Among the most liberal of Asian nations, Taiwan became the first to legalise same-sex marriage in 2019 but that doesn’t mean that it’s always easy to be LGBTQ+ particularly if you come from a religious background and wish to maintain your faith. Elvis Lu’s documentary The Shepherds (牧者, Mùzhě) follows a small group of religious leaders who are or have been involved with a progressive church, Tong-Kwang, which was the first in Taiwan to expressly embrace the LGBTQ+ community on its foundation back in 1996. Unfortunately, however, the pastors have faced significant barriers in their personal and professional lives because of their views on homosexuality which face staunch opposition from mainstream religious organisations. The founder of Tong-Kwang Yang Ya-hui, a heterosexual female pastor, eventually took her own life because of the discrimination she later faced within the religious community which made it impossible for her to continue working and support herself without compromising her beliefs.
Discrimination is also something which has affected pastor Huang Guo-yao and his wife who now work for Tong-Kwang but began their careers in Hong Kong. Huang was forced to give up his ministry after advocating for LGBTQ+ rights brought him into conflict with the more conservative local Churches, eventually making the decision to migrate to Taiwan while his children remained in Hong Kong. He laments that the situation in which he found himself may have had a negative effect on his now grown-up sons, the younger one he worries having become increasingly withdrawn and unwilling to talk about his feelings.
Zeng Shu-min, meanwhile, is in a similar position unable to find employment with more conventional churches as an openly gay pastor. While officiating at same sex weddings, he’s had to look for other employment to support himself and generally lives an ascetic existence, dependent on the kindness of friends such as Hsiao-en, a lesbian advocate for LGBTQ+ Christians who was herself ejected from the seminary for her liberal views. Running the Light Up project, she provides a more positive religious presence at rallies where conservative voices loudly protest against the advancement of rights for LGBTQ+ people and the movement for marriage equality. Presenting a united front in their priestly outfits, conservative preachers openly commit to undermining the seats of local politicians sympathetic to LGBTQ+ issues, some advancing that they want to “protect” the LGBTQ+ community who must be living “very painfully”, while they refuse to compromise the “basic values” of their society.
As part of her outreach, Hsaio-en also liaises with the parents of LGBTQ+ children who often find themselves ostracised from their church community solely because of their children’s sexual orientation. Like Shu-min, she also has to work a regular job to support herself while feeling guilty for not being able to devote herself to activism full time and lamenting that hard as she works it often feels as if she isn’t getting anywhere and her efforts don’t make much difference. Yet Tong-Kwang in itself provides a valuable safe place for LGBTQ+ Christians, running a hotline those in distress can call for relief when experiencing difficulty in their personal or religious lives and affirming that their sexuality need not conflict with their faith nor is it a barrier to God’s love.
With a mixture of observational footage and talking heads interviews, Lu bookends the film with poetic black and white re-enactment featuring the words of pastor Yang Ya-hui taken directly from her autobiography, positioning her as a kind of martyr for the rights of LGBTQ+ people in Taiwan and particularly for LGBTQ+ Christians. The film ends with the passing of the marriage equality act, but is quick to point out that that does not mean that prejudice and discrimination evaporated overnight, Hsiao-en in particular worried that organisations such as hers will come under greater pressure from conservative religious voices intensifying their opposition. Nevertheless, despite the sometimes great toll on their personal lives and those of their families, each of the shepherds remains committed to defending the rights of LGBTQ+ people not only to occupy an equal place within their society but also within their faith as members of a compassionate and progressive religious community.
The Shepherds streams in the UK 30th October to 5th November courtesy of Queer East and Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.
Original trailer (English subtitles)