When Culture Meets Queerness

Words by: Jackie Zhou
Art by: Annabel Condon

“You always pick on my words. I don’t know what I say that hurts you, but you get angry at me anyway.”

These words from my mother, after I angrily told her that she said something ignorant about my mental health, made me realise that our language and cultural barriers are stronger than I initially thought — with future discussions surrounding my queerness and gender identity feeling more and more impossible to have. After consulting my sister, temporarily removing myself from home, and reflecting on our miscommunication, I came to realise that the things she said that might have felt  invalidating to me, were actually her improperly conveyed thoughts thrown together with whatever words she could hold on to. Spending her early adulthood in Australia, my mother’s English is proficient enough to allow us to converse almost entirely in English, so I sometimes forget that it’s her second language — and one that she never received complete, formal education in. With her inability to wholly express her thoughts and feelings in English, combined with my less-than-ideal level of Mandarin, discussions surrounding more nuanced topics such as politics, gender, mental health, queerness and other social issues become all the more difficult to have.

The thought of coming out to my parents and close family had always made my heart drop with a sense of perpetual dread, which would later contribute to my insecurities surrounding my own exploration of my queer identity. The act of ‘coming out’ itself was intimidating and alien to me — why should I make such a big deal about my gender identity and sexuality when it’s just another part of me? 

However, for a lot of young, queer People of Colour, the task of telling your first-generation immigrant parents that you don’t belong within the heteronormative binaries outlined for you in their culture is incredibly daunting, not just because of the fear of denial or ostracisation, but also the exhausting task of communicating it in a way they can understand. For those with parents who do not speak English, this can prove to be an even more intimidating feat — how can I tell my parents who I am, if I can’t even find the words to say it?

Trying to explain the gender spectrum to my mother was extremely difficult and resulted in both of us feeling frustrated about the other person’s ostensible ignorance. Although our communication has drastically improved over time, gender as a social concept was simply not a thing to her, which made the discussion even more stress-inducing. For a lot of cultures, gender is an extremely binary concept closely tied to biological understandings of sex. Chinese culture is very reliant on gender binaries, embedded as they are in our written and spoken language, social ideals, and political and economical policies. Whether we like it or not, the foundational widespread ideals which cultures are cultivated from impact our modern perspectives. For Chinese culture in particular, Confucianism fundamentally positions women to be less valuable than men, further emphasising the gender inequality within our social environment. Extremely painful acts such as foot binding for women, as well as widow suicide and strictly domestic roles are among the few ideologies within Confucianism that, I believe, have contributed to a more divisive society within our culture.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the one-child policy, whereby couples looking to start a family were restricted to only having one child due to rampant overpopulation. With the unspoken, deep-rooted patriarchal values placed on men and boys (mostly in their ability to carry on the family name once they are married), abortion rates of female fetuses drastically increased and resulted in a huge disparity in the birthrates of biological men and women. In these circumstances, there is little to no room to discuss gender fluidity, nor is there the space for those who feel they don’t fit into gender binaries to further explore their identity. Gender binaries are structurally integral to a lot of communities, and the idea of identities existing beyond these two signposts would have to mean the complete breakdown and deterioration of gender and phallocracy to have room to discuss gender as a spectrum.

Language in itself is also binary. Gender-neutral terms for aunty and uncle are still difficult to navigate without simply saying ‘my parent’s sibling’ — which, in my opinion, feels much less personal and more ostracising to gender non-conforming folks. In Mandarin, binary language concepts are omniscient; there isn’t even a gender-neutral term for parent. We call parents (fumu), the first character ‘fu’ meaning father, and the second character ‘mu’ meaning mother. Although some gender-nonconforming people are okay with having either of these labels just so their child can call them something, language within certain cultures still makes it very difficult for the people who speak it to come to terms with gender as a social construct that can exist on a spectrum. 

Another challenge of gender non-conformity with parents from different cultures  is asking them to change their perception of you as being cis. Simply memorising your friends, siblings, coworkers and everyone else’s pronouns will still result in misgendering, because although you know their preferred pronouns, you may not actually see that person as whatever they identify with. A change in perception of this person is required, which is no easy task — especially for parents who have known you forever, assigned a gender to you at birth, and have identified and addressed you accordingly ever since. Discussing this with my parents — who birthed me, changed my ideal name to a more feminine one so I wouldn’t get called a ‘boy name’, and dressed me effeminately my whole childhood — seems like a hopeless task.

Alas, Western society has framed discussions surrounding gender within other cultures as old-fashioned and conservative. Chinese culture in particular is shown to be absolutist and outdated because social discourse of gender is discussed differently than in other cultures. However, seeing the West as more developed and morally righteous than other countries is fundamentally racist, and I have had to keep in mind that all cultures have  grown with different fundamental ideologies that make gender as a social spectrum difficult to conceptualise. I have reached a stage of development with my queer identity where I hold no resentment towards family members who don’t understand it; it is up to me and other gender non-conforming people to ensure the cycle is broken, and that future generations are given the space and freedom to choose who they want to be.

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