Click the link or images above to read more!
Check out my latest on NOTCHES, problematizing the Euro/Americentrism of global "queer" histories.
Click the link or images above to read more!
In Queer Marxism in Two Chinas, Petrus Liu problematizes the narrative of globalization, homonormativity and neoliberalism that dominates the study of sexuality. This "postsocialist" discourse minimizes the role that postwar communism played in shaping conceptions of sexuality unique to China and Chinese cultures. Though he only discusses these issues in relation to the mainland and Taiwan as a means of "historicizing the implications of their coexistence for queer practice" (4), Liu offers an alternative framework for defining sexual political consciousness in a "non-Western" context. Rather than positioning Chinese queerness as an imperfect carbon copy of the "original" gay liberation of the West (thus obscuring China's own history and agency in the development of its sexual politics), Liu pushes us to examine the interiority of our cultures and the theories forged within them.
Liu opens his second chapter ("Chinese Queer Theory") with an acerbic critique of ABC Aibai columnist Damien Lu. Lu scorns queer theory as a Western import that undermines "born this way" rhetoric, which he views as essential to the defense of the LGBT community. Liu calls out Lu's conflation of the nature/nurture debate (arguing the "innateness" of homoerotic desire as a means of promoting its acceptance) with the clash between essentialist/constructionist frameworks (maintaining that the definition of such desire is fixed) (35). Liu censures Lu, an American-educated sexologist, for promoting the medicalization of queer identities – an infamously "slippery slope" that has historically led to the pathologization of homosexuality (and may explain the proliferation of "gay conversion therapy" in Chinese societies). [Indeed, despite Lu's nationalism, his vehement promotion of "modern scientific thought" harkens back to a tradition of Chinese elites disparaging indigenous scientific frameworks in favor of the Western model.] Additionally, Liu challenges the basis of Lu's entire argument – questioning whether queer theory is inherently Western: "anyone writing in Chinese on queer topics ... is assumed to be working with a translated Western concept rather than articulating an original thought" (35).
Liu uses this second issue as a point of departure, entering a discussion of how capitalism has not so much "liberated" us, but constructed and fit us into easily definable identities ("liberal pluralism") and forced us to institutionalize these identities – thus assimilating into the "formal correctives" of the state, such as marriage. In opposition to this process, Liu describes how Chinese theorists have conceived of queerness as recontextualizing, boundless and relational to both "an unequal structure of power" (40) and to the myriad unnameable/unknowable manifestations of sexuality across cultures and time. Simultaneously, this queer Marxian tradition exists at the contested linguistic intersection of Chineseness and the appropriation of tongzhi, such that the latter term was first popularized in Hong Kong and Taiwan, "where a cultural Marxism, decoupled from state ideology and bureaucracy, flourished in a way that made it easier to imagine and articulate" (42).
I conclude with the question of how we direct this theorizing towards a specific end (as bell hooks stipulates). In "Constructing Sexual Citizenship: Theorizing Sexual Rights," Diane Richardson outlines what Liu would describe as a trinity of liberal pluralist practices: conduct-based rights claims (freedom of sexual practice), identity-based rights claims (the freedom of "self-definition"), and relationship-based rights claims (public validation of sexual relations) (2). How does queer Marxism disrupt the entirety of this framework – such that we would not be obligated to petition the state for "rights" on any basis? The amorphousness of theory is difficult to apply to our lived realities.
As we seek to envision the future of sexual identity politics in Hong Kong and abroad, we must evaluate the interplay of space, "modernity," economics and the law in shaping our perspectives. Hong Kong's urban landscapes continue to transform in parallel with its sociopolitical topography. We must (re)conceptualize space as neither purely physical nor impermeable. At this potent political moment – fraught with both expectancy and uncertainty – we exist not just in a state of liminal temporality but liminal acculturation.
First, note that cohabitation is presently being utilized to denote "non-traditional" sexual intimacy and/or partnership. Examining the history of familial living arrangements in the last century, we know that immigration patterns and class dynamics conjured circumstances wherein multiple families shared single tenement rooms. In "A Fading Tongzhi Heterotopia," Travis SK Kong explores how gay men (now all over sixty years of age) negotiated their home lives, bearing in mind that "from 1842 to 1990 (the year when homosexuality was decriminalized), there was no legal homosexual space in Hong Kong" (900). In doing so, he blurs the lines between the parallel binaries of publicity/privacy, heterosexuality/homosexuality. Indeed, the interconnectedness of the four concepts may defy conventional expectation. The heterosexual family unit's private domain versus cruising at public toilets; or the public performance of a heterosexual lifestyle versus the private same-sex relationships one keeps hidden?
Following the 1980 MacLennan Incicent, "deviant sexual conduct" was no longer just a "legal issue," but an identity (905). The proliferation of "sites exclusively for tongzhi consumption" (e.g., bars, bathhouses, boutiques, and bookshops) post-1991 helped replace "the citizen-pervert" with "the good consumer citizen," while solidifying a "positive cultural sense of belonging for tongzhi" (908). Today, an online community of tongzhi may exercise their hybrid knowledge of Western "gay and lesbian studies [and] queer theories [...] and their Chinese cultural and literary heritage" (303) – as noted by Terri He in "Online Tongzhi?." The contrast between tongzhi experiences just over half a century ago and those today are stark, delineated not just by mediums of contact or methods of anonymity but access to information and means of self-definition. Both the public and private spaces have been intruded upon by capitalism and technology, and transformed from the inside out. As such, we are left to envision how this process interconnects with transnational flows of neocolonialist interests and glocalization.
