Two dozen third-graders wiggle in their seats. Their attention is on their teacher — up front. He has a question for them: How many know about condoms? About half of the students raise their hands. They are fixed on his talk — a lesson on sexual education and gender equality.
Everyone inside the classroom in Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second-largest city, is captivated with this lesson. It's the people farther away — across the island — who are not happy about it.
The class was captured in a three-minute public TV station's coverage of the 80-minute course, in which the teacher wrote down "sexual intercourse behaviors between same-sex and opposite-sex" on the chalkboard. Students practiced putting condoms on dildos. The coverage early this year was intended to showcase the class as an example of schoolchildren respecting gender differences and protecting themselves from sexually transmitted diseases.
But soon after the segment aired, complaints about the class surfaced — including from many anti-gay groups. Concerned citizens saw the screenshots circling on social media and urged others to call the Taiwan Ministry of Education, local authorities and the school to lodge a complaint. They say the class is inappropriate for 9-year-olds.
"A lot of the people who are opposing me are not even the parents of my students," says Yu-hao Liu, the teacher who wrote the lesson at Ganghe Elementary School. He has been a teacher there for 16 years.
A few weeks before the class took place, Liu wrote a letter to his students' parents letting them know about the lesson. "All the parents agreed, and some even thanked me for doing this," he says, "because they don't know how to talk about this topic with their children."
Liu, who is the author of the Taiwan's first illustrated book about gay families, believes the critics are motivated by their disdain for the gay rights movement.
"The whole movement has developed to its extreme, and there seems to be a growing amount of people in the society favoring same-sex couples' rights to marry," he says. "The opposition party needs a target to attack or an outlet for its anger."
Taiwan has been at the forefront of protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. It is poised to legalize same-sex marriage in the next two years because of a constitutional court decision in May. In late October, Taiwan had its 15th annual pride parade, which drew about 123,000 participants from around the world. Many news outlets dubbed the event "Asia's biggest gay pride parade."
Schools are equally progressive. In 2004, Taiwan passed a law that requires all schools to teach gender equity topics. The fact that they have a national mandate is a big deal, considering most countries have no clear policy on this issue. In the U.S., sex education at public schools varies from state to state. Just 24 states and the District of Columbia require sex education as of this year.
Despite these policies, Taiwanese society appears to have a hard time catching up to the nation's efforts in promoting gender equality. The controversy surrounding Liu's lesson was one of several flashpoints for gender equity education this year.
The Ministry of Education is seeking to revise the national guidelines — a common process that includes all subjects, not just gender equity. During a recent public hearing, parents spoke out, fearful that gender equity education is providing "wrong information" and is influenced by same-sex marriage advocates.
Groups such as the Happiness of the Next Generation Alliance and the Alliance of Taiwan Religious Groups for the Protection of the Family have called the lessons "improper sex education" and say the topics are given to children at "an unsuitable age."
The critics have two main arguments: The lessons are not age-appropriate, and they focus too much on sex and same-sex relationships.
Are those arguments valid? The law — Gender Equity Education Act — says not really.
"The curriculum ... shall cover courses on affective education, sex education, and gay and lesbian education," reads Article 13 of the Enforcement Rules for the GEEA. In addition to sex education, classes should aim to develop students' belief systems, emotions and attitudes toward gender equality topics.
"Most of the opposing groups don't have a problem with equality between the two sexes; they oppose the idea of diverse gender equity," says Chiao-ling Yang, the coordinator of the Ministry of Education's Curriculum and Instruction Consulting Committee on Gender Equity Education. "Basically, they are against the LGBTQ community."
As to what really happens in a classroom, that depends on each individual teacher. The K-12 curriculum guidelines in Taiwan ask teachers to integrate the gender equity education into various subjects and offers examples based on students' ages and needs.
"The reason I put out that course was that a student came to me and asked, 'What are condoms?' " says Liu. "I revise my plan for gender equity education from semester to semester, based on my students' needs."
Even after the public outcry — and a lawsuit filed against him — Liu has received massive support from his own school, several advocacy groups and the local education bureau. The head of that governmental organization said the municipality would assist with a lawyer's fee if the case proceeds.
But Liu says the current gender equity guidelines don't go far enough. Schools are only required to "integrate" the related concepts into curriculum or activities and spend a total of four hours per semester in doing that. He would prefer a designated class for sex education and gender topics.
"Many problems in the society are due to the lack of gender equity education," Liu says, perhaps referring to a recent acid attack concerning an alleged gay couple at the National Taiwan University that drew a lot of attention.
"The government is aware of the importance of addressing gender equity, but they don't mandate a complete and exclusive time for teachers to teach it," he says.
That means many teachers would probably skip such courses or use the time for other subjects, Liu suspects. "I don't think I'm surrounded by many like-minded teachers."
"Taiwan has really improved a lot in terms of gender equity education," says Yang, who is part of the panel working on revising the national guidelines. "But all the progress doesn't mean there will be no setbacks; especially when we are talking about social movement."
Yu-Ning Aileen Chuang is NPR's Business Desk intern. She hails from Taiwan.
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