In honor of pride month, I thought I’d revisit some old territory and talk a bit about the LGBTQ culture over here in Asia.
First of all shoutout to the protesters who interrupted DC’s Pride march, pointing out that Pride has become a huge, corporate event that while enjoyable, is pretty far from it’s roots at Stonewall. They also had some beef with the apparently pretty rampant racism in the LGBTQ community.
Based on my own experiences at the two pride events I’ve had the joy to attend, some of the sponsorships did seem a bit off key for lack of a better term. To paraphrase another article, “it’s kind of like a pageant to see which large corporation can be the most LGBTQ friendly in a grab for queer money.”
This post though, is about a paper that was sent to me about the role coming out plays in Asian cultures, specifically Singapore from which its author Chris K. K. Tan hails. I should have done more exploration in this direction last year in Xi’an when I was ostensibly focusing on this subject, but better late than never, yeah? I will say now as a disclaimer that this is based on my very cursory understanding of Confucianism gleaned through tangential study, and if I ever go more in-depth I’ll be sure to do thorough research. This is just a blog post though, so my biased impressions will serve just fine for my pseudo-academic musings. Maybe I’ll develop this subject and write a more pointed piece one day.
To briefly sum up, he talks about how in the West, coming out wholly and completely is somewhat of a right of passage/a requirement to be true to yourself, the community as a whole, and to your friends and family. He refrains from exploring more why this is, but if I had to hazard a guess I would attribute it to the importance that Western culture places on self-determination and individuality.
In Asian cultures though, those influenced by Confucian philosophy, the emphasis on filiality, continuing the family line, and just generally marrying a person of the opposite gender to facilitate the above two goals, don’t really mesh with being out and gay. Many of the people he talked to in Singapore said they didn’t come out to their parents or at all because it would be “hurtful” to their parents, bringing them shame etc. Most of these people do come out to friends, but for whatever reason the home remains “sacred”.
As an alternative, they do something the paper calls “going home”, which I had never heard of before. He mentioned it also being practiced by gay Dominican men in New York, and it’s a strategy wherein men will bring their partners home and introduce them as “just a friend”, and wait for the family to put two and two together. This apparently usually results in tacit acceptance that allows men to continue living as they like and lets the family maintain face. While they might still face pressure to marry from other relatives, the nuclear family usually accepts their child’s orientation and drops the matter. The practice even extends to gay Muslims in neighboring Malaysia apparently, to similar degrees of success.
Now, my initial reaction, and probably the reaction of most liberal Westerners would be to decry a culture that condemns open/monogamous homosexuality (it was tolerated in ancient times as long as you were making babies on the side). The fact that the culture apparently makes people see their sexuality as something wrong and shameful that could harm their parents just feels so wrong to me having grown up as a liberal Californian.
Having that reaction did make me question my perspective though. While I can certainly prefer my culture to Asian culture with regards to their attitudes towards the LGBTQ community, do I have grounds to say one is empirically better than the other? Or is that just me imposing my values on others that have no need or want of them much like early colonialists?
The pro-Confucian argument would say that this is a culture that believes a cohesive nuclear family is the foundation of a stable, productive, happy society. As a result, it’s more conservative members can view heterosexual marriage and production of offspring not only as a route to personal happiness, but as a duty that if neglected threatens the very fabric of society itself. There’s also something touching about the emphasis on filial piety. After all, according to Confucianism your parents are responsible for your very existence and by extension everything good that you experience in life, so you owe them a lot. By that argument they’re also responsible for everything bad in your life, but that gets outweighed I guess. As a result, it seems these gay Singaporeans who choose to “go home” rather than “come out” love their parents so much that they are willing to compromise their own well-being to make their parents more comfortable.
And it’s when I had that realization that I was reminded I still have a lot to learn about Chinese culture, and there are probably some parts I will never completely understand. However, I still think it’s wrong to put modern people through the choice of either lying to their parents or risking family drama. I think Confucianism is completely right that stable nuclear families are a cornerstone of stable society, but I think it’s continued insistence on It’s a sad truth, but it’s a truth. Who am I to judge as an outsider? What I don’t get though is the stubborn insistence that said family must have one male and one female parent, and that the kids have to be biological. To my eyes, gay marriage, adoption/IV fertilization, and Confucianism are perfectly compatible, and to force gay people into heterosexual marriages or make them stay single is actually undermining that harmonious society that Confucianism strives for. Isn’t a society with less bad marriages, more good ones, and less orphans good for everyone? I have yet to meet a hardcore Confucian to test these arguments against, but I guess I’ll be on the lookout. Because in the meantime this is actually one of the major forces opposing LGBTQ rights in Asia. Where in the west homophobia generally stems from the religious right, here it stems from this emphasis on the sanctity of the “family unit”, an argument which usually takes a secondary or tertiary role in the western opposition.
Tan makes the very valid point in the paper that for Singaporeans, and Asians in general, adopting this nonconfrontational “going home” approach does retard the general progress of LGBTQ rights in Asia. I mentioned a similar view several times at the Taiwan conference, and I completely agree. Only by coming out and being more visible will acceptance grow and give opportunities for discussion. That’s kinda one of the main points of Pride I believe. But it seems like the Asian queer community has different priorities here.
What do you all think? Is going home superior to coming out given the cultural environment? Or is it a selfish choice to avoid potential conflict that postpones the fight for the next generation? I’m curious about your views, and I hope you have a gay day!
EDIT: Literally minutes after posting this, I read this article about a Malaysian teenager beaten to death for allegedly being gay. Besides being heartbreaking, it was also a reminder of how far the movement has to go in Asia. The fear of coming out is very real when this stuff is happening. I still believe no one has any right to make another person come out as any flavor of LGBTQ, especially if it threatens their safety. But it’s a step that has to be taken, not only in striving for greater acceptance, but also to give closeted folks a visible example that coming out can work out.