Perspectives from Gayjing: the Gender Binary and Sexual Identity

Stephen Leonelli
Friday, March 19, 2010
The speaker is an active member of the Beijing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community.

NOTE: podcast is in Mandarin Chinese.

The speaker is an active member of the Beijing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community.  During this  interview we discuss in depth the binary nature of gender, and the ways it has impacted, and been reproduced within, the queer community.

Here is a full transcript:

Xiao Wang, interviewee
Stephen Leonelli, interviewer and translator

Because now, for example, the strength of mainstream thought, everyone receives education that would teach them that to be “queer” is not easy.  To be mainstream, however, is relatively easy. 

This… coming out, well, it comes slowly.  The timing has to be right—today it’s appropriate, then say it to whomever.  This process for me, well, since at the time I didn’t even really understand this whole “gay” thing anyway, I could only tell my friends—I would tell them, I like men.  Not that I’m a “homosexual.”  But that I like men.  See, I wasn’t even especially able to accept that term, “homosexual.”  Because—you have to, well, you have to change your 20 years—well, I was about 24 when I came out—I had to change 24 years of thinking, my way of thinking about sex and gender.  The process was long.  For me, it was about two or three years to change these thoughts.  Because I thought to myself, I can like men, I can like men and there is nothing wrong with that, but… I’d just always want to think that I was different than other homosexuals.  I’d want find so many reasons—Why do they dress this way?  Why do they act that way?  It’s just that, even though I knew I was a homosexual, I tried to feel that I was not the mainstream definition of homosexual.  And the fundamental reason was, well, I just still wasn’t able to 100% accept myself—you know, it’s like you just want to… to change to be like mainstream heterosexuals—closer to them.  Not like the homosexuals.

Well, I think everyone, it’s a type of, how to say… a type of phenomenon that’s already in force.  A type of performance.  The “mainstream” has essentially been formed by mainstream heterosexual performance.  So for example, if you are more “feminine,” and are a male, then you should fit into the “homosexual mainstream.”  But in reality, it’s not true.  But, indeed, if for example, firstly the guy is “feminine,” and secondly the way he dresses—if you dress a certain way, heterosexuals could think you are the “homosexual mainstream.”  Like, if you are feminine, and you, well how to say… you like to wear girl’s clothes, this will just be the “typical homosexual”—this is the “stereotype.”  It’s as if, that, how to say… like if lesbians all want to have short hair, this will be called “typical homosexual.”  But actually, now, I think it’s more and more complicated. 

I think—well before I heard someone say, and I think I really agree—to be “homosexual,” this concept, it’s rather new.  Although the physical behaviors have been around since way before, but this concept, the concept is quite new.  Homosexuals after all make up a very small number [of people].  So, where do you learn your sexual identity from?  Obviously from the typical, traditional “male and female” concept—this is where you learn it from.  So it’s really easy when you just begin, everyone will just think, “If I’m not a man, I’m just a woman.”  I think before, and from gay history, the earliest people would just grab these roles and split that way.  But now more and more people don’t promote these roles.  These roles, we always say they are a type of constructed culture—including “male” and “female”—because I will often hear people say, like if you tell a homosexual I don’t mind if a guy is “C”—meaning more feminine—but you’ll often hear some men say, “Why?  Of course ‘straight acting’ is good—I want to find a guy; if I wanted to find a girl, I just wouldn’t be homosexual!”  But the question is, this “male” and “female”—who is defining this?  This is the issue, it proves that everyone is still identifying with this “mainstream” culture’s way of defining male and female performance.  The way a male performs should be this way; the way a female performs should be that way.  So, yeah, when I hear people say I want “straight-acting,” “straight acting” actually after it’s been said, it’s still just identifying with and affirming constructed culture and gender performance.  This constructed culture informs how to walk—that’s male—if you sit like this—that’s female.  But ah, actually, this only makes me think that we’re just being affected by and accepting interference from socially constructed superficialities. And it causes people to forget what they want.  Do they want this [superficial] part, or do they want something more?

But this, this is also unavoidable.  Because sometimes, you see the appearance of others, and that’s just a normal phenomenon. If you don’t look at appearance that also wouldn’t work…  We all hope there will be a day when we can all forget appearance, and just see a person’s heart.  But I personally think, as soon as that person starts wearing clothing, there is no way of changing this phenomenon.  This is just a veil of culture.  If we could get rid of all these veils, well… there’d be no way—we’d have to spend even more time to go back.  Before, everyone was naked, so it didn’t matter!  You could look, and it would just be looking—when there was no culture, everyone wasn’t all bound-up.  You could just be.  No one cared about what type of body you should have.  There was none of this.  But now our [modern] culture is more and more intense.  I mean, look at us, speaking about this—it’s not as if we can solve this issue for everyone—but, I think all these sayings and ways of talking gives people some self-reflection.  So when you run into these issues, you have to ask yourself some questions.  Because what you actually want, has nothing to do with the person[’s appearance].

