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date: 22 January 2022

Alternatives to Coming Out Discoursesfree

Alternatives to Coming Out Discoursesfree

  • Shuzhen HuangShuzhen HuangDepartment of Communication Studies, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania

Summary

The discourse of coming out has historically served as an effective vehicle to build and sustain the LGBTQ movement in the United States. It has also been utilized as an empowering resource that enables queer people to establish a queer identity organized around self-awareness and self-expression. However, queer of color critique and transnational queer theory argue that the prevalent discourse of coming out is built on a particular kind of queer experience and geography, which is usually from the standpoint of White, middle-class men of urban U.S. citizenship and is rarely derived from the experience of queer people of color and non-Western queer subjects.

Taking an intersectional perspective, Snorton interrogates the racialization of the closet and proposes a sexual politics of ignorance—opposed to the disclosure imperative in coming out discourse—as a tactic of ungovernability. Centering the experience of Russian American immigrants who are queer-identified, Fisher proposes a fluid and productive relationship between the “closeted” and the “out” sexuality that resists any fixed categorization. Focusing on the masking tactic deployed by local queer activists, Martin theorizes the model of xianshen, a local identity politics in Taiwan that questions the very conditions of visibility in dominant coming out discourse. As a decolonial response to the transnational circulation of coming out discourse, Chou delineates a “coming home” approach that emphasizes familial piety and harmony by reining in and concealing queer desires. Being cautious against the nationalist impulse in Chou’s works, Huang and Brouwer propose a “coming with” model to capture the struggles among Chinese queers to disidentify with the family institution. These alternative paradigms serve as epistemic tools that aim to revise understanding of queer resistance and queer relationality and help people to go beyond the imagination of coming out for a livable queer future.

Subjects

  • Gender (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies)

Introduction

Coming out discourse is an essential vehicle in Western LGBTQ movements in the past few decades (Boe, Maxey, & Bermudez, 2018; Gross, 1991; McLean, 2007; Rasmussen, 2004; Wei, 2006). As indicated in the phrase “come out of the closet,” “coming out” and “closet” are twin tropes in contemporary queer discourse, narrating homosexuality as a tension between secrecy and disclosure, private and public (Martin, 2003; Ross, 2005; Sedgwick, 1990).

The gay liberation movement, for instance, was founded on the imperative of coming out (Gross, 1991; Ross, 2005). Coming out is repeatedly constructed as a milestone event in queer life, the failure of which is detrimental to one’s sense of self (McLean, 2007; Mosher, 2001; Vargo, 1998). Every year, hundreds of U.S. schools and colleges join the National Coming Out Day program (Rasmussen, 2004) to reproduce a collective queerness that is narrated around the coming out discourse. In everyday life, coming out of the closet is a central message in self-help guides (Osborn, 1996). It is constructed as a “salvational epistemologic certainty” (Sedgwick, 1990, p. 71), which produces a queer identity that is built on the disclosure imperative. Kenneth Plummer (1995), for example, summarizes the four processes of coming out: coming out to oneself, coming out privately, coming out publicly, and coming out politically which aims to catalyze social changes (pp. 57–58). In such a framework, coming out is narrated as liberatory, empowering (Rasmussen, 2004), and even heroic. Within this teleological discourse, coming out is considered as an indispensable element for “a consistent, integrated sense of a self” (Plummer, 1995, p. 86), which is the last stage that one needs to overcome in order to live a fully and happily queer life (Vargo, 1998, p. 45). Politically, coming out is narrated as “progress” (Ross, 2005), where levels of disclosure are seen as the measurement of commitment to queerness (Troiden, 1988, p. 55).

