Lotte Jeffs meets Jay Lin, founder of Portico Media and Taiwan’s now globally availably LGBTQ+ TV and movie streaming service GagaOOLaLa to talk about finding his authentic voice as a CEO and battling for marriage equality.
Who was the first person you came-out to and do you remember how that felt?
It was a long time ago, back in college to a guy who had been my best friend since middle school. He always had my back. We even went on a double date to the prom together. At Berkley we were roommates and I think he always knew I liked men more than women but was kind enough not to ask me whether I was gay or not. He was waiting for me to say it when I felt comfortable. He was the perfect first person to come out to because he knew me so well. He is now happily married to my high school prom date!
Was that a watershed moment for you, or did it take a while longer for you to feel fully confident in yourself as a gay man?
After that positive experience of coming out to my best-friend I did a study year abroad in Germany and I made a conscious effort to start tabula rasa, and not to be in the closet at all, with anyone. Sometimes when we have lived with so many lies in our familiar environment it becomes to difficult or awkward to break those lies.
And what about coming-out professionally, once you had graduated. Did that feel like a new challenge?
Going into the workplace I didn’t want to expose too much of ourselves, even in a place like San Francisco where I lived. So, I went into my first jobs being a bit guarded to make sure senior management weren’t going to be disapproving of who I was. I was really young then and things are very different now.
How did that experience influence you as a leader?
Even though we do a lot of LGBTQ-related work, either as non-profit or as our core business, I still to this day don’t really ask anyone who I interview what their sexual orientation is. Even if they are hired, I don’t use pronouns when enquiring about their partner, until that person professes what his or her partner happens to be in terms of gender. And I wonder, is that something that I should be a lot more forthcoming about in my organisation? Because sometimes, by not asking a lot of those personal questions you end up having distance with your colleagues. On the whole though I think it’s important for people to have that space to either come-out as straight or gay when they want to.
Tell us a bit about Portico Media…
It’s a company I started in 2004, in Taipei Taiwan. Over the last few years I started to do more work related to LGBT issues. First, by creating Taiwan’s first LGBTQ film festival with the aim to bring in characters and stories I felt were missing in Taiwan’s traditional media landscape. Then, the more I did that the more I realised there was an inner calling for me to raise the visibility of LGBT personal stories through my work as my core mission. So, in 2017 I launched GagaOoLala which is Taiwan’s first LGBT movie screening service that is now available globally. Aside from having 1500 movies from all over the world with a strong focus on Asia, we’ve produced about 30 originals.
What films or shows on your networks have you personally fallen in love with?
There are so many! But most recently I was very proud of the Quarantine Anthology we did exploring the challenges of LGBT relationships during the time of lockdown. We started this project in May and we realised immediately after the director pitched the project to us, that despite the uncertainty of production and the difficulty in international coordination we needed to tell these stories.
Can you talk about you’re the campaign for marriage equality in Taiwan that you were pivotal to?
Back in October 2016, a French national professor who taught French literature in Taiwan committed suicide because although he had been in a same-sex relationship with his Taiwanese partner for 30 years, when his partner died because of illness the professor was not able to make any legal decisions for their property or medical decisions. Because of sadness and utter hopelessness, he committed suicide. It was the first time ever a story like this made national news in Taiwan and it made it really relevant for a lot of non-LGBTQ people to understand why this legislation was so important.
It wasn’t easy to get this passed even with national interest. It took three years of a legislative, judicial journey and a referendum. There were so many ant-gay and pro-gay rallies. Eventually the legislation passed in May 2019. Back in 2016 it was the Taiwan LGBT film festival and I happened to be the founder who was promoting LGBT visibility at the time. I quickly created the marriage equality coalition with four other organisations to rally a lot of support behind this process. I realised this was a very pivotal moment for Taiwan and if I was going to get this legislation passed there was no time better than now. There was a new president that was pro LGBT and she had a majority in the house. She was in a position to appoint supreme court justices that would favour this kind of progressive liberal legislation. We knew we had to put all the cards on the table and do everything we could.
