Saturday, April 10, 2010

Identity Crisis

Believing as I do that being gay is what you make of it, I am constantly baffled by the way "gay identity" has become a bogeyman in both academic and popular discourse. It seems to have the same function for gay academics as "the gay lifestyle" has for homophobes, connoting a sinister, all-devouring, vampiric shadow that sneaks up on unsuspecting young faglings and dykettes, recruits them by deceit, and sucks out all their vital force. And once they've succumbed to it, alas, there is no escape. I don't think I'm exaggerating here at all, not least because it's so unclear what either "gay identity" or "the gay lifestyle" is. It is, as I said, a bogey, a lurking horror to be dreaded (Be afraid, be very afraid), not understood or defined. "Gay identity" doesn't sap your individuality (or does it?) because in this discourse it is the epitome of individualism. I've been picking on Mark McLelland lately, though despite this niggling little problem Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan is a fine, valuable book, so let me quote another scholar who covers roughly the same waterfront, Song Hwee Lim, who writes in his Celluloid comrades: representations of male homosexuality in contemporary Chinese cinemas (University of Hawai'i Press, 2006, 50-51):
In terms of the cinematic representation of homosexuality, the logical corollary to the contestation of negative representation often means the creation of openly gay characters, since the rhetoric of gay liberation dictates that to remain in the closet is a sign of self-loathing, whereas to come out is an affirmative act of pride. Over the decades, the act of coming out has acquired such an unquestioning and sometimes unquestioned status that not to come out is seen as an unfathomable form of behavior [50].
My dear! First of all, it's dishonest to claim that coming out has "acquired such an ... unquestioned status" when it is still being argued about, debated, fought over, in life and in print -- and not just in postcolonialist academic tracts, but among American queers in every walk of life. (What an "unquestioning ... status" would be, I have no idea.) Second, it should be noticed again that "coming out" has distinct, yet partially overlapping meanings. It used to mean making one's debut in Gay Society, getting to know other gay people and getting one's cherry popped. After the Stonewall riots of 1969 and the emergence of the Gay Liberation Movement another meaning was added, without replacing the earlier one: "coming out of the closet" to straight people as well, or becoming "openly gay." It's this latter meaning that is the "affirmative act of pride." While it's possible to get along without being openly gay, it's hard to have much of a life as a gay person without knowing other gay people; though for gay men, anyway, it is possible to have an anonymous sex life without socializing in gay society or telling one's mom about it. Is it "unfathomable"? I don't know. Is it necessary for gay cinema to have "openly gay" characters? I don't know, but both forms of coming out provide easy ways to move a narrative forward, and supply ready-made drama of various kinds, quite apart from any political concerns. I think that in his apparent eagerness to distance himself from gay politics, Lim overlooks these points. I'm also not sure that not-coming-out is "a form of behavior," but leave that aside.
To borrow a Cartesian formulation, the rhetoric of gay liberation beseeches the homosexual to declare, "I come out, therefore I am."
Well, no it doesn't; this may have sounded cute or witty to the author, but it's neither. In its most famous form, gay liberation exhorted (not beseeched) "the homosexual", to come "Out of the Closets and Into the Streets!" Not, in other words, just for Gay Pride Day Parades each June, but to work with others to make the streets (indeed, the whole world) safe all year round for gay people, against cops, thugs, priests, families, and others who sought to keep us scared and invisible. I want to stress this because Lim prefers to keep "the homosexual" individual and isolated, standing alone against his family and society.
This line of argument raises several questions: Who decides if homosexuals should come out? Does the act of coming out necessarily promote understanding and acceptance of homosexuality? If coming out is chiefly linked to Western epistemologies and practices (as argued [but not proven! -- DM] by Munt via Foucault), should it be regarded as universal and imposed indiscriminately on other cultures? [51]
Well, of course, homosexuals should decide if homosexuals should come out -- that is, each homosexual must decide for him or herself. (Lim does not take up the question of outing.) The act of coming out doesn't necessarily promote or automatically understanding and acceptance of homosexuality, but it is the only way that homosexuals can take that project into their own hands. You can only pretend to be a disinterested heterosexual for so long in challenging bigots. As for the question whether "coming out is chiefly linked to Western epistemologies and practices", leaving aside Lim's misunderstanding of Foucault, Lim skates perilously close to a racist essentialism there. He then relies on the blind passive: "should it be regarded as universal" by whom? Should it be "imposed indiscriminately on other cultures" by whom? This is especially pertinent because Lim here is criticizing other gay Chinese critics who, according to him, are demanding "positive representation" and "openly gay" protagonists in Chinese film. Either he's insinuating that they are collaborating with the monolithic Gay Western Imperialists to impose coming-out indiscriminately on all cultures, haha!, or he's attacking a straw man. The first seems likely:
To begin with, I suggest that there is no inherent moral high ground in coming out, the rhetoric of gay liberation notwithstanding. Demands on homosexuals to come out, whether in reel life or real life, often reflect the need of gay activists and critics for greater visibility, alliance, and support for their political cause.
As though "activists" were some weirdly distinct group, not really gay at all! Of course, "their political cause" will get nowhere if they/we can't persuade other gay people that the strategies and goals we advocate will be useful to them. What Lim calls "demands on homosexuals to come out" were, in the US, part of an often acrimonious debate between the open and the closeted that isn't over yet.