It is probably impossible to think about the discourse of coming out without addressing “the closet.” The closet is imagined as the paradigmatic opposite of coming out. Fran Martin (2003) pointed out that the closet is “a spatial expression of, and a refuge for, the private inward depths of the monadic ‘self’ which is hidden and enclosed therein” (p. 198). Coming out of the closet is a rite of passage through which a queer subject becomes a “gay man” or a “lesbian.” At a personal level, living in the closet is equated to a dishonest, unauthentic, and sexually repressed self (Boe et al., 2018; McLean, 2007; Rasmussen, 2004). Politically, not coming out is seen as a lack of commitment to the LGBTQ community (Rasmussen, 2004; Stewart, 1995). Mary Rasmussen (2004), for instance, observed that queer people who were not out were often silenced or shamed in the LGBTQ community. Contrary to the valorization of coming out, the closet is associated with “hiding” and “oppression” (Brown, 2000), “a place of denial and shameful secrecy” (Fisher, 2003, p. 179). The universalization of coming out discourse positions coming out as mentally healthy, empowering, modern, and progressive and nondisclosure as repressed, premodern, and waiting to be liberated (McLean, 2007, p. 154).

Historicizing Coming Out

While coming out appears to be the code of conduct among queer people all over the world in the 21st century due to the transnational circulation of Euro-American LGBTQ discourse, the discourse of coming out has gained its dominance only in the past few decades. In fact, the term closet, which today is associated with hidden queer sexuality that is not “out,” came to indicate “hidden, covert, or secret” sexuality only in the mid- to late 1960s (Barnhart, 1995; Chauncey, 1995).

As a key component in the gay and lesbian liberation movements in the United States (Bobker, 2015; Brown, 2000; D’Emilio, 1983), the ideological status of coming out is the result of a particular cultural and political context. It was, Michael Warner (1994) observed, “a political strategy without precedent or parallel” (p. xxv) that has rewritten the code of conduct among LGBTQ people in the United States (Gross, 1991, p. 377).

Larry Gross (1991) believed that the discourse of coming out in its current sense emerged in the 1950s and 1960s through the homophile movement in the United States (p. 356). By 1970, the slogan “Come out!” had served as a rallying cry in the gay liberation movement (Brown, 2000, p. 6). Coming out thus played a central role in building a then nascent gay liberation movement and creating a sense of community (Altman, 1993; D’Emilio, 1983; Murray, 1996). John D’Emilio (1983) noted: “Visible lesbians and gay men . . . served as magnets that draw others in. Furthermore, once out of the closet, they could not easily fade back in. Coming out provided gay liberation with an army of permanent enlistees” (pp. 235–236). Moreover, the HIV-AIDS epidemic in the 1980s also produced a homosexuality that was visible to the public in order to participate in the public sphere (Snorton, 2014; Sullivan, 1996). By marking the gay body as an (over)sexed body, queer sexuality became licentious (Snorton, 2014, p. 11), where increased surveillance was made possible with such visibility.

Today, the discourse of coming out has become so prevalent in queer life in the United States that Warner (1994) argued that to some extent, a lesbian or gay identity is the product of the performative act of such discourse (p. xxv). The dominance of coming out discourse results in a collective progress narrative—a unified “coming out story whereby isolated, alienated, closeted individuals are able to migrate to the largest urban centers in mass numbers . . . [to] form the new visible, militant gay, and to a lesser extent, lesbian ghettos awaiting them in the urban centers” (Ross, 2005, p. 143). In the mid-1990s, Glyn Davis and Gary Needham (2009) argued that the discourse of coming out assumed its current hegemonic status where the revelation of one’s sexual identity became the only allowed narrative role for queer people.

Complicating Closet or Coming Out Process

The Euro-American metaphor “closet” in the coming out discourse suggests both clear spatial divisions and a spectacular but singular temporality. But queer spaces and timings are not so clean. Diana Fuss (1991), for instance, suggested that the boundary between “inside” and “outside” was porous, where “most of us are both inside and outside at the same time” (p. 5). Depending on one’s location, many queer subjects constantly resituate themselves to be “out” to some people in some situations while staying closeted to others in other circumstances (Brown, 2000, p. 147).