In “(Post-)Identity Politics and Anti-Normalization: (Homo)sexual Rights Movement," Day Wong presents the ultimate conundrum of sexual citizenship in Hong Kong. Pressuring institutions to encompass sexual minorities gradually alters their foundations. At the same time, however, these equality movements employ respectability politics and other modes of conformity to better convince people of their personhood. This normalization reinforces the hegemonic status quo – the privileging of one group's narrative (i.e., that of heterosexuals) over Others. A sense of commonality – evoked by the image of a desexualized, middle-class, law-abiding tongzhi – acts as a means of "humanizing" a struggle. In doing so, the multifarious nature of a community is gradually subsumed within the homogeneous rules and regulations of the state; or rather, the movement's "undesirable elements" are cast off, excluded and erased. The state co-opts the movement to fit an enduring exclusionary mold. But, if our liberation takes root in simply what benefits the majority, not the Other, what will come of future generations, when other subordinate groups must challenge the dominant narrative? How will they argue their personhood? This process is historically cyclical.
Conversely, "post-identity politics" seem an impractical alternative. How does one go about striking a balance between the need for legal protections and the complex reality of sexualities (uncircumscribed by identity politics)? Wong acknowledges that "seeking civil law protection for marginalized groups requires specification of the protected categories" (199). Apart from the armchair theories of queer radicals, she offers the example of the local organization Rainbow Action's 2001 political activities. In the same month the group was engaging respectability politics at a public hearing ("We are also taxpayers but why do we enjoy fewer rights?"), members staged the first sado-masochism protest in Hong Kong in response to a sex shop police raid (208-9). The duality of these public appeals represents the hybrid agenda Wong hints at as a feasible outcome for tongzhi activism: efforts to gain legal protections paired with efforts to increase public awareness (e.g., dispelling myths about the S&M community and arbitrary definitions of "obscenity").
Wong establishes the state as a powerful arbiter of sexual discourse, with individuals and activist groups as precarious agents of social change. Ongoing efforts to define “sexual citizenship” necessitate that "(homo)sexual" political activists engage moments of both citizenship and transgression.
homoerotic persecution in Shanghai Lalas: Female Tongzhi Communities and Politics in Urban China. Subordination within a gender hierarchy is intertwined with subordination (rather, dismissal and condescension) within a sexual hierarchy. Therefore, women detained in the eighties for "sex crimes" and "abnormalacy" received lenient treatment compared to their male counterparts (5).
Though political efforts centered around sexual civics were nothing new by the time of the Stonewall Uprising, the historic event did usher in gay liberation (what one might classify as the third wave of Western queer activisms). The "LGBT" political culture of the seventies was a stark contrast to the century of respectability politics that preceded it. Yet the AIDS epidemic soon became a grim reminder of the importance of legal protections and institutionalized identity (thus, ushering in a fourth wave). In Tiantian Zheng's Tongzhi Living: Men Attracted to Men in Postsocialist China, the author asks a group of men in a cruising park within a major city center about gay marriage:
"[E]veryone looks startled and responds, 'Of course not!' The man sitting next to us says, 'No, this kind of thing cannot be brought into the daylight!' (zhengda guangming). Another man says, 'I haven't even thought [of marriage]. Two men together are just for play. It's different from the marriage between a male and a female. [The relationship] between two men is temporary and cannot be permanent." Tan adds, 'If you get married, you'll be the focus of the world's attention as one of the few gay married couples – of course no one wants that! How shameful it would be!' (duibu duiren a)." (2)
As is implied by this post's opening quote, however, Hong Kong's public debates about homosexuality were being brought to the fore in the eighties (characterizing Hong Kong's own first wave of tongzhi politics, as identified by the authors above). Like Stonewall, the MacLennan Incident's prominence was, in part, reliant upon shock factor and media coverage. Unlike Stonewall, the "Incident" was sparked by a single individual – a Scottish police inspector charged with gross indecency, who was either killed in a police cover-up or committed suicide (192). One event was characterized by collective triumph, the other, individual tragedy.
Kam herself notes a shift from the "social/collective to the private/individual" when it comes to sexuality in China (25) – a kind of de-institutionalization of "heteronormativity" and "family values" that belies expectations for China to "progress," "evolve," or "develop" in any manner similar to that of "the West." Compare, in Hong Kong, what Kong et al. refer to as "utilitarianistic familism" – a product of British laissez-faire economics that encouraged "productive" competition between Chinese family units – and "family biopolitics" – a kind of regulated, heterocentrist, biologically deterministic mechanism that "shifted the site of governance from the state to the family" (191). Politics, economics, gender and sexuality are clearly very bound up in one another. How has the West co-opted traditional Chinese values and conceptions of family to serve its economic and political gains? How will Hong Kong contend with present-day Chinese manifestations of "pink capitalism" (and its obvious issues), given these preexisting colonial influences?