Written by Hongwei Bao.
With same-sex marriages soon to be legalised in Taiwan, which has instantly triggered the imagination of ‘marriage’ in Asia’s queer communities, discussions surrounding what type of wedding—Chinese, Western or hybrid—couples want, are abound. These include, what they plan to do after getting married—stay in big cities or retreat to the countryside; and what new family members they plan to bring to the household—a baby, a cat or a dog. All these discussions bespeak queer communities’ continuous pursuit of happiness: after experiencing decades of discriminations and having had enormous injustices done to them, queer people certainly deserve to be happy; imagining what this happiness might be like is an important step towards achieving it.
In imagining what happiness is, queer people also have important questions to ask. Indeed, a lot of these questions have been raised in queer communities in Asia. They include:
Is same-sex marriage a shortcut, or the only way to happiness?
A brief look at the heterosexual world instantly tells us that this is not the case. Otherwise we would not have so many unhappy heterosexual families or even failed marriages. If marriage equality does not guarantee happiness, queer people need to be more imaginative and creative in their explorations of happiness.
Is happiness the only goal in life and the only feeling that one should cling to?
Happiness can be achieved in different ways, and some can be intrinsically problematic such as hyper individualism, unrestrained hedonic pleasure and consumption. Neoliberal capitalism offers people endless promises of happiness on the condition that one consumes and that one conforms to social norms and dominant ideologies. ‘Small but certain happiness’ (xiao que xing) can often hide bigger structural problems. On the other hand, negative effects such as sadness, disappointment and anger, although often dismissed as undesirable, can often turn out to be productive in shaping life experiences, building identities and communities, and mobilising people to actively engage with social changes. We should, therefore, see happiness and unhappiness dialectically in our imagination of a desirable queer life.
Perhaps a more urgent question to ask is: who has access to this sort of happiness and who do not?
In The Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed urges that we consider ‘how happiness and unhappiness are distributed over time and in space’, and she suggests that such distributions are far from equal among members of a society. Often, those who have access to such happiness are the people who are in long term, stable, monogamous relationships and people who are law-abiding citizens, good tax payers and property-owners; they are rewarded by the state under the mechanism of legally recognised marriages to set examples for the rest of the society, including the ‘bad’ queers who do not ‘behave themselves’ according to the requirement of the state. People falling outside the ‘middle-class’ and ‘good citizen’ categories are often denied rights to marry. They include trans people, queer people with disabilities, queer people who lead alternative lifestyles and who experiment with flexible forms of intimate relationships. Will same-sex marriages further marginalise the queer people who do not, and are not willing to, fit into the social norms and, in doing so, create more political, economic and moral hierarchies?
We also need to critically reflect upon the cosy relationship between marriage equality, the state power, and global neoliberal hegemony. After all, marriage equality reaffirms the state power, as marriages require legal recognition from the state, and market capitalism, which valorises individual property rights and consumption. How does the state use the institution of marriage strategically to exert political and ideological control on its citizens? How is the rhetoric of ‘gay rights’, or ‘marriage equality’, used diplomatically in international politics, triggering homonationalism (‘we are the best and the most liberal and therefore most deserving’) and creating discrimination and biases against other nations (‘they are so backward and therefore should be looked down upon and even invaded.’)? To a great extent, queer happiness is also used to consolidate existing and unequal power relations in the world shaped by the global penetration of neoliberalism. Queer happiness is, therefore, far from personal and apolitical; it is always defined in relation to how to be a good citizen in a neoliberal state and deeply intertwined within complex power relations that cross national boundaries.
In her book The Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy, Lisa Duggan warns against the use of the rhetoric of equality to legitimise the state power and the neoliberal hegemony:
The democratic diversity of proliferating forms of sexual dissidence is rejected in favour of the naturalised variation of a fixed minority arrayed around a state-endorsed heterosexual primacy and prestige. This new homonormativity comes equipped with a rhetorical recoding of key terms in the history of gay politics: ‘equality’ becomes narrow, formal access to a few new conservative institutions.
The ‘new homonormativity’ that Duggan talks about is intrinsically related to the gentrification of the queer communities. With queer people becoming increasingly urban, middle-class, and consumption-oriented, the radical and critical spirits of queerness have disappeared. Observing the gentrification of the tongzhi/queer movement in Taiwan, epitomised in the expressions of love and happiness in Taiwan’s LGBT Pride Parade, Hans Tao-Ming Huang, in his book Queer Politics and Sexual Modernity in Taiwan, comments:
…the tongzhi citizen … has come out in pride to express his or her unyielding love to the society that has hitherto denied him or her full citizenship. Eager to prove to society that he or she is a useful and productive individual and hence worth loving, the tongzhi citizen, by virtue of his or her narcissistic identification with a national identity formed through the imaginary circuit of wholeness, demands society to return its love to him or her.
Huang wrote the above lines before the legalisation of same-sex marriage became possible in Taiwan. But his warning against the queer communities’ complicity with the state and a neoliberal social order seems even more pertinent today than ever. As queers in Asia pursue happiness and equality, it is important to place social equality and justice at the heart of a continually radical queer activism.
Indeed, there are a lot of questions to be asked regarding the relationship between marriage equality and queer happiness, as we celebrate the prospect of legalisation of same-sex marriages in Taiwan. Marriage equality offers unlimited promises to queer imagination of happiness, but this imagination is often fraught with tensions, contradictions and even dangerous pitfalls.
Hongwei Bao is an assistant professor at the Department of Culture, Film and Media, University of Nottingham. His research focuses on mediated cultural politics in a transnational Chinese context, including gay identity and queer politics, social media and community media, and film and filmmaking. He is author of the book Queer Comrades: Gay Identity and Tongzhi Activism in Postsocialist China (2018). Image Credit: othree/Flickr
Think of the strategy called ‘divide and conquer’. Extend happiness to some of the troublemakers (here members of queer communities) in exchange for their acceptance to be integrated into regulated (read state controlled) institutions (here marriage). Those who do not go along are weakened and relegated to the margins of society even more than before.
There is irony in the fact that queer communities went along willingly, fighting for marriage equality and against marriage discrimination instead of fighting for the transformation of marriage from a public institution regulated by law into a private matter regulated by contract.
You do not get ‘social equality and justice’ if you fight to get the right to be part of institutions that are inherently unequal and unjust. Either you are married or you are not. In the first case you have certain legal privileges and entitlements, in the second case you do not have those. And this is true if you are queer or not.