Other queer scholars have complicated the process of coming out that privileges telling over feeling and voice over silence. Challenging the binary of “secrecy versus revelation” in the coming out narrative, Martin Manalansan (1995) argued that issues of sexuality can be communicated through feelings rather than verbalization of one’s sexual identity: “Filipino gay men argue that identities are not just proclaimed verbally, but are ‘felt’ (pakiramdaman) or intuited as well” (p. 434). Such a nondeclaratory and nonconfrontational approach was affirmed by Liu Jen-peng and Ding Naifei’s (2005) studies on the “reticent poetic” among Taiwanese queers and Wei Wei’s (2006) studies of mainland Chinese gay men whose parents deployed the strategy of “acknowledging with silence.” Here, the communication of sexuality has gone beyond explicit verbal messages. In such communication transactions, the process of interpretation depends on one’s tacit knowledge and contextual sensibility. In other words, the register of “message” is not just verbal and symbolic language but also the context where communication happens. Verbal and nonverbal languages are not just informational registers that function on the cognitive level but also emotional registers that communicate through the feelings of people’s bodies.

Marlon Ross (2005) also challenged the model of coming out by questioning its necessity. In a situation where one’s queer sexuality is an open secret, Ross maintained, the performative act of disclosing one’s queer desire by coming out will not be liberatory as prescribed in dominant closet and coming out discourse (p. 145). In fact, there are debates over whether queer people should come out of the closet. Since the mid-1980s, Michael Brown (2000) observed, queer scholars like Gross (1993), Warner (1994), and McCarthy (1994) have questioned the equation between the closet and sexual oppression. Rather, the closet could serve as a place of safety where queer privacy is protected (Brown, 2000, p. 14) and a strategic resistance in a homophobic environment (p. 144). The closet, however temporary and compromised, functions as a tool that “destabilizes, subverts, and temporarily provides escape from the dominant ideology” (Fisher, 2003, p. 174). Cautious against the progress and liberation story in dominant coming out discourse, Diana Fisher (2003) questioned the binary of closet versus coming out which valorizes disclosure and visibility in queer experience (p. 180). Questioning the presumption in coming out discourse that the “outside” of the closet is less regulated, Riley Snorton (2014) argued that Black sexuality is figured within a “glass closet”—a space “marked by hypervisibility and confinement, spectacle, and speculation” (p. 4) and is thus subject to regulation and surveillance. The closet, Snorton (2014) concluded, could be protective to allow passing while facing the violence of racism and heteronormativity (p. 17). Therefore, closet space should be conceptualized as highly contextual, where cultural and material conditions determine the nature and value of the closet for queer subjects (Fisher, 2003, p. 180).

Critique of Coming Out or Closet Paradigm

While the coming out discourse has played an essential role in building and sustaining gay and lesbian movements in the United States, as discussed earlier in this article, many queer scholars are cautious of the assumptions in the coming out discourse. Judith Butler (1993), for instance, asked: “Could it be that the subjection that subjectivates the gay and lesbian subject in some ways continues to oppress, or oppresses most insidiously, once ‘outness’ is claimed?” (p. 309). Warner (2002), however, challenged the paradigm of closet versus coming out by deconstructing the false dichotomy of the private and the public in the domain of sexuality. He also pointed out the individualistic framework in current coming out discourse that emphasizes self-awareness and self-expression. Such a framework unwittily positions queer people as being responsible for their invisibility while neglecting the cultural and institutional factors that condition the experience and expression of queer subjects.

Perhaps the most profound critique on the coming out discourse is from queer of color critique and transnational queer theory that foreground race and geopolitics in queer studies. Ross (2005), for example, argued that Michel Foucault (1978) and Eve Sedgwick (1990)—two queer theorists who are often canonized in queer theory—were able to construct “a coherent epistemology of the closet as a ground for modern [sexual] identity” (p. 142) by bracketing race in their narratives. Queer of color critique and transnational queer theory argue that the prevalent discourse of coming out is built on a particular kind of queer experience and geography, which is usually from the standpoint of White, middle-class men of urban U.S. citizenship (e.g., Boe et al., 2018; Chávez, 2013; Huang & Brouwer, 2018a) and rarely consults the experience of queer people of color (Han, 2009; Rust, 2003) and non-Western queer subjects.

