At six years old, she followed her mother into dintao temple fair processions, and at 20, she took part in social movements. Documentary director Huang Hui-chen (黃惠偵) has paid close attention to workers’ rights and land reform justice in her documentaries “Hospital Wing 8” (八東病房) and “Wu Jiang Wants To Go Home” (烏將要回家). This time, she's taken up her camera to tell the story of her “abnormal” family life.
Huang’s father was a violent drunk, and her mother was a lesbian; she never graduated from elementary school, and instead performed in a dintao temple troupe. Since Huang was young, she’s been pinned with a number of labels, left feeling like society’s definition of “normality” has always eluded her.
It wasn’t until Huang became a mother that she cast off her role as a daughter and saw the fabric of her mother’s life: a person who desperately wanted to remain single, but was forced to choose a different path under pressure from her family and society.
“This society does not give us very much space to be ourselves,” Huang Hui-chen tells the audience after a showing of her 2016 documentary “The Priestess Walks Alone” (我和我的T媽媽).
The capital letter “T” in the Chinese-language title refers to the English word “tomboy,” literally translating to “my tomboy lesbian mother and I.” In Taiwan’s LGBT subculture, the letter “T” is used to describe women who choose to adopt a more male-like role in intimate relationships.
As filming was underway, Huang attended a public hearing for marriage equality. She heard a mother at the hearing who repeatedly insisted that to protect children, gay marriage could not be legally permitted.
“Being the daughter of a lesbian, I had a very painful childhood. And this suffering wasn’t due to my mother being a lesbian, but because of discrimination from others, the kind of people who would stand agitated on that podium pledging to protect the health, safety, and growth of our children,” said Huang.
“I believe they really do want to protect their children. If, on that day at the public hearing, they were willing to understand gay households, and if they wanted to let their children grow up in an environment that was healthy for their bodies and minds, then I would be willing to help,” adds Huang. “Yes, even though you’d teach me to discriminate and hate my mother, and make me feel that my background is inferior, I’d forget all about it, because what my gay mother taught me was not hate.”
Below is a summary of The Journalist’s interview with Huang Hui-chen, written in the first person.
Is My Mother a Pervert?
I used to think that every mother had close girlfriends. It wasn’t until I was eleven years old, the year that the Tiananmen Square incident happened, that adults started to tell me that my mother was a lesbian, a pervert, abnormal. At the time, those words thundered inside of me, and I wondered, was what they said true? I didn’t dare ask more, but I sought out the facts for myself. I watched TV, read newspapers and books, and they all seemed to verify what those elders had said: “homosexuality is a disease, is abnormal.”
My father drank, gambled and was violent towards our family. We all preferred it when he wasn't home. I always thought that someday my mother would leave, and I waited for that day, but I was also worried that she would only take my younger sister and wouldn't take me.
The day we left was an ordinary afternoon. My mother was in a rush to leave and hadn't thought about the preparations needed for running away with children. Because we didn’t take our household registration cards, I couldn't apply for new ones or attend school.
My mother begged our neighbours to take us to school to study, to sneak us in somehow. But because we had to work in the temple troupe three days a week, we didn't attend school regularly, and in the end we stopped going altogether.
I’ve been labeled a lot of things. Aside from my mother being a lesbian, my family also performed “soul guiding,” a folk funeral rite for guiding the souls of the deceased. People in dintao temple troupes don’t have a good social status, and the outside world thinks that children in troupes are dropouts, runaways, street racers or junkies. It’s as if I had nothing to do with what our society considers “normal.”
In 1998, a director came to film a documentary about young girls doing soul guiding, and this was how I first learned what a documentary was. Because technology was widespread, and because anyone could go buy a video camera, I decided to buy one to tell my own story.
“The Priestess Walks Alone” is my first film to feature such close family members. What surprised me most during the interviews for the film was hearing the reason that my mother got married. I had always thought that she was married off by her family, but it turned out that it was because my mother had a fight with her girlfriend at the time. In the heat of the moment, both of them had run off and gotten married to men.
I found out something else in the interviews. I originally thought that our family didn’t have closets. When my mother had girlfriends she never hid it from her family; she often brought them home, and sometimes they would fight and they would call my uncle to complain.
It wasn’t until we began filming that I realized our family does have a closet, it’s just that it wasn’t my mother who was in it but her family.
A typical instance in the film would occur during interviews; questions and answers would exchange smoothy until I would ask, “did you know that my mother is a lesbian?” Then they would say “I didn’t know” and would then change the subject or walk away from the camera. Gay friends of mine saw this and were stirred. Even if you find the courage to come out, the people around you might not accept it.
My impression was that my mother had ten or so girlfriends, but her friends say that she’s had at least twenty. Since my mother gave all her girlfriends gold jewelry and jade bracelets, she also ended up spending all of the household money.
A lot of people in dintao temple troupes end up buying house after house, because they always deal in cash and don’t pay taxes. When I was in my twenties I realized that my mother didn’t have any savings and that she was also in debt.
From an outsider’s perspective, you might think that this person is so free. For my mother, life should have been simple, and if it weren’t for a certain series of events, it might have been.
Doesn't Need Anyone's Approval
When I was young, I not only blamed my mother but hated her. I wondered, why am I not like others? I thought that mothers should just be like mothers.
Having a child was a major turning point for me. Before this, I only saw my mother from a daughter’s point of view. After having a kid I began to think, my mother is a person; what was her life like before I was born? What kind of life did she want? What kind of environment did she live in? What are her regrets?
The social custom of the time was that girls were to be married off when they came of age, or else their spirit tablets could not be displayed at home.
In a scene that we took out of the film, I asked my mom: “suppose that you married a ‘normal person’ who worked and made money and raised a family; then would you still like women?” She said she wouldn’t, she would be like other normal people, because this way was less complicated. When I heard this I was very sad, and I wanted to say: My God! Life would be less complicated if we didn’t have to be the way we really are.
After seeing the film, one of our veteran editors said: “Your mom is basically a dad!” This was another thing I learned shooting this film: that I shouldn’t have expected her to be a typical gentle mother. She should not have married, living a free life by herself suits her better.
Once, I took her to a Pride parade. I thought that she would feel recognized, but she only stayed a minute before she wanted to go home and play cards. It then occurred to me that she didn’t need anyone’s approval at all. She gives off this vibe that says, “this old woman was born this way, and doesn’t need anyone’s approval.” This is the ideal; people didn’t need a parade to shout their identity or to seek recognition of it in the first place.
After watching “The Priestess Walks Alone”, many people said the film doesn’t really advocate for gay rights, and was more a reconciliation between myself and my mother. For me, I didn’t film it to fight for marriage equality, but to fight for the freedom of every person, as long as they don’t harm others, to live their own lives.
See the Trailer:
“The Priestess Walks Alone is a journey, our journey. As a priestess, through chants and prayers during the "Soul Guiding" ceremony, my mom helps the dead achieve salvation, but she is bound to her painful past, unable to free herself.” －Huang Hui-chen