I want to point out, though, that whatever role the "political cause" and evil Western epistemologies and practices may play, I and many other gay people choose to be openly gay for a bluntly personal reason: to stop the heterosexuals in our lives from nagging us about when we're going to get married, why aren't we married yet, let me introduce you to a wonderful girl/boy I know, oh of course you want to meet her/him, when are you going to settle down, don't you want to have children? Where are my grandchildren? Those gay people who aren't bothered by this sort of thing, of course, needn't come out to their straight friends and family; but they also needn't gripe privately to me about how annoying it is to put up with all those questions.
However, who would have to bear the consequence of coming out? Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argues that when gay people come out to parents, it is "with the consciousness for a potential for serious injury that is likely to go in both directions."
But Lim is only interested in the injury that the children inflict on the parents, not the reverse. It's also highly dishonest of him to enlist Sedgwick as an advocate for the closet.
Particularly in a homophobic society, the gay person's coming out may in turn plunge the parents "into the closet of [their] conservative community" (1990 [Epistemology of the Closet], 80). Questions of ethics, responsibility, emotion, and family ties are so intricately intertwined that the rhetoric of oppression and liberation seems simplistic and naive by comparison.
As though American gay people hadn't been debating those questions for 40 years and more! As though "gay activists" hadn't been struggling with, arguing about questions of ethics, responsibility, emotion and family ties all that time! And as I said before, Lim pictures "the gay person" as standing alone, with no questions of ethics, responsibility, emotion, and family ties to other gay people, especially our partners. As Sarah Schulman wrote in 1990:
Most gay people stay in the closet -- i.e., dishonor their relationships -- because to do so is a prerequisite for employment, housing, safety, and family love. Having to hide the way you live because of fear of punishment isn't a "right" nor is it "privacy." Being in the closet is not an objective, neutral, value-free condition. It is, instead, maintained by force, not choice [emphasis added].
Notice that she was writing here about the US, twenty years after Stonewall. It doesn't occur to Lim that lying, "hiding the way you live," has consequences for our partners, the gay people we love. Whether we have any responsibilities to them has been hotly contested among gay people, let alone straights, for decades. (Evidently Lim thinks the answer is no.)
It is highly possible that the complications and consequences of coming out may, for both the homosexual and the family, be so constricting as to make the closet a relatively liberating place to inhabit. Indeed, coming out cannot necessarily be presumed to achieve the dual goals of liberating the homosexual from the suffocating closet and gaining the understanding of those to whom the homosexual comes out. As the coming-out scene in The Wedding Banquet shows, getting the message across is not always easy [52].
Well, duh! We Western homosexuals never ever noticed that! We never expected, or experienced, any difficulty in getting acceptance of our declarations from friends, family, or anyone else!