Against the backdrop of neoliberalism where queer issues are so often co-opted into nationalist and capitalist projects, queer of color critique and transnational queer theory further argue that coming out discourse has increasingly become an assimilationist agent that erases differences (Bui, 2014; Manalansan, 1995; Ross, 2005). Utilized as a measurement of modern and progressive sexuality, the discourse of coming out has unwittingly privileged a queerness that is White, cosmopolitan, and U.S.-centric. Long Bui (2014), for instance, asserted that racial silences and violence are fueled by the discourse of coming out:

The telos of gay coming out which begins with feelings of insecurity, trauma, and abjection to conclude with visibility and confidence offers an “emancipated” sexual world entailing the abandonment of the rigidity of Asian cultural parochialism for the “free” lifestyle of homo-cosmopolitanism. In this developmental paradigm, “race” and “sexuality” are set up as diametrically opposed with White gay modernity serving as the vehicle for liberation from the suffocating “closet” and closed-mindedness of Confucian patriarchal familism. (p. 136)

If the closet is seen as a cultural vehicle that conceals and makes queer people invisible and unintelligible (Brown, 2000, p. 141), the hypervisibility of the “out and proud” queers can ironically render other queer bodies—usually those who are more marginalized—being forced into the closet and thus staying unheard (Brown, 2000, p. 147). The dominance of the coming out discourse thus becomes a regulatory force that pathologizes and erases different forms of queer relationalities.

Alternatives to Closet or Coming Out Discourse

The Whiteness in dominant queer theory has obscured the ability to learn from the variations and discrepancies within and among diverse queer people (Liu, 2010; Ross, 2005; Snorton, 2014). The critical potential of queerness has been constrained by the narrow cultural context from which coming out discourse is derived. Communication studies as well as queer theory must continue to interrogate the ideological construct of coming out in relation to different social locations such as race, gender, class, and nationality, and continue to investigate how alternatives to coming out discourse can serve as useful queer tools to transform the landscapes of this field and society. The following text delineates some alternatives to the dominant discourse of coming out. The five alternatives presented demonstrate an intersectional and relational approach to understanding queerness, which recognizes differences that mark and position queer bodies in social hierarchies (LeMaster, 2017) and emphasizes interdependency and connectivity in queer worldmaking (Muñoz, 2009). They are not a comprehensive summary of alternative paradigms. Rather, they serve as epistemic tools that aim to revise the understanding of queer resistance and queer relationality and help people to go beyond the imagination of coming out as the only path for a livable queer future.

Down Low: Resistance to Sexual Surveillance and Regulation

As mentioned in the previous section, coming out discourse assumes that the outside of the closet is a more desirable space with less oppression and regulation. However, such an assumption overlooks the intersectionality of oppression. For queer subjects who face multiple marginalizations, not coming out of the closet could be a strategic resistance to the surveillance and regulation of queer subjects on the margin. In his study on the down low, Snorton (2014) interrogated the racialization of the closet and proposed a sexual politics of ignorance as opposed to the disclosure imperative in coming out discourse. The down low, as defined by Snorton, refers to “black men who have sex with men and women and do not identify as gay, bisexual, or queer” (p. 6). The down low is usually used as a derogatory term in public discourse in the United States. Snorton observed that mainstream down low narratives are often constructed around safer sex in which Black queer sexuality is associated with the fear of sexual contagions (p. 8). Given that Black sexuality is always already marked by hypersexuality, Snorton pointed out that down low discourse is the effect of Black sexual hypervisibility that goes hand in hand with the racialized impulse to contain and regulate Black bodies. Mainstream down low discourse also reveals the cultural anxiety about “the possibility of refusing to comply with sexual identifications, of resisting being gay or even MSM” (p. 25). Within such discourse, Blackness is perceived as inherently homophobic; such perception distracts or even obscures the down low from the “truth” of Black sexuality, which is to identify as gay, bisexual, or queer. In the context of Black sexuality, according to Snorton, the down low could be read as a politics of ungovernability that resists forces of sexual categorization, which often entails surveillance and regulation. Therefore, in the context of Black sexuality, taking up the space of the closet no longer means concealment of one’s queer desires. Rather, it is a refusal to comply with White sexual epistemology that positions Black bodies for observation and display. In this rendering, the ignorance of mainstream gay-bisexual-queer identification could be understood as a refusal to be governed and contained—“a performance and tactic that also taps into the affective and political possibilities for a body that is presumed to be known” (p. 154).