What did the passing of the law mean for you personally?
Also in 2016 I became a father of two twin boys via surrogate and so this push for marriage equality, became a personal fight. Not just some phantom idea of equality. It became very real for families like mine. I wanted to use the abilities I had to make sure the next generation had the protection behind them that we didn’t have. And that my children would grow up with acceptance and belongingness.
Does being ‘out’ as a leader make you more empathetic and easier to relate to people?
Definitely. And I think for me, I really could be myself as a leader once I came out to my parents. That didn’t happen until I was 40! It’s common in Asia when there are a lot of pressures about not bringing ‘shame’ to the family. We LGBT people put ourselves in the closet, not because we can’t be out at work or with friends, but we don’t want to be perceived as gay in the eyes of our parents. My parents were shocked that I’d waited so long to come out to them. My Mum said she was very sad because she wished I’d done it sooner. Pivotally, coming out to my parents made me feel more confident in who I am, especially at work. After the acceptance from my family there was nothing else that I could do that would jeopardise my relationship with them. I had their blessing and then became more public about my orientation and more devoted to my work. I wouldn’t have been able to run the company I now do if I was somehow holding my true identity inside me.
There are people in Taiwan who are waiting for their parents to pass away before they come out to everybody. I realised I lost so much time in those decades when I was pretending to be someone I was not. It stopped me from really connecting with them.
And what did you learn from that experience?
In terms being a gay CEO – this is the foundational building blocks of me as a person and a leader. Having gone through that silence and distance as a family I encourage the people I work with especially the younger ones in my company who might be going through a similar distancing or awkwardness with their relatives to find the strength from the company and to find value in what they do and an assertion that what they do is honourable and of value to society.
How has the pandemic changed you as a person and as a leader?
I’m now a parent and pre-pandemic every business trip I had to take, was a decision about being away from my family. So, for example, last year I was away for 80 days over the summer. Despite all the craziness of 2020 I have truly enjoyed being homebound and spending time with my immediate family. I’ve realised there are certain job requirements I used to think involved picking up a suitcase and travelling somewhere but now find I can still get it done without going to the office or going to the airport making a more harmonious work and family life.
What’s next for the LGBTQ community globally?
With everybody being online for meetings or conferences, even though we are more isolated than ever physically, we are somehow more able to access each other than ever. The biggest opportunity for the LGBT community is to think way outside of the box and our national boundaries and our normal social network. And to really put the pressure on ourselves to actively seek out likeminded people and build greater movements and coalitions through the internet.
I don’t think we’ll ever go back to how things were but hopefully when the dust settles there will be new bridges and new opportunities for greater things to come for the LGBT community and humanity in general.
Who is your greatest role model?
I used to think my role models were producers and directors who really blew me away, but more and it’s becoming clear that it’s my father. The more I realise there’s a finite time I have left with him, the more I realise how many sacrifices he has made to support the family and help the people around him.
Who has had the most influence on you as a leader in your industry?
My film mentor and life mentor, is a woman producer who made me realise so much of the job of a producer is nurturing. You’re helping the director, the actors, assembling the crew, making sure everyone is happy. She took that nurturing role to her life in general and was very hands-on with new producers who needed help to learn the trade. Fortunately, I was one of those people. She was an open book, she shared with me her failures as well as her successes. Pain as well as happiness. She helped me realise you can be a very successful and powerful producer and people will admire you for the films you have achieved, but if you’re a kind and humane producer too, people won’t only admire the films that you make but they will admire you as a person and that kind of admiration and respect is a lot more sustainable and durable.
If you hadn’t built a media empire, is there another career you might have fallen into?
I was practicing law in Silicon Valley so perhaps one of my ‘what would have happened’ scenarios would have involved staying in California and becoming a miserable lawyer. In general, I try not to look back too much at my life choices. If we look back too much, we forget to enjoy the present.
What have you been most proud of recently?
The work I’ve put into GagaOOLaLa for it to now be globally available as a platform for people to be able to explore LGBT stories from all over the world.