Monday, December 5, 2011

Lost in Translation

I'm still plowing through Gay and Lesbian Subculture in Urban China, which in fact is the second academic book in a row that I've taken on. (The previous one was Sun Jung's Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption [Hong Kong University Press, 2010], to which I may return sometime.) That may account for some of the impatience I feel with it. It occurred to me today that academic writing bears a certain resemblance to the Homeric mode of composition, using well-worn epithets to string the text together: instead of rosy-fingered Dawn you use global sexual politics, instead of owl-eyed Athena you use same-sex attracted Chinese. The difference is that using epithets enables a bard to spin out an epic on the fly, while academic prose can be composed, edited and polished before it's presented to its audience.

But I digress. Back to Gay and Lesbian Subculture in Urban China. Page 15:
On a personal level, only a few same-sex attracted Chinese, mostly cultural elites, are open about their sexuality. But they also see coming out as problematic. In Beyond the closet, Steven Seidman writes that “simply coming out does not rid us of feelings of shame and guilt, and that visibility alone does not threaten heterosexual privilege”. It is thus vital to ask what happens to them after they have come out.
Here's a difference between Chinese and American styles of gayishness: in the US, only a few marginal artistic figures -- marginal in the larger commercial cultures, I mean, not necessarily in artistic circles -- were openly gay before Stonewall. Most gay and lesbian celebrities relied on the custom of the open secret and on the complicity of the commercial media to keep that secret. When being openly gay became an articulated political tactic and goal, the people who chose it were mainly activists who hadn't been famous before and mostly didn't become famous afterwards, since the commercial media and heterosexual culture didn't really know what to do with them. Gay and lesbian cultural elites -- political, artistic, and media -- generally refused to come out on the grounds that doing so would destroy their careers. So in the US, uncountable thousands of "same-sex attracted" Americans began living their lives as openly gay, to be followed over the decades by various celebrities, often with bad grace. Rosie O'Donnell, for example, griped: "I don't know why people make such a big deal about the gay thing. ... People are confused, they're shocked, like this is a big revelation to somebody." But even assholes should come out; there's room for all in the Rainbow Nation.

In China the creation of a gay community may move in the opposite direction, from top to bottom; it remains to be seen what choices gay and lesbian Chinese will make.
Indeed, some same-sex attracted Chinese are open only to the extent that their traditional and social identities are protected from intolerance and discrimination. Many of them reject the need to be “out”.
Well, that's their individual choice, hee hee hee. Contrary to the myth of Western gay individualism that I so often encounter, it's the closeted who are the isolated individuals.
As Chris Berry remarks: “It is still impossible to be publicly gay and retain respectable employment [in China]. Frequently, they reconcile their personal identity with the social obligations to maintain family ties and social harmony, an approach that is appreciated as an avoidance of confrontation or conflict. In most cases, same-sex identity in China is concealed. It is the identity that dare not speak its name; whereas the central strategy of Western gay assertion is to render it speakable [15].
The impossibility of being publicly gay while retaining respectable employment was true in the US until quite recently, and probably still is in much of the country, outside the urban centers. (Depending on how respectable you think it is to be in the military, for example, the official barrier remained in place until last year.) It's impossible to know how many of us still lead double lives to some extent, since the closeted, for obvious reasons, aren't telling.

It was downright offensive, though, when Ho wrote (17):
Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize laureate in economics, once spoke of globalization as a process “from which there is no escape and no great reason to seek escape”. Sen seems to suggest that globalization is highly uneven, but inevitable, and that this uneven distribution of globalization is part of the larger process of globalization.
The quotation came from Sen's op-ed piece “If it’s fair, it’s good: 10 truths about globalization”, for the International Herald Tribune, 14-15 July 2001, text available online here. As I suspected, Ho misrepresents him. Here's the context:
Anti-globalization protests are not about globalization: The so-called anti-globalization protesters can hardly be, in general, anti-globalization, since these protests are among the most globalized events in the contemporary world. The protesters in Seattle, Melbourne, Prague, Quebec and elsewhere are not just local kids, but men and women from across the world pouring into the location of the respective events to pursue global complaints.

Globalization is not new, nor is it just Westernization: Over thousands of years, globalization has progressed through travel, trade, migration, spread of cultural influences and dissemination of knowledge and understanding (including of science and technology). ...