Fluid Closet: Moving Between the Center and Periphery

Centering the experience of Russian American immigrants who were queer identified, Fisher (2003) theorized an active closet among transnational queer subjects who saw the closet “as a fluid, dialogic and powerful tactical space” (p. 179). In Fisher’s study, queer Russian immigrants often preferred an in-between position that was neither fully “out” nor totally “closeted.” Resisting any fixed categorization, queer Russian immigrants used the closet as a site of contestation and negotiation, which allowed them to control the (re)presentations of their queer sexuality. Fisher believed the experience of queer Russian immigrants demonstrated a fluid and productive relationship between the closeted and the out sexuality. Focusing on the lives and experiences of transnational queer subjects, Fisher suggested a politics of discretion that emphasized contingency and ephemerality, affirming the possibility of queer agency that emerges from an unseen and transitory closet space deployed by some queer Russian immigrants.

As discussed earlier in this article, the dominant discourse of coming out valorizes the visibly out position as the designation that liberates queer subjects from repression and confinement. However, Fisher argued, the closet should not be “totalized or universally defined as a confined, powerless and isolated place” (p. 179). Rather, the experience of queer Russian immigrants suggests that the closet is a liminal space where needed invisibility is afforded through the negotiation between expectations and violations (p. 187). The tactical use of the closet allows queer subjects movements between the center and periphery to cope with heteronormative demands and cultural challenges particular to immigrant life. Rather than occupying a fixed sexual location, either as being closeted or out and visible, queer Russian immigrants gain agency through their perpetual motion that refuses to be fixed and contained. It is the constant movement in and out of the closet that allows queer immigrants to actively respond to heteronormativity and other cultural domination that comes with displacement. In a transnational context, the closet thus functions as a site of agency “where the power of movement challenges the power to fix” (p. 181). Refusing to settle in a marked sexual location, some queer Russian immigrants prefer the liminal space in and out of the closet—“an unseen and transitory space deployed as a tool to maneuver around stable designations and categorizations of sexual orientation” (p. 188).

Xianshen: Performing the Queer Face

With the transnational circulation of LGBTQ discourse, coming out in public has also become an important agenda in Taiwan. The issue of queer liberalism in Taiwan, Petrus Liu (2015) pointed out, is entwined with the geopolitics between Taiwan and mainland China, the economic and ideological fracturing created by the Cold War. Hijacked by “the US installment of a Cold War structure of feeling” (pp. 16–17), queer visibility is often attributed to liberal capitalism in Taiwan, in contrast to the “repressed queer subjects” in socialist China.

Focusing on the masking tactic deployed by local tongzhi activists, Martin (2003) theorized the model of xianshen, a local identity politics that questions the very conditions of visibility within authorized public space.1 Xianshen, according to Martin, refers to an act of “showing” (xian) the body/self (shen) to the intended spectators, a social performance that emphasizes the situated enactment. Although xianshen seems to be similar to the politics of coming out at first glance, it functions very differently in Taiwanese society.

