked her to “lick him the way you tian gong”—a slang term that literally translates to licking the Chinese Communist Party, or flattering the Chinese government for profit or personal gain. “I immediately went dry,” she said, ever so slightly hunched over with a smug look on her face, proud she was able to work this joke into her routine.

Kang’s oeuvre is trans not only in terms of its social subversion but also its ability to span overlapping layers of history that are both personal and national. Through her acts of reclamation, she demands unapologetic freedom—of Taiwanese identity from Chinese aggression, of a trans body from public misperception and medical oppression, of sex and sex work from stigma, of Kang Yu-Ni from an abusive past—so that when this nation recognizes transgender rights, she says, it does so in a way that makes all of its people proud.

Following the scene with the leash, Kang proudly takes the first step relinquishing her masochistic identity, taking out a Republic of China flag. Using a lighter, she burns it. The text of article 118 of Taiwan’s Criminal Code, which stipulates a fine of 9,000 new Taiwanese dollars (NTD) ($285) for the destruction or desecration of the flag, is projected behind her.

“You just watched a 9000 NTD performance,” she says.

At a Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR) memorial on November 20, Abby Wu (Wu Yi-Ting) stood in front of a carpet of flowers and a trans pride flag. Wu is the founder of ISTSCare and the first transgender woman to run for any election in Taiwan, representing the Green Party as an at-large legislative candidate in national elections coming in early 2024. A longtime advocate of transgender rights, she pointed out that the signs behind her—striped in the blue, pink and white of the trans flag, bearing variations of the slogan “END FORCED SURGERY”—were designed 12 years ago. Yet their relevance holds; transgender people read similar headlines, with incremental, sometimes unclear changes with each legal case view.

Another component of the event was a memorial for a nonbinary trans makeup artist and performer named Redtail, who had died in October. Andy Liu, a friend of Redtail’s, described them as “loving, infinitely giving and wanting nothing less for us to dance upon her passing away because there is a lot of pain and anger in the transgender community,” he said. “But we must also memorialize and honor queer joy.”

Both Huang and Kang are bountifully joyful. Their smiles stretch proudly in conversation and on stage. . By standing directly in front of audiences, their transgender bodies in full view, actors and comedians like Huang and Kang hold up a crystalline mirror to the society that often looks away from the beauty and pain of transgender stories.

They share a common conviction: the need to expand transgender narratives beyond grief and in doing so, normalize them. Make them so undeniably common that, as Kang put it, “everything becomes transgender.”

Activists and performers agree there is a long way to go before the transgender identity can become as ubiquitous as air, however. TAPCPR continues to represent a range of legal cases to ban workplace discrimination, allow transgender people to live in dormitories that match their gender identities and allow for gender reassignment without surgery.

But until Taiwan reaches the end of the road, Kang and Huang say they will continue to laugh and perform as a way to practice what the renowned gender scholar Judith Butler termed possibility, or “the ability to live and breathe and move.” As they write, “Possibility is not a luxury; it is as crucial as bread. I think we should not underestimate what the thought of the possible does for those for whom the very issue of survival is most urgent.”

Performance is a conduit for hope, especially for young trans people growing up in today’s Taiwan. As Liu added to his memorial at the TDoR event: “In this desperately forgetful society, the commemoration of queer joy is a sacred act.”

Top photo: Kang Yu-Ni posing behind a fan that says “Kang Ni-Ni’s Stand-Up Comedy”