values such as family and social harmony. Less than two decades later, in September 2014, Hong Kong’s streets were flooded with protesters condemning the Chinese Communist Party’s pre-screening of electoral candidates as restrictive and a violation of the city’s autonomy. Both the 1996 Chinese Tongzhi Conference and the 2014 Umbrella Movement demonstrated the interplay of civic values, community solidarity, and international influence in Hong Kong.
Tongzhi (同志) is the contemporary Chinese word for a member of what Westerners might call the LGBT community. Originally a Chinese translation of “comrade,” tongzhi literally means “same will.” The word’s political import grew in the early twentieth century when Sun Yat-Sen, founding father of the Republic of China, used it to call upon the country’s citizenry to continue the revolution. By mid-century, the Communist Party adopted tongzhi as a genderless, classless term of address, evoking a shared vision of the collective good. Largely abandoned in favor of Western honorifics (like Mr./Ms.) in later decades, the term tongzhi reemerged in 1989 when activists appropriated it as a marker of collective identity for the first Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
In Mark McLelland's "Interview with Samshasha, Hong Kong's First Gay Rights Activist," Samshasha recalls growing up in Hong Kong in the 50s and 60s, negotiating the "4Cs: Colonialism, Christianity, Communism and Confucianism." As today's tongzhi protestors brandish picket signs emblazoned with buzzwords like "family" (家庭) and even "democracy" (民主) (see picture above), one wonders how these respectability politics have grown up out of such a cross-section of ideologies and identities (as tongzhi also encompasses various gender and sexual "minorities" – crossdressers, fetishists, etc.). What if we consider theories of norm diffusion – how a given context is influenced by "international norms" promoted by other countries and organizations? Norm appropriation argues a kind of bottom-up approach, wherein local struggles are "elevated" to the international level through the use of Western ideas, but a rejection of "Western semantic control" (1255). This idea has both been critiqued as a myth (perhaps even doublethink) and explained as an empowering paradox. Meanwhile, norm localization is a top-down method, wherein the adoption and institutionalization of international norms is predicated on their reconstruction to fit the local context. "Chicken or the egg" logic aside, both modes allow local political issues, such as equal rights for tongzhi, to be dealt with on a "universal"/global scale (i.e., "human rights") without conforming to a Western model like "LGBT" identity. But, at such pregnant political moment, is it possible to reverse this dynamic in the case of Hong Kongese tongzhi – such that local issues dictate international dialogues?
I dwell on these theoretical abstractions as a lead-in to my latest research on the history of tongzhi identity and activism in Hong Kong. Last week, I began with readings that I hoped would establish both the historical and historiographic foundations for this study. H.J. Lethbridge's "The Quare Fellow: Homosexuality and the Law in Hong Kong" was most notable (and I look forward to engaging with more of his semi-problematic literature in the future). The work itself is a kind of primary source; penned in 1976 (what many scholars indicate as the year LGBT history became a serious discipline in the United States), Lethbridge dwells on a lot of medicalized terminology for homosexuality. "Overt, exclusive, obligatory, facultative, occasional, situational," and then just plain old "homosexual" litter his introduction – establishing an already unnecessarily presentist, Euro/Americentric framework for the meat of his historical survey. Before even diving into the effects of English "anti-buggery" law on Hong Kong, Lethbridge is complicating the narrative of colonized sexuality by covering over the complexities of "queer," "non-Western" sensibilities with his use of identifiers. His use of English counterintuitively re-colonizes the discussion (see: language ideology). This problem is not unique to Lethbridge, as even queer scholars of color using English in their work encounter similar problems. How do we negotiate language use and perspective in revisionist histories when we are fixed by personal context (see: linguistic relativity)?
Gazing is, in essence, an exercise in positionality. It emphasizes the ways in which the facets of our identities (race, gender, class, sexuality, etc.) are not essential, but relational and continually biasing our reception of context, reality, and epistemology. Historiography is, then, an act of gazing. Euro/Americentricism and presentism go hand in hand – our geographic (read: racial) and temporal contexts inevitably obscure lived experiences of the past. Historiography is mired in identity politics, both explicitly and implicitly. As such, if one were to do a study of "global queer history," one would be surveying any/all "sexualities" (behaviors and/or identities?) that were conceived of as "non-normative" (minority and/or taboo?) in their respective societal contexts. However, if one were to seek out a "global tongzhi history," one would presumably be limited in scope to East Asia – why? Why are Euro/Americentric terminologies afforded an undue overarching application to non-Euro/American contexts while non-western descriptors are not? Is it just as absurd to envision a "global tongzhi history" that draws decontextualized parallels to the homonormativity of the "gay rights movement?" Or is it perversely useful?
Foucualt posits that the disciplinary gaze is inevitably internalized by the individual; Lemert claims deviance (violation of social norms) is a process of labeling that is also inevitably internalized. How do we combat the white, male historiographical gaze when we have internalized it and allowed it to shape our senses of self? How might we de-internalize and redirect the white (queer) man's gaze and his labels in order to prioritize, empower and effectively decolonize narratives of sexuality? How might white queers be "startled into knowledge" of their relative position – their non-universal identities?