As a critical part of the Taiwanese activist effort to fight against homophobia that operates predominantly through shaming, public mask donning functions as a “collective coming out” to protest media voyeurism as well as a public display of tongzhi numbers in Taiwan (Martin, 2003, p. 191). Similar to the function that the closet serves in Anglo-American representations of gayness, the mask functions as a signifier of both the homophobic anxiety in Taiwan and “the corresponding desire [among tongzhi] to make it legible once and for all by removing the mask” (p. 191). Paradoxically, mask donning in public now becomes a sign of tongzhi identity in Taiwan, whereas revealing the face is regarded with suspicion by the tongzhi group. Here, the very marker of “authentic” tongzhi identity—the mask—is also a sign of its continuing concealment, rendering individual identity unreadable through concealment of the face (Martin, 2003, p. 195).

While the masking tactic appears to be similar to (and may be inspired by) the transnational discourse of the closet and coming out, the trope of mask draws on very different cultural knowledge in Taiwan. Emphasizing the socially performed character of queerness, Martin argued, the mask operates through the cultural citation of “face” (p. 196)—a central vehicle in Confucianism. In the discourse of coming out, queer subjectivity is articulated through the dichotomy of “true self versus false self,” as well as the dyad of “private regime versus public regime.” However, xianshen discourse in Taiwan operates through the affective construct of shame and social status (p. 198). Here, the mask in xianshen discourse is imagined as “a theatrical costume for the face, a disguise, [and] a false countenance” (p. 198). Xianshen discourse is organized through the performativity of the tongzhi mask rather than the ontology of queer identity. It is therefore less about a “true face” awaiting disclosure beneath the “false face.” Rather, xianshen is about understanding and taking control of the social conditions that produce the “best/proper” face (p. 200), which implies a collective selfhood that is relational and interdependent. More than simply “resisting public voyeurism,” the tongzhi masking tactic in xianshen discourse questions the very conditions of visibility in dominant coming out discourse—“conditions which make it impossible for homosexuals to appear as complete or properly ‘faced’ social subjects” (p. 195).

Coming Home: A Decolonial Response to Coming Out

Even among increasing forms of LGBTQ activism in China, contemporary Chinese queer subjects continue to negotiate between nonconflictual relations with their parents and efforts to create space for queer autonomy (Choi & Luo, 2016, p. 263). The dominant Euro-American discourse of coming out suggests that queer subjects should move away from the constraints of the “traditional” family and embrace their identities as LGBTQ in order to properly express their “free” modern sexuality (Blackwood, 2012). This approach in transnational LGBTQ movements was questioned in the press release for the 1998 Chinese Tongzhi Conference in Hong Kong: “Certain characteristics of confrontational politics, such as coming out and mass protests and parades, may not be the best way of achieving tongzhi liberation in family-centered, community-oriented Chinese societies which stress the importance of social harmony” (Chou, 2000, p. 278). The “best” way of achieving tongzhi liberation, Wah-shan Chou (2000) argued, is the “coming home” approach that emphasizes familial harmony and reticent practices to communicate queer sexuality.

Many Chinese queer subjects view coming home as both a historical practice and possibly the most common approach among Chinese queers. According to Chou (2000), Chinese queer subjects often “come out by bypassing the discussion of homosexuality” (p. 268):

The usual practice is that a tongzhi maintains a loving relationship with the parents, then introduces his or her sexual partner into the family as a good friend . . . the tongzhi may then use quasi-kin categories such as half sister/brother to integrate the partner into the family. (p. 263)

This bypassing, Chou observes, is a culturally specific strategy to navigate between sexuality and kinship in family-centered, community-oriented Chinese society. The coming home approach emphasizes an expectation or obligation to remain close to the family and to maintain familial piety (especially to one’s parents) and harmony by reining in and concealing queer desires. Foregrounding the relational existence of Chinese queers, Chou’s coming home model suggests a selfhood that is defined by responsibilities and obligations, a queer subjectivity that is different from the independent and autonomous self implied in the dominant discourse of coming out.