It should also be noticed that you can't use The Wedding Banquet to argue that "the closet [is] a relatively liberating place to inhabit," because the whole point of the story is that being closeted with respect to his family has been very uncomfortable for Wai-tung and his partner Simon, even when his parents are at home in Taiwan. When they come to New York in anticipation of his (heterosexual) wedding, the pressures of pretending that Simon is no one to Wai-tung nearly destroys their relationship. (Someday I should write about the way that The Wedding Banquet uses deceptions of various kinds, and their consequences, as leitmotifs.) "Relatively liberating"? Please! But Lim sees only Wai-tung as "the homosexual" in the story; Simon doesn't count. In the end, it's Wai-tung who has to decide whether to come out to his parents, and there is no pretense that it's easy or magically makes all the problems go away. But if Lim were to watch a thoroughly American movie like, say, Torch Song Trilogy, he'd see the very same issues in play. To claim that "Western" gays, whether artists or activists or both, ignore the complications of coming out is outrageously dishonest, yet it's a very common accusation in this kind of writing.
In The Wedding Banquet, does the mother's failure to fully comprehend her son's sexuality, despite his coming out to her, shut the closet door back on Wai-tung?
"Refusal" would be a better word than "failure," and it sure as hell is intended to shut him up.
Does the father's tacit acknowledgment of Wai-tung's homosexuality leave the closet door half open?
It's not intended to, since the father insists that Simon keep "our secret". (Some say the closet door is half open ...) Which is an irony that many gay people who've been through this experience will recognize: the way that family members will try to practice damage control by insisting that the revelations stop with them, and that no one else be told. I've always hoped that Simon told Wai-tung, if not immediately (they had conflicts of their own to resolve) then at least as soon as the parents went back to Taiwan.
It is clear from the above that the metaphor of the closet has its limitations, whatever the cultural context.
Well, duh. All metaphors have their limitations. And again, it's not as if American gays haven't been wrassling with this conundrum, too, for decades.
More important, the political evaluation accompanying the issue of coming out must be brought into question. That is, an implicit acknowledgment of a family member's homosexuality may not always be morally less acceptable than an explicit one, and the atmosphere surrounding such tacit acknowledgment cannot be regarded as simply "homophobic" [54-55].
Each case would have to be evaluated on its own merits of course. I'd agree with Lim if, for instance, the family stopped insisting that the "family member" get heterosexually married, stopped asking about his or her heterosexual involvements, when will they pop out a grandchild, and so on. If the pressure continues, then "such tacit acknowledgment" must be "regarded as simply 'homophobic.'"

Even the most radical militant queers have always recognized that some homophobes will never change, but can be tolerated if they make some adjustments. If not, they can be resisted. Just looking at The Wedding Banquet, the mother remains homophobic and surely wouldn't stop applying emotional pressure if she stayed in New York; back home, it's likely that the father, while he lives, will simply withhold support for projects to pressure Wai-tung to be heterosexual -- Wai-tung is, after all, not only married but a father-to-be now. Would the father be as 'accepting' if a grandchild weren't in the pipeline? I doubt it. His manipulativeness reminds me (and maybe Lim too, who mentions her on 63) of Dona Herlinda, who now that I think of it is a cinematic ancestor of Mr. Gao.
As the response of the mother illustrates, the act of coming out cannot be assumed to be the best, if not the only, "solution."
It doesn't illustrate anything of the kind. For one thing, "coming out" is always a beginning, not an end; in Wai-tung's case, it can mean the beginning of his refusal to let his mother bully him into marrying heterosexually -- a ongoing struggle, but so is life. We inscrutable Occidentals have a phrase, "the best of a bad lot," which implies that the best available option is not necessarily a positively good one. Lim should learn from our ability to transcend easy binaries.