Sunday, December 4, 2011

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom

I'm in the middle of a reading push, as I think you could call it, trying to get through a pile of books that I've had out from the library for too long. (Not overdue; I've just been renewing them a lot.) It's been successful in that I'm making good progress, but I've found it difficult to make time to write. You'd think that retirement would have eliminated such time conflicts in my life, but it hasn't.

Tonight I just began reading Loretta Wing Wah Ho's Gay and Lesbian Subculture in Urban China (Routledge, 2010), which looked promising in the library because it is based on many interviews with gay and lesbian Chinese. First, though, I have to get through the introductory material, which is heavy with theory and some drearily typical generalizations about "Western" gay life. For example, from page 10:
There is, however, little copying of the mainstream Western gay politics of employing the rhetoric of human rights as a claim to assert the legitimacy of sexual diversity, and push for visibility and social change in China. This is because this politics, central to Western constructions of gay and lesbian identities ...
Not true – Western constructions of gay and lesbian identities are based on the same medicalization of sexuality that Ho shows to be dominant in China. Rights-based rhetoric and strategies are a relatively recent development here, and though they're certainly well dug-in in the US, that's because they conform to "mainstream" American notions of politics.
... is considered by some non-Western gay activists, including some of those in China, to be in conflict with local cultural traditions. Furthermore, same-sex politics in contemporary China is complicated by rivalry and conflict among elite same-sex groups.
Omighod, that’s like so different from the way it is here! (Sarcasm Alert! for the irony-impaired.)
There is a competition for foreign funding and international representations among these local networks: gay-oriented website operators, tongzhi (a same-sex attracted Chinese man or woman) hotline organisers, NGOs, a few voluntary groups and informal social groups.
A major factor in US gay life that really does differ from Chinese gay life, on Ho's account, is the commercial sector: bars, discos, magazines and other publications, and the like. Most of this, I believe, is still grass-roots and close to everyday life.
On the whole, the politics of identity in China rejects the "confrontational" idea of disrupting family and community ties as a result of coming out – that is, Chinese traditions prescribe that primacy should be given to family ties and social harmony over an individual’s sexual identity or pleasure.
On the other hand, Ho concedes in an end note (161, note 15) that "'pride parades' in Western societies are no longer seen as confrontational ... Pride parades are increasingly called 'festivals', while Western gay men and lesbians are now targeted as a desired market and a potential voting bloc." She doesn't seem to realize that this undercuts her theoretical framework, since it shows that "Western constructions of gay and lesbian identities" are not monolithic. Confrontation has only ever been one facet of gay politics in the US.

One seeming difference between Ho's approach and that of many other non-American writers on emergent gayish life around the world is her embrace of "identity" and "the politics of identity," both of which are dirty words in most academic writing on the subject, including writing on gayish life in the US. (I think "gayish" could be a useful word in this context, certainly better than Ho's essentializing "same-sex", which makes sense only some of the time.) Her concept of identity comes, she says, from Stuart Hall, which made me try to think of how much queer academic work has come from the Cultural Studies approach Hall epitomizes. Not much that I know of; really only a few Afro-British writers like Kobena Mercer. (Maybe I should reread Mercer's Welcome to the Jungle now that I've read Raymond Williams, who was Stuart Hall's teacher. But it seems to me that Cultural Studies, despite its pedigree, is mostly unlike the kind of work Williams did.)

On page 11 Ho writes,
In short, many same-sex attracted Chinese in China are still exposed to great vulnerability.
Which is interesting: how can they be “exposed,” in light of everything Ho has said about their low profile? It's a reminder that, as David Halperin wrote in Saint Foucault (Oxford, 1995),
[Eve Kosofsky] Sedgwick has shown that the closet is an impossibly contradictory place: you can’t be in it, and you can’t be out of it. You can’t be in it because – so long as you are in the closet – you can never be certain of the extent to which you have actually succeeded in keeping your homosexuality secret; after all, one effect of being in the closet is that you are precluded from knowing whether people are treating you as straight because you have managed to fool them and they do not suspect you of being gay, or whether they are treating you as straight because they are playing along with you and enjoying the epistemological privilege that your ignorance of their knowledge affords them [34].
Unfortunately, it seems Ho has only listened to a narrow part of the discussion of these issues in the West.
It is this vulnerability [Ho continues] that both binds and splits the local Chinese and global same-sex networks, and witnesses a struggle for representing an “authentic” Chinese same-sex culture among the diasporic Chinese same-sex communities. This vulnerability reinforces the formation of a decentred identity, expressed through an incomplete but dominant model of Western homosexuality, which is overlapped with culturally determined notions of Chinese gayness.
This too will be familiar to anyone who remembers or has studied the recent history of gayish life in the West. Before the early 1960s, when the American homophile movement began to constitute itself as a national presence with increasing militance, Ho's description could apply just as well to American queers. There was considerable resistance even after Stonewall to the idea that gay people had common interests, even if these were limited simply to an end to police harassment and antigay violence, whether official or freelance.

Ho admits that in the past decade or so "the spread of the Western-oriented concepts of 'gay assertion' and 'gay identity' in urban China has been extraordinary" (13); could it be because gay Chinese have found these supposedly alien ideas useful? There was a similar explosion of gay organization in the US after Stonewall: suddenly almost every college or university and every city of any size had a gay group. I concede that some of it was mere copycatting, that only after groups were founded did people begin to think about what they were for. But that didn't make them illegitimate or inauthentic.
Gay netizens in China are increasingly exposed to the transnational gay scene via the internet, where notions of “coming out”, “gay rights,” “gay marriage” or “individualism” [whoa, Tessie!] are widely promoted. These notions enhance general [?] awareness of identity and community, and yet they lead some gay netizens in China to imagine the Western gay world as a gay haven, where gender or sexual variation is the norm [14].
The second sentence is true enough: even before I set foot in Korea (the only Asian country I've visited so far) I encountered gay Asians online who had an unrealistic picture of American gay life: they had no idea of the extent of antigay violence here, or of organized homophobia and bigotry, or even that most American states had laws against sex between males. It's understandable, of course, but scholars should know better, and many don't; Ho at least seems to, though she still has a distorted view of the lives most of us lead.

I objected to "individualism" because I don't recall having encountered that word in much American gay discourse, at the popular or scholarly level. "Widely promoted"? Not a bit of it. As I've pointed out before, gay identity is not individualistic but situates the individual in a category, a community, a collectivity; "coming out" is double-edged, referring to self-avowal before straight society but also to emerging into gay society, joining with others in the same boat. Far from rejecting the family, most American gay people are trying to get their parents to keep them. In a remarkable number of cases, they succeed; there's no good reason in principle why they shouldn't. Another phenomenon of American gay life that Ho should be aware of is PFLAG, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, a national organization in which supportive heterosexuals come together to protect their gay and lesbian family members.

That's where I am so far, still in the first introductory chapter. More to come, maybe.