Global construction is the needed response to global doubts: The anti-globalization protests are themselves part of the general process of globalization, from which there is no escape and no great reason to seek escape. But while we have reason enough to support globalization in the best sense of that idea, there are also critically important institutional and policy issues that need to be addressed at the same time. It is not easy to disperse the doubts without seriously addressing the doubters' underlying concerns.
Ho's conception of globalization, like that of too many academic writers I've read, is drastically incomplete. It mainly draws on "globalization" triumphalists like Anthony Giddens, and critics who take the triumphalists at their word, while ignoring any number of other writers on the subject who correct their tunnel vision. (I'd recommend Aijaz Ahmad, Amartya Sen, Justin Rosenberg, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak for a beginning.) Still, I can't see much excuse for misreading Sen as Ho does here. And on page 104 she quotes Arjun Appadurai saying essentially the same thing Sen said: "Globalisation does not necessarily or even frequently imply homogenization or Americanisation, and to the extent that different societies appropriate the materials of modernity differently, there is still ample room for the deep study of specific geographies, histories, and languages." (That turns up in her chapter on Chinese cyberspace, adapted from a journal article, which helps to explain the conflict.)

But back to gay and lesbian matters. I'm not always sure how aware Ho is of the faultlines in the stance which draws a line between "authentic" Chinese or other "non-Western" identities and (apparently inauthentic) "Western" ones (page 19).
For instance, current transgender identities, kathoey or tom-dee, in Thailand are established categories, which “largely ignore English and continue to reflect long-established Thai terminologies for same-sex eroticism”. The term “gay” does not adequately substitute for such local identities as kathoey or tom-dee.
I don't think tom-dee is an identity, any more than butch-femme is an identity. Tom-dee refers to a particular construction of eroticism between women. "Transgender" is a Western concept and identity built on the medicalized discourse that Ho, being the good Foucauldian that she is, shouldn't be imposing on Third World people. "Gay" probably is not an adequate substitute for these local identities, but if so, why did "gay" catch on among Thais and Japanese, and others, who appropriated “gay” as a category in their own environments, redefining it to suit themselves? Generally, it seems to have been assimilated to gender-variant styles of presentation, as in Japan, where a gei boi is a pretty sissy boy in commercial entertainment. And, as I've pointed out before, in scientific and popular conceptions in the US, "gay" still means a sort of third-sex figure, a feminized male or masculinized female -- not a "sexual orientation," whatever that might be.
However, segments of Western community tend to simplify and identify these categories with gay or homosexual in Western discourse, without recognising their unique cultural heritage. This presents serious problems for researchers in the realm of global gender and sexual expression.
No, it doesn’t, not really, if the researchers do their job properly; except that so often they don’t.
As for simplifying and identifying these categories with Western ones, that isn't limited to the West. For example, the anthropologist Rudolf Pell Gaudio wrote of his research among "sexual outlaws" in Nigeria (Allah made us: sexual outlaws in an Islamic African city [Wiley-Blackwell, 2009], 281)
Though it has become commonplace among anthropologists of sexuality to refrain from using terms from a colonial language (English, French, Dutch, etc.) to describe the identities and practices of people who speak other (usually non-European) languages, scholars have paid little attention to translation that operates in the other direction. The Hausa-language newspaper Kakaki, for example, had no trouble reporting on President Clinton’s ill-fated proposal in 1993 to permit gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the US armed forces, though the term the newspaper used for “gay men,” `yan ludu [literally, “sons of Lot”] conveys a negative moral judgment akin to English “sodomites.” `Yan madigo, the term used for “lesbians,” has more neutral connotations. Such translations occur in day-to-day conversations as well. In talking with Hausa friends I frequently found myself using terms like harka and dan daudu to describe gay life in the USA. I also heard such terms applied to me.
I wonder if this sort of "translation" was practiced by Loretta Wing Wah Ho's Chinese informants. I'll bet it was, and I'll bet that when official Chinese media must refer to such American issues, they don't bother to use Western terminology and concepts either.

*See Peter Jackson, Dear Uncle Go: Male Homosexuality in Thailand [Bua Luang Books, 1995]; and Jackson and Gerald Sullivan, eds., Lady Boys, Tom Boys, Rent Boys: male and female homosexualities in contemporary Thailand (Haworth Press, 1999); Mark McLelland, Queer Japan from the Pacific War to the Internet Age (Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), pp. 96 and 154.