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Family and the Politics of 'Coming Out' in China

March 2, 2018

 

I first met Mrs Guo, or Guo Mama, as she liked to be called, on a typical Taipei afternoon; cloudy and warm. She had been involved in LGBT activism for years and was a fervent supporter of coming out as a way to empower tongzhi (those who do not conform to cisnormative and heteronormative models. See Wong 2005). She believed that for the community to be accepted by society it first needs to raise its visibility. Yet, coming out is a contentious issue, especially within a culturally Chinese context. In this brief essay, I would like to focus on the functions and benefits of coming out and, specifically, on whether coming out should be seen as a selfish act, whether it has any political or collective purpose at all, and what impact it can have upon one’s relationship with family.

 

Several of the people I spoke to during my fieldwork thought that coming out was a political act not just aimed at changing one’s life, but contributing to something greater than oneself. However, Sally, one of my informants, believed that this was not commonly recognised among the many tongzhi she had met, who, as she would put it, “did not have a collective perspective”. During our interview, Sally referred to the existence of a social entity constituted by queer people who, she believed, should have a collective perspective; a shift from “performing homosexuality” to “being homosexual”, as Chou (2000) would put it.

 

It is inevitable that the experience of oppression and discrimination of a given social group may lead to the emergence of a collective identity and, I argue, such identity is necessary to the advancement of the civil rights of social minorities, since it has the potential to unite oppressed people under a common consciousness and cause. Not only does this collective identity grant sexual minorities the visibility needed to demand legal recognition from the state, but it also legitimises their non-normative desires and identities by making them realise that there are many more people “out there” like them.

 

The "politics of reticence" vehemently criticised by Liu and Ding (2005) and Kam (2013), aimed at avoiding direct coming out, is precisely stifling the emergence of such a political movement, by isolating tongzhi from their own communities or even preventing any communities to be born at all, which is why I believe we must be very wary of the ‘tacit coming out’ trend which others have praised for avoiding direct confrontation. While some would suggest this model can be more family-oriented and less individualistic than the so-called ‘Western model’, I have serious doubts about this. The first problem with this statement is that it essentializes both so-called ‘Western culture’ as well as the Chinese one. The second fundamental problem with the tacit approach to coming out is that it perpetuates heterosexism as well as the invisibility of sexual minorities. For instance, Decena (2008) explains that what is tacit is not necessarily hidden or silent, but rather implicitly understood, and gives the example of his informants, some of whom thought that coming out was redundant, since they believed their sexuality was already assumed. He also criticises what he calls “conventional views of coming out” which celebrate the individual, the visible, and the proud, and argues that these are no longer a political act, but merely acts aimed at one’s personal liberation/realisation.

 

The crucial problem with a tacit approach is that to avoid explicit discussion of one’s sexuality merely because it is assumed others have enough implicit information to deduct it by themselves, as Decena’s informants did, is to perpetuate the inferior and subordinate position of non-heterosexuality. I have yet to see a heterosexual person who avoids explicit language when talking about their partners or relationships simply because they assume their interlocutor is already aware of their heterosexuality. If we advocated this sort of reticence among sexual minorities we would imply that there is something socially unacceptable with their sexuality; it would become a “to be brought up only if absolutely needed” topic. Moreover, the assertion that contemporary coming out is no longer political ignores the fact that all manners of action carry political significance, whether the individuals involved are aware of this or not. For example, a non-heterosexual person who comes out for very individualistic reasons has already contributed to challenging the invisibility of non-normative sexualities. Indeed, as Plummer (1995: 28) argues, “the very act of being able to tell a story is very political.”

 

However, even if we were to understand coming out as benefitting the whole queer community, we would still be faced by a conundrum; namely a clash between a collective queer identity and a family-based identity. The two seem mutually exclusive and irreconcilable. Thus, one would think that queer people must choose between either their queer identity and, by extension, the empowerment of the whole queer community or their own family ties. To choose one entails rejecting the other. But this too, I believe, is a reductive and misleading assumption. Based on my personal experience as a gay man, as well as based on my own research, I suggest that not only does coming out benefit the queer community, but it can also potentially benefit one’s relationship with one’s family members. In this sense, I am suggesting that coming out is not incompatible with Chinese culture or, for that matter, any other culture placing strong emphasis upon the family. Now, let us see why this is the case.

 

Scholars researching queer China have often referred to the importance of family harmony. Indeed, the concept does not merely affect tongzhi, but all families from Confucian societies (Slote and De Vos, 1998). Avoiding coming out is thus often seen as a way to maintain this state of affairs (Chou 2000, Kam 2013, Engebretsen 2014). But, like all words, harmony should also be subjected to proper scrutiny and not be taken at face value. This begs the question as to what this harmony truly entails. I do like how Kam reaches underneath the surface of these discourses, to reveal that there is a very high price to be paid for harmony, which often comes at the expenses of non-normative people. Specifically, for queer people, maintaining harmony means being pushed to the margins of society, in a dark corner where one’s sexuality may be exercised silently so long as it does not disrupt family and social order. We truly need to ask ourselves if such so-called harmony is truly worth pursuing when it relies upon the misery of the individuals who constitute the collective. Specifically, I would like to ask this; how harmonious can a society or a family truly be when it is made up of unhappy individuals? Are we running the risk of disregarding the wellbeing of people in the name of an abstract concept that is, in ultimate analysis, entirely removed from people’s lived experience and merely serves a rhetorical purpose?

 

Many of the people I spoke to during my fieldwork, both tongzhi and their parents, believed that family harmony is, surprisingly, often built upon lack of proper communication between the younger and older generations. In other words, they believe that many members of seemingly harmonious families did not enjoy very close relationships with their relatives. Indeed, tongzhi and queer people in other societies who may still be closeted are often living double lives and are forced to wear a mask when at home, as well as to keep their own parents unaware of a very integral part of their personhood. Conversely, many of my research participants believed that coming out, if properly thought out and executed, may in many cases be a tool to restore or improve the relationship between tongzhi and their family members, by breaking the silence between them and by allowing the former to be themselves when at home, so as to avoid creating an intricate web of lies. Interestingly, some of the parents I spoke to told me their biggest regret was not finding out earlier about their child’s sexuality, especially since this meant they were not able to help and support them during a difficult time. Coming out can reverse this process of alienation and may allow queer people to once again share their lives with their family members. 

 

Thus, far from being incompatible with family harmony, paradoxically, many of my research participants who came out did so for the sake of restoring their formerly good relationship with their parents. Concomitantly, some had also developed, over the years, an LGBTQ consciousness and therefore realised that the more tongzhi go into hiding the more invisible they become and the more they are ‘othered’ by society. Lastly, some of them also decided to come out not just for their family’s sake, not just for the sake of the queer community, but also for themselves, and I argue that this too is an excellent reason, since, no matter whose cause we are fighting for and whom we try to help, if we destroy ourselves in the process, ultimately, we haven’t helped anyone.

Emmanuele Lazzara holds a BA in Contemporary Chinese Studies and an MA in Contemporary Chinese Studies and Research Methods. He is currently a PhD candidate at the School of Sociology, University of Nottingham. Emmanuele is especially interested in gender and sexuality studies, with a specific focus on Sinophone societies. For his PhD, he conducted fieldwork in China and Taiwan, exploring how Chinese and Taiwanese queers experience and resist homonegativity within society and how the latter manifests and is perpetuated. He is also interested in religion and its interplay with sexual identities. Image credit: Vice.

 

 

 

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