Liu and Ding (2005) summarized the three characteristics of Chou’s articulation of the coming home approach: “(1) non-conflictual harmonious relationships; (2) non-declarative practical everyday acts; [and] (3) a healthy personality that is not centered on sex(uality)” (p. 30). Different from the explicit, declarative style of communicating sexuality through coming out, in the coming home model, “reticence” (hanxu)—coding one’s speech through indirect expression (Huang, 2011)—is the dominant aesthetic-ethical value that regulates the communication process of sexuality in a Chinese context (Chou, 2001; Kam, 2012; Liu & Ding, 2005; Wei, 2006).

Chou’s articulation of coming home among Chinese queer subjects can be read as a decolonial response to the hegemony of Euro-American discourse of coming out. Chou (2000) observed that the main concern of Chinese parents is Western identity labels—lesbian or gay—that “privileges sexuality at the expense of his or her position in the family/kinship system, thus making the child a nonbeing in Chinese culture” (p. 96). This concern illustrates why the transnational discourses of identity-based homosexuality, especially the discourse of coming out, are perceived as threatening to parents and so difficult to navigate for queer subjects in Chinese societies. Emphasizing familial harmony and reticent practices of queer sexuality and de-emphasizing sexuality as a primary characteristic of individual identity (Huang & Brouwer, 2018a), the coming home approach promises to accommodate kinship and queer desires, which are so often antagonized in the dominant discourse of coming out.

Coming With: Disidentification With Coming Out

Several queer scholars (e.g., Engebretsen, 2009; Kam, 2012; Liu, 2010; Liu & Ding, 2005; Wei, 2006) have been skeptical of the innocent coming home approach that Chou proposed. In Chou’s (2000, 2001) recuperation of coming home against the increasing imperative of coming out among Chinese queers, traditional Chinese culture is portrayed as showing tolerance and harmony toward same-sex desires. The underlying assumption of such an approach, Liu and Ding (2005) pointed out, is that homophobia is Western and therefore colonial (p. 31). The decolonial and nationalistic impulses in Chou’s coming home model leaves both the family and national culture under-interrogated as sites of oppression (Huang, 2011; Kam, 2012; Liu & Ding, 2005). The “silent tolerance” in Chinese sexuality that Chou proposed is no more than a cultural myth: It is reticent homophobia complicit with heteronormativity through precisely the ordered conditions of silence (Huang, 2011, p. 10) that represses, disciplines, and keeps queer subjects in place (Liu & Ding, 2005).

Against either the confrontational, explicit, political visibility of coming out discourse that privileges sexuality and the reticent, filial piety of the coming home approach that prioritizes family harmony, Huang and Brouwer (2018a) proposed an alternative “coming with” model to address the struggles of Chinese queers to disidentify with the family institution. The coming with approach shares the same commitment with coming home in harmonious familial relationships, especially with parents, seeing family as an indispensable network in queer lives. For Chinese queer subjects, Huang and Brouwer (2018a) argued, the most profound struggle is perhaps not in the public sociopolitical domain; instead, it is located in the private lives, in the precarious, lasting negotiations with their intimate families, especially with one’s parents. The role of the family institution in queer life is amplified during China’s recent postsocialist transition where the government withdraws from the welfare system and positions the family institution as the primary network for the care of the young and the aged (Huang & Brouwer, 2018b; Wong, 2007). For most Chinese queers, Huang and Brouwer (2018a) pointed out, the family is the space where negotiation and transformation happen. There is no “safe elsewhere” outside of the family space for such transformations to occur (Gopinath, 2005).

