Updated: Dec 13, 2020
Out and Proud!, Queer and Here!, I’m Gay!, decorate the fronts of the rainbow lapel pins, hoodies, and posters given or sold to us throughout the years.
These widespread phrases and trinkets are symbols of our experience of pride and what it means to be proud and queer in white-dominant spaces and communities. For many of us who are part of the Chinese diaspora in the west, these slogans have become synonymous with queer culture and have boldly set the tone for our expectation and experience with queerness.
But it’s hard to miss the central theme such messages seem to revolve around; that pride seems to be inseparable from public announcement and acknowledgement.
Then, it’s not surprising that we, too, experience an urgency to come out, to fit into a community that both celebrates and anticipates our own broadcast to the world of “hey, I’m queer!”
Likewise, we often project this urgency onto others like us in the community to varying degrees of intensity.
“Are you out?” “When are you coming out?” “Isn’t it better to be hated for who you are than loved for who you aren't?”
The urgency underlying the questions most of us have asked or been asked is troubling but isn’t inexplicable.
From our first induction into the community that begins with the realization of our queer orientation to our first queer movie or our first queer playlist, we have become familiar with the bliss and virtue of being out and the terrifying chasm of the closet.
Coming out and staying out is championed as a basic tenant of pride in the mainstream queer community that dominates the spaces many of us occupy. As such, the idea that all should be unapologetically themselves in the face of any bigotry is constantly encouraged to us by queer media and platforms. However, I believe that...
...this custom [of coming out] is deeply rooted in the whiteness that historically dominated and presently dominates the queer scene in many colonized countries.
Accordingly, I believe it to be an influence that neglects the cultural nuances that occupy the lives of many QPOC and makes queerness more confusing to navigate for many QPOC. Let’s start with the queer community’s insistence on demonizing queers who choose to remain closeted.
Have you noticed that closeted individuals in mainstream queer media are often portrayed as the antagonists to self-liberation and self-love? Take Blue Is the Warmest Color, a French film that has amassed a cult status in the west and remains one of the most recognizable works within the queer community. Blue Is the Warmest Color follows the beginning, middle, and end of a lesbian relationship between Adèle and Emma. Adèle is a closeted woman who hides her lesbian lover from her professional and family life, unwilling to accept the social and familial repercussions of coming out. Adèle’s closeted self acts as a direct contrast to Emma, who takes immense pride in her queerness, which is reflected in her work and diverse social network as an artist.
Because of her choice to remain closeted, Adèle is characterized as a weak and noncommittal individual, whose insecurities about her relationship eventually spiralled into an affair with a male colleague. Emma eventually finds happiness with another woman, Lise, while the film ends with Adèle still unable to recover emotionally from her mistake. Blue Is the Warmest Color is one of the many films subtly fueling the narrative that there is something inherently negative and wrong about being closeted.
Or lets talk about Brokeback Mountain, another landmark queer film about two gay men, Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar. Although the two men clearly share a powerful bond, their potential for happiness together is continuously hampered by Ennis’s unwillingness to shed the safe facade of a heterosexual lifestyle to pursue a relationship with Jack. While both men struggle with their sexuality, the movie portrays Ennis to be ultimately unable to overcome his strong inhibitions towards being with Jack publicly, which eventually leaves him regretful and heartbroken upon Jack’s untimely death.
Because this narrative is reproduced over and over again, so thoroughly suffused in the movies we watch, songs we listen to, and stories we read, it has become normalized. Coming out is presented to be as much a part of the proper queer experience as being queer itself.
Without [coming out], our experience seems to be flawed and we seem to miss out on the best kind of life we can have.
At the same time, this representation of queerness enables us to internalize the notion that being out means bravery, pride, and pure self-acceptance while the corollary implicitly suggests shame in one’s identity. We see the “out” individual as the individual who has completed their queer metamorphosis and the “closeted” individual as still awaiting their transformational development. Such ideas often spiral into more sinister stereotypes about closeted individuals as duplicitous and inauthentic.
This message is not only damaging but excludes and misrepresents the truths of many queer individuals. While coming out is presented as a quintessential and formative part of the queer experience in mainstream media and activism, this experience is not universal for all queer individuals, especially for those in the Chinese community.
The complex interplay between traditional Chinese values of filial piety and the LGBTQ+ community’s message of liberation and living one’s truth often makes coming out a difficult terrain to navigate for queer and Chinese individuals. Described by journalist Lauren Mack as arguably “the most important” tenet of Chinese culture, a common way filial piety within Chinese culture is demonstrated is through heeding the instructions and respecting the hierarchical superiority of one’s elders to maintain harmony within one’s family. Simply put, a child’s desires are not seen as more important than the desires of anyone or everyone else in the family, especially one’s parents. As such, upholding filial piety often includes acquiescing to the wishes of one’s parents to the best of one’s ability.
Because of the cultural tensions in traditional Chinese households with queerness, many of us choose to maintain the peace in our family at the expense of coming out.
In this way, the notion that remaining closeted is a sign of personal weakness is inherently exclusionary and flawed since it ignores the factor that culture plays in navigating queerness. The fact is that staying closeted does not mean one is not proud of one’s identity. Instead, it can often be a means to preserve another aspect of one’s identity, in this case, one’s cultural identity. Many Chinese queers simply cannot amputate their familial ties for the seemingly greater purpose of “living their authentic selves.” The authenticity of our queerness does not undermine the authenticity of our cultural obligations and values we may also choose to uphold as equally or more important.
Individuals should not be regarded as braver for coming out and jeopardizing or forsaking their cultural ties any more than individuals who choose to remain closeted to preserve such ties. Neither choice makes one any more or any less queer or more or less worthy of having their experiences welcomed in the community.
If we celebrate individuals for finding the courage to come out against all odds, we must also celebrate individuals for their resilience in remaining closeted and choosing to live their truth discretely.
While white individuals often view such customs as draconian and oppressive, the reality is that filial piety remains a cornerstone of Chinese culture and of our own values. As such, simply neglecting or admonishing their existence is ignorant and disrespectful to the wealth of diversity and lived experiences across all cultures.
As such, I encourage us to reevaluate the way coming out is framed within the queer community and queer narrative at large. We should increasingly question why storylines seem to demonize closeted queers and glorify those who are public with their queerness. It is also time to acknowledge that although the queer community is meant to collectively oppose discrimination, because of the over-saturation of white presence and voices, the queer community is also the source of discrimination for many QPOC.
Accordingly, as the world still remains unsafe for queers and POC to navigate, it is all the more important for the queer community to be a safe space by effectively fostering intercultural understanding and acceptance. Instead of interrogating QPOC about why they remain closeted, it’s pertinent to understand that the queer experience isn’t monolithic (although the queer media, platforms, and communities we consume suggest otherwise). Not everyone has to follow the common timeline of acknowledgement, acceptance, and announcement.