Grandma’s Girlfriends is a response to The Rainbow Bus: Youthful Reminiscences of Twelve Older Gay Men/彩虹熟年巴士: 12位老年同志的青春記憶 (GBooks, 2010). Tong, the cameraperson at the launch of The Rainbow Bus, remembers feeling indignant that only queer men were included in this book, and set in motion a plan to record the lives of older queer women too. Over the next few years, a group of volunteers from the Elder LGBTQ Team of the Taiwan Tongzhi (LGBTQ+) Hotline Association, Taiwan’s oldest and largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender organization (founded in 1998), interviewed seventeen subjects whom they found via Facebook and message boards, and by flyering lesbian bars. These stories were then collected in Grandma’s Girlfriends, which was brought out by Locus Publishing in 2020. Yun-Fan’s oral history was written by Wanning Chen, who has been volunteering with the association since 2014.
In a brief English-language preface to the book, the editors say, “The impression of elder homosexuals that remains engraved in today’s young generation is that the former were born in the wrong time, and were unfortunately unable to appreciate the liberation brought by the LGBT activism. . . . The elder lesbians’ stories told in this book completely overturn those stereotypes: their lives back then were even more reckless, even more exciting!”
Queer language in Taiwan does not map completely onto Western norms. As a butch lesbian, Yun-Fan identifies as a woman and uses he/him pronouns. The Taiwanese term for “butch” is the English letter “T,” which stands for “tomboy.”
Before he took his first steps into the queer scene at the age of forty-four, Yun-Fan had a steady girlfriend he’d met at work. Only after this office romance was over did he take the plunge, and he was promptly astonished by the dazzling array of ways to meet people—from internet dating to Girlfriend magazine, not to mention the queer-friendly businesses listed in newspaper supplements. As he found his footing, Yun-Fan realized that the world within the scene was changing very rapidly, and everyone he connected with through these channels was a significantly younger “little friend.” Somewhat uneasily, but in the spirit of experimentation, he went to a queer-friendly women’s space, but couldn’t quite work out its dynamics. After a number of fruitless encounters, he began to keep his distance.
Yun-Fan describes his romantic life as having more heartbreak than warmth. “When I was twenty-three, I met my first girlfriend, who then went off with a man after just four months—and eventually married him. I had a dry spell of seven years after that, and we got in touch from time to time, though all we ever did was hold hands. I got tired of being treated like an ATM—and of course these loans were never repaid . . . Like an idiot, I thought if I kept giving in, my ex might come back to me, but each time that happened, it was only to ask me for something. Nothing but fake feelings. And stupid me, I got caught up in these feelings . . . ”
Yun-Fan’s second office romance lasted six and a half years, followed by a lingering four and a half years after his ex married a man. Once again, the relationship consisted of nothing more than holding hands. So there were these two bisexual girlfriends, after which Yun-Fan entered the scene and had several partners in a row. Ultimately, he said frankly, “As you get older, you need to be with someone so you can take care of each other at the end. Love is always going to depart. Androgynous Ts like me don’t get as much attention in the scene as femmes do. It’s best to prioritize getting your work and finances on secure footing.”
Time moved on, and queers began to meet online—but only if they were computer savvy and knew the rules of the internet. Even with the early websites, such as To-Get-Her and Smalltown Girl, Yun-Fan felt the scene did not favor more mature queer women like him. And so he went in search of opportunities at queer-friendly establishments. When he first entered the scene, Yun-Fan felt very isolated, although resistance from home had decreased after his mother’s death, and queerness was no longer as much of a taboo among people of his generation. With less family pressure as he got older, Yun-Fan thought more and more of “becoming myself,” even as lesbian-friendly spaces became more prevalent, with bubble tea shops, T bars, ijinkan, and so on. Whenever Yun-Fan wanted a drink or a place to chat, he’d make sure to support one of these businesses run by queer women. This led to Yun-Fan’s next decision. Aged fifty-two, he found himself unemployed when his company went bust. It would have been difficult to enter a new profession at this age, so even though he’d never been much of a drinker, he decided to open a karaoke bar. Here, amid the crowds and neon lights, he saw all kinds of queer stories unfold before his eyes.
Yun-Fan spent almost two years wrestling with the karaoke bar idea before pulling the trigger. This was a project that would require a lot of time, energy, and money; on top of this, he’d heard there would be pressure from both sides of the law. While mulling this over, he organized many clandestine queer gatherings, which made him long for a more open space to meet, talk, eat, and drink in comfort—and a karaoke bar that could be booked out for events seemed like the best option. After he’d gotten it up and running, Yun-Fan gained the support of various communities, and the bar would have costume parties to mark certain occasions or give discounts to attract different groups. Yun-Fan tried dressing more femme, with thigh-flashing outfits and high heels. These gatherings inevitably ended up being divided into zones: Ts, femmes, and the uncategorized each claimed a spot, from which they’d shoot flirty looks and sidelong glances at each other, or just chat happily. Given how furtive and hidden queer life was at the time, this opened Yun-Fan’s mind and made him think about how some people preferred Ts, some preferred femmes, and some went with the flow. “I am just me,” he thought. “Sexual orientation is a part of me. I’m a perfectly normal person, I just happen to love women!”
