I got my first tattoo in Taipei in October. It states למה לא, which simply means “Why Not”. My friend Ari died earlier this year, and he had this same tattoo. I liked the message and wanted to memorialise him.
Before this, I had not really considered getting any tattoos. A combination of my Jewish upbringing and a simple lack of impetus kept my body untouched. I didn’t feel like I needed to put something on my body for the rest of my life. But having this tattoo done felt liberating.
Kyle, my husband, helped me understand what a tattoo can mean for people like us. Growing up religious, we’re taught that our bodies are not really ours. Religion tells us what to do (or more often, what not to do) with them. Aside from the many sexual injunctions, there is a taboo against permanent tattoos. It's one of those laws that is taken particularly seriously by Orthodox Jews – some Jewish burial societies won’t even allow a person with tattoos to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. The reason it is taken so seriously is not that easily decipherable. The commandment not to tattoo your body is only stated in the context of engraving symbols of idol worship. Many offences that have nothing to do with your body are punishable by death – breaking the sabbath is one such case – but tend to be more easily forgiven by religious communities. There seems to be an underlying sense that someone who gets a tattoo is radically differentiating themselves from the community. It is seen as an assertion that you can do what you want with your body, expressing yourself in ways that don't necessarily conform with the community's values.
Consequently, by tattooing yourself, you really are asserting your right to do what you want with your body. You are stating that it is yours by decorating it in whatever way you like. It doesn't make a difference whether your tattoo has any meaning beyond the superficial – getting inked itself is an act of individual creativity and an expression of your personal will. Which is why I never felt so truly myself until I saw something I'd copied from a friend permanently engraved on my leg.
Religious control of our bodies does not begin and end at the level of flesh. Yes, religion is very concerned about how much flesh you show, what touches that flesh, and what is on that flesh. But it is also concerned with how you represent yourself. Judaism has a concept called chilul hashem, which literally means desecrating the name of God. You are committing a chilul hashem if you look or act in a way that is counter to Torah values. If you break a Jewish law in front of non-Jews, you are giving God and the whole religion a bad name. If you speak out against injustice in Israel or the Jewish community, you are compromising your entire people. And if you are a Jew who is openly queer, you are a walking, talking chilul hashem.
We were in Taipei for Taiwan’s queer pride parade. It is by far the largest pride in Asia, with over two hundred thousand attendees. Since Taiwan recently became the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage, pride in Taipei is the perfect safe space for queer people from around the continent to gather. Many Asian countries are quite conservative, in that residents are expected to conform to rigid standards. In some places, those standards are dictated by religion. In others, they are simply based on societal mores.
Pride offers a similar kind of freedom to getting tattooed. There are many critics who question why we have to “flaunt” our queerness. Why do queer people have to parade half-naked, in drag, in leather, etc.? Why do queer people even need a parade? There’s no such thing as a straight pride parade.
The thing is, that question is the reason we need to flaunt what we’ve got at a queer pride parade. All our lives, we’ve been told to hide our queerness. People who have no reason to dictate what we do with our bodies have had the power to do so anyway, whether through overt political or legal power, or through less direct means, such as shame. In my youth, I knew that if I did not dress conservatively, I would be seen as problematic by my religious friends and mentors. I knew that if I showed my body, I would be seen as arrogant, promiscuous, or both. I knew that if I dressed at all feminine, I would be called girly or gay. These days, none of those epithets bother me. But back then, their damage would have felt monumental. I lived in fear of being outed – as not pious enough, but more significantly, as queer.
That is what we are responding to with queer pride parades. To the question of why, we are saying why not. We're not answering a question with a question. Why not is an affirmation that our bodies belong to us and we can do with them what we want. I feel inclined to add the caveat “as long as we’re not hurting anyone”, but that is another concession to this implication that our very being is harmful to others.
I didn’t intend to tie this in with my tattoo, although that affirmation is the reason it spoke to me. That why not experience at pride is what led me to get a Hebrew tattoo in Taipei.
Ari was not (in an identity sense) queer, but he embodied this message. He was unabashedly weird, unapologetically himself. At his funeral, the rabbi giving his eulogy called him a “rockstar who never acted like one.” This consequently embodied the Jewish approach to being queer. A rabbi who barely knew Ari was saying that Ari was a rockstar in a way that was acceptable in a Jewish context. It brought to mind that if I had died at the age of 23, I would have been eulogised as having represented the ideal Jewish Torah scholar, even though I already doubted whether God existed, never prayed, and only apathetically kept Shabbos. I had been hiding effectively for two decades, and whichever rabbi presided would have wilfully ignored my first signs of individuality and queerness.
At pride, people take the opportunity to show a lot more flesh or to dress in a way that is more flamboyant than they normally would. In Taiwan, most attendees dress in a simple t-shirt and shorts, but there is a significant minority who break down the boundaries of what's usually considered acceptable.
I wore a mesh top and short shorts for the parade, exhibiting a level of queerness that felt empowering. There are few occasions on which most of us feel comfortable in public with our queerness so vividly on display. Most of my life, I’ve felt uncomfortable displaying my queerness even in private settings. A couple of nights later, at a cocktail bar in Taipei's Red House district, surrounded by queers, I pointed out the affinity gay men seem to have with tank tops. It reminded me of how liberating it felt to start showing just a little bit more flesh on the cusp of leaving the faith.
This self-expression at pride is important, as these parades serve a number of purposes. We want to celebrate our queerness. But we also want to make a political statement, especially in places where queer people are not guaranteed human rights or basic safety. We need to push at boundaries that keep us invisible and oppressed rather than keeping us safe.
At the best pride parades, celebrating queerness goes hand-in-hand with political activism. They melded together seamlessly in Taipei. Queer people from Hong Kong advocated for their political freedom. Queer people from countries like Indonesia and Malaysia showed off what they’ve got in a way that they can’t back home. Locals came out en masse to ensure the country does not get complacent with its burgeoning rights.
It was a lot of fun, too. Music boomed from floats, with queer dancers hyping the crowd up. Participants sang along in a language I did not at all understand. It was like being at a concert where that the crowd was the focus, rather than a singer or band.
Having grown up knowing almost zero openly queer people, having hundreds of thousands of queers around me was affirming in yet another way. I always thought I was alone. Turns out there were tons of queer people going through the same struggle. I just could not see them and they could not see me.
Regardless of if any one political message was heard, onlookers were clearly impacted by the parade. They cheered us on, watched with their children, and some joined in. Often, the best queer activism is achieved through visibility alone. Being queer is not as shaming if people are out in public proclaiming their queerness. Youths no longer have to grow up with no queer role models.
If you've never been to a queer pride before, try make it the next time it comes around. You don't have to be queer to go, and you don't have to take part in it if you're not yet comfortable. Seeing so much queerness out in the open is empowering, whether or not you identify as queer, even if you're looking on from afar.