When Chi Chia-Wei appealed to the Legislative Yuan for marriage equality in 1986, he was told that “homosexuals are perverted minorities that seek to disrupt social morals for their own sexual desires”. 33 years later in 2019, Taiwan became the first Asian nation to legalise same-sex marriage. Zhang Hong-Jie’s documentary When the Dawn Comes (黎明到來的那一天, límíng dàolái de nà yī tiān) follows Chi during the final days of the campaign amid a counter offensive from conservative groups who hoped to prevent the legislative change going ahead.
Chi has been a literal flag bearer for the LGBTQ+ community, a familiar sight at protests and pride parades well known for climbing to the highest point available and waving a rainbow flag where no one can miss it. Indeed the documentary captures him doing just this despite his advancing age and the efforts of the authorities to prevent him. His campaign has been a long one, beginning when he was just a young man as the opening sequence points out with dark hair who held a press conference and came out publicly as a gay man becoming the first in Taiwan to do so. Now his hair is grey, and he is still fighting the same the battle though when this battle is done he knows there will be others still to fight.
When he first began his campaign for marriage equality Chi was battling the stigmatisation of the gay community during the AIDS crisis, continuing to argue that advocacy for gay rights and AIDS prevention should be carried out at the same time. In some ways subverting the prejudice shown against him, Chi became a well known figure handing condoms out in the streets wearing a series of striking outfits as a kind of performance art. As another advocate points out, what made his approach different was that it refused to submit to internalised shame in normalising the idea of gay sex while encouraging safe practice and educating both the gay and straight communities about the importance of sexual health.
Nevertheless, Chi was not uncontroversial. Though he took a hands on approach in AIDS activism, setting up a hospice for those with nowhere else to go, he was criticised for inviting the press to cover it leading some of the patients to leave resenting Chi for breaching their privacy. He then went on to sue three men whom he accused of hiding their diagnosis and going on to knowingly infect others, something that was also widely criticised in the community for essentially outing these men and their partners publicly and potentially setting a dangerous precedent when it comes to medical privacy. One fellow activist speculates that Chi may have justified his actions on the grounds of discouraging others from doing the same but points out that it in part had the reverse effect with some unwilling to be tested at all fearful that they might end up getting sued too if the test came back positive. On the other hand, he also regularly submitted blood samples on behalf of men who were too afraid to go in person lest their private lives be exposed. At one point Chi became such a thorn in the authorities’ side that they tried to frame him for a random crime and eventually sent him to prison for five months for “misappropriating waste”.
As for himself, Chi is also in a somewhat difficult position in that his longterm partner (who is never seen in the documentary) is still in effect closeted and facing pressure from his family to marry. Asked if they personally plan to marry once the law goes into effect, Chi can’t really answer suggesting only that they may do once his partner’s father passes away explaining that he is an only child. In one of the hearings, a lawmaker brings up an anxiety about what to do with ancestral tablets while the question of the family line still seems to lie behind prejudice towards same sex relationships. Meanwhile, his partner has long been taking anti-depressants to cope with the pressure of his family’s lack of acceptance, while Chi too is also on numerous kinds of medication for conditions caused by the stress of his work. Even so, once marriage equality is fulfilled, Chi immediately files for a paper marriage with a Malaysian man to challenge the new legislation’s failure to account for international marriages, determined to continue fighting for fully equal rights. Zhang’s documentary never shies away from some of the more controversial aspects of his activism, but nevertheless celebrates the determination of a man who dedicated his life to a cause for which he was never afraid to stand out and proud.
When the Dawn Comes screens 16th October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.
Original trailer (English subtitles)