Unlike in the coming home strategy in Chou’s definition, which implies bringing or even subsuming queer sexuality to the heteronormative home space, the coming with strategy attempts to engage the home space with queer desires, transforming the heteronormative family institution from within and redefining the meaning of queerness. Instead of coming out and turning away from their biogenetic family, as implied in the discourse of coming out, and instead of coming home and leaving the heteronormative family uncontested, as suggested in Chou’s version of coming home, some Chinese queer subjects deploy a coming with approach to integrate both familial belonging and sexual identification—a third path that is neither total rejection of nor total subsumption under the heteronormative family (Huang & Brouwer, 2018a). Embracing the politics of disidentification (Muñoz, 1999), coming with is a survival strategy that some Chinese queers deploy to rewrite different systems of belonging. For example, many Chinese queers today engage in a new form of marriage arrangement—queer xinghun, a marriage arrangement between a gay man and a lesbian woman that permits queer subjects to stay within the family kinship system (Huang & Brouwer, 2018b). While a xinghun marriage may seem like complete compliance to heteronormativity, it is also a way of preserving queer sexuality where the same-sex relationship is significantly sequestered away from surveillance by and interference from parents because of the public performance of “fake” heterosexuality through xinghun (Huang & Brouwer, 2018b). Through disidentification with the hegemonic forms of marriage, queer xinghun at once reinforces the roles of heterosexual marriage and family and contests the substance and effect of such heteronormative institutions.

Conclusion

The discourse of coming out has historically served as an effective vehicle to build and sustain LGBTQ movements, especially in the context of the United States. It has also been utilized as an empowering resource that enables queer people to establish a queer identity to fight against the violence of heteronormativity. That being said, the dominance of coming out discourse today also serves as an assimilationist device that erases the underlying silences and violence through mandatory visibility and identification across race, ethnicity, and national borders (Bui, 2014). The alternative discourses to the model of coming out, which presents itself as predominantly White, cosmopolitan, and U.S.-centric, challenge the imagination of queer resistance and queer relationality. They also pose questions to the simple equation between “breaking silence” and empowerment (Rowe & Malhotra, 2013) in coming out discourse. When emancipation is imagined as visibility and speaking up, silence and reticence appear as repression and failures of queer subjectivity (Huang & Brouwer, 2018a). However, “[t]here is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses” (Foucault, 1978, p. 27). The reductionist account in dominant coming out discourse fails to capture the complexity of queer experiences and reflects the Euro-American bias in mainstream queer theory and politics.

Further Reading

  • Brown, M. (2000). Closet space: Geographies of metaphor from the body to the globe. Routledge.
  • Chou, W. (2000). Tongzhi: Politics of same-sex eroticism in Chinese societies. Haworth Press.
  • Eguchi, S., & Calafell, B. M. (Eds.). (2020). Queer intercultural communication: The intersectional politics of belonging in and across differences. Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Foucault, M. (1978). The history of sexuality. Penguin.
  • Gross, L. (1991). Contested closets: The ethics and politics of outing. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 8, 352–388.
  • Huang, S., & Brouwer, D. (2018). Coming out, coming home, coming with: Models of queer sexuality in contemporary China. Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, 11(2), 97–116.
  • Martin, F. (2003). Situating sexualities: Queer representation in Taiwanese fiction, film and public culture. Hong Kong University Press.
  • McLean, K. (2007). Hiding in the closet? Bisexuals, coming out and the disclosure imperative. Journal of Sociology, 43(2), 151–166.
  • Ross, M. (2005). Beyond the closet as raceless paradigm. In E. Patrick Johnson & M. G. Henderson (Eds.), Black queer studies: A critical anthology (pp. 161–189). Duke University Press.
  • Sedgwick, E. K. (1990). Epistemology of the closet. University of California Press.
  • Snorton, C. R. (2014). Nobody is supposed to know: Black sexuality on the down low. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Yep, G. A., Lovaas, K. E., & Elia, J. P. (2003). Queer theory and communication: From disciplining queers to queering the discipline. Harrington Park Press.

References

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Notes

  • 1. Tongzhi literally means “common will.” This is the Mandarin word for “comrade,” which was famously used among the communists in mainland China. Now, in the 21st century, many gay, lesbian, and sometimes bisexual people in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan use tongzhi to refer to themselves.