In elementary school, Yun-Fan already felt different from other people and kept having the urge to protect female classmates he liked. A second-generation immigrant from the mainland, he grew up being beaten and scolded by his father. His older brothers inflicted their own violence too, and as far back as Yun-Fan can remember, he’s always had a decidedly negative impression of the male gender. As for Yun-Fan himself, he liked toy guns and knives, and would play at being a soldier or horseback warrior, rescuing damsels in distress. Society was still very conservative when he was in high school, and he got all the way to college living in the shadows. His family kept urging him to get married, and his mother nagged him constantly to find a husband, glaring with suspicion and hostility at every girl Yun-Fan brought home. Only when his mother died did this family pressure decrease. Time moved on, and eventually his father, by then in his eighties, would occasionally say, “It doesn’t matter if you’re with a man or a woman, as long as you have someone to grow old with.” Even after his office romance ended with his girlfriend opting for heterosexual marriage, Yun-Fan was still besotted enough to wait at her workplace each day, hoping to catch a glimpse of his beloved. This infatuation lasted two whole years. This girlfriend said, “Being with a man isn’t necessarily the best choice, but once you choose to be with another woman, that’s a dead end, and there’s nothing but darkness ahead.”
When discussing his sexual experiences with women, from holding hands to hugging to kissing, then the final hurdle in bed, Yun-Fan confesses to having felt lost—information was not as easily available back then, and it was a mystery to him how to truly satisfy his partner. “We were both completely inexperienced! We just groped around and spent a lot of time investigating each other’s bodies. In the end, our sexual relationship felt like me providing a service.” Yun-Fan has a side that is pure romance. Many of the Ts he knew back in the day were single, and given the circumstances at the time, Yun-Fan preferred to be with older femmes, married or divorced, because they’d made a choice and understood the direction of their hearts. This was an era when quite a few people allowed themselves to be railroaded into heterosexual marriages, only to find themselves further minoritized by being excluded from the queer community—a kind of double injury. Listening to entertainment gossip and watching people come and go in the scene, including Huang Hsiao-ning, the then-popular Lady Elvis, Yun-Fan lamented that even public figures weren’t able to be themselves and faced pressure both in and out of their communities.
Only when Facebook became popular did Yun-Fan enter the world of internet groups. He seems to attract very young women and is always getting interest from people born in the eighties or nineties. The biggest age gap he’s experienced is thirty-five years. As Facebook took over from MSN as the dominant social platform, all kinds of groups and videos sprouted up online, which was eye-opening for Yun-Fan. His ultimate goal is still to find a suitable partner and have a stable home. As he gets older, he feels marriage won’t necessarily do anything for him emotionally, but having legal protections for his medical treatment, education, social security, and inheritance is still important. Yun-Fan keeps an attitude of mutual support and understanding. [Editor’s note: At the time of this interview, Taiwan’s equal marriage law hadn’t passed yet.]
As we face the future, our years increase and our bodies gradually decline. Everyone begins marching toward death as soon as they are born. You and I will both get old—whether we’re rich or poor, whatever our sexual orientation. Time is fair that way. Yun-Fan has planned well to make sure his pension is secure and has saved enough to live on. Only when his basic needs were assured did he pursue a better quality of life. Yun-Fan was born into a military family, and his father enjoyed army benefits, meaning there wasn’t too much of a financial burden as he aged. His mother may have nagged and pressured him to get married, but she was also the person Yun-Fan loved most. Yun-Fan and his siblings received very unequal treatment because of their gender and position in the family. When the first baby of the next generation appeared, though, this little grandson served as an emollient for the household. Now Yun-Fan could sometimes feel a sort of tenderness and joy. Thinking ahead to the squabbling over inheritance and the division of property after his father’s death, Yun-Fan promised himself, being all alone in the world, to take care of his bottom line, though that made him even more keen to find a companion for his later years.
Yun-Fan says he doesn’t regret or deny any of his choices, and he doesn’t seek to avoid the world’s hostile gaze, choosing instead to retain a cheerful, bright disposition. Being part of the queer community has never caused him shame. He reckons his friends who have never dared to confront who they really are, choosing instead to live in the shadows and wear a mask as they pass through life, are the ones truly suffering. While being your true self may not always be smooth sailing, needing to lead a double existence exacts a penalty of its own. We encounter people who don’t understand us, we get emotionally hurt, and we hit rock bottom—that’s the homework we need to get through in order to be our authentic selves.
Writer’s note: The transcript of the first interview with Yun-Fan ran over ten thousand words. Yun-Fan, whom I hadn’t yet met, had done his best to provide his full story, including every little detail. Human memory is fragile, and all we can do is live in the present, remembering everything we can in a footrace against time. Then these piping hot words come out of the oven, and the interviewee’s story becomes visible. From the past to the present, the road to gender inclusivity has been very long, and these changes did not come in time for some. From the present to the future, every voice, every signature on a petition, every bit of support is a part of creating history. I feel honored to have worked with the Taiwan Tongzhi LGBTQ+ Hotline Association to spend some time with this group of queer elders, speaking with these big brothers and sisters about the courage they needed in an earlier time and the choices they had to make. They are all stars, and the light they shine allows us to understand the past better.
From Taiwan Tongzhi LGBTQ+ Hotline Association, 阿媽的女朋友: 彩虹熟女的多彩青春 (Grandma’s Girlfriends: The Splendid Youth of Elder Lesbians). Published 2020 by Locus Publishing. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2021 by Jeremy Tiang. All rights reserved.