I think this type of “binding,” is something that we will always have.  So the question is, to destroy these bindings, we have to continuously struggle.  Like… well so sometimes I do think I am “bound.”  For example, when I was young, everyone would say to me, “Ah, gosh you’re so feminine.”  And it was as if this started to become a very negative thing.  Especially because I studied drama, you know?  Those guys, they were all so masculine—so if you were too shy, or something like that, they would think you had a “problem.”  So, yeah, I did—I tried to change a lot about myself—but you know, to now, I’ve realized, I really like a “middle-ground” type of feeling.  Including the type of person I would normally like.  But this is also a type of “binding,” you know.  Like, if he were too “straight-acting,” first, I would think he were straight, and if he were gay, I would think he had some psychological problems. (Laughs.)  So, yeah, just look!  This has also become a “binding.”  Breaking through our bindings is something we have to continuously try to do.  So if you talk too much about the superficial, it’s still seeing [and affirming] the exterior.  If you don’t talk about these things, it’s also a good solution.  Just don’t talk too much about these types of preformative behaviors.  Intentionally do not discuss the “female” and “male” divide. 

I will occasionally say, like for example, my ex boyfriend, he would always say, “Ah, these gay Pride Parade people, they’ve stripped down all their clothes… why do they have to do this?”  But actually, I was thinking, these [Parade participants], if we didn’t have them, no one would even see homosexual/gay people’s existence.  No one would know you exist.  Even though we may wear clothing the same as everyone else, the reality is you must remember that we are not the same as everyone else. And there is nothing wrong with this.  And why shouldn’t we emphasize that we are different?  Why must we emphasize that we’re the same?  There is nothing the same.  But then again, at that time, [my ex boyfriend] was in the process of coming out of the closet.  There are a lot of people that are like this.  No matter how “liberal” their thinking may be, I know initially there are a lot of gays who object to Pride Parades.  It’s just some type of, like, big party where everyone can just sleep together.  But the issue is, there’s nothing wrong with that!  Why can’t we host a big party where everyone can sleep together?  If these people want to and are willing to do that, then why can’t they do that??  This is just another form of constructed culture.  Our rules and customs are ever increasing.  Personally, I think Foucault said it best.   He said, “Sex should be freedom.”  He said the only “un-bound” thing should be sex.  He said the only requirement is that you don’t hurt others.  That is enough.  I think that bottom-line is very simple.  Just that you don’t hurt others, and [so long as this is fulfilled,] you should do whatever you want to do.  But the issue is just that people always are bound.  We always think all types of [bindings]—for example, “I can’t date an older person, or a young person, or a fat person, or someone from a bad family, or someone who is uncultured.…”  You see, everyone just adds these types of bindings—he’s too “sissy,” or he’s too whatever.  We all have these types of “requirements.”  Ah, I don’t know.  For example the Pride Festivals.  Some people say [all types of things]… personally, I think people come in all shapes and sizes. 

There is [also the issue of] male chauvinism.  Like, if I’m the inserting partner, I’m exerting my power—I will not lose power.  And if you’re the receptive, you’re the “female” role, without power.  So you see, it’s still the entire male-female gender binary concept stuck in our minds—it’s not so easy to just get rid of.  So this, yeah, I just say we have to spend a lot of time to change. 

Uhm… well, first of all, gays and lesbians have, after all, always had the louder voice.  So everyone is slowly starting to understand [these two identities].  In terms of basic knowledge, people aren’t particularly clear about “transgender”—they don’t know how to respond [to someone who might identify as transgender].  In addition, the influence of the traditional mindset is also at play here—I could think, I am gay, but that doesn’t change anything; a trans person is going to change his or her sex—why are you going to dress like a woman?  You know, [people] just can’t wrap their minds around it.  But actually, the logic is the same:  for some heterosexual people, they might not be able to comprehend and ask, Why would you be homosexual?  But the most difficult task is to ask a reflective question—say, [it’s easy to] ask yourself, Why am I gay; you can also ask, Why do others cross-dress or identify as trans.  But, why not turn it around and ask, What is wrong with cross-dressing or identifying as trans?  Who does it hurt to cross-dress or identify as trans?  Why would cross-dressing hurt anyone in the first place?  Is the “hurt” something others cause, or is it something you are creating?  So, these [questions and concepts] are all quite interesting.

Nowadays, people do say “we [lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people] are family.”  But, really, it’s just begun.  Because I think in China, maybe in Beijing you can feel it—just that more and more people can understand the concept [of LGBTQ community].  However, the number of people who can really, truly, deeply understand [this concept], is not very high.  I mean, think about it—especially in more isolated and distant places throughout China, it’s extremely hard for people to understand this concept.  I think it’s probably the same in America, right?  Everyone can see the development of large cities, but if you consider the environment in smaller towns, villages, and rural areas….  [But even] including cities like Paris, or somewhere like Holland—after all you already have the right to get married in places like this—but even there, if you’re on the street holding hands with a guy, you could still hear someone shout, “Hey Fag!” or something like that.  This type of situation continues to happen.  So perhaps this is a long-term struggle that we will continue to face.  

But yeah, you said it right—these things need time.  Not everybody can just immediately understand this.  Because it’s related to our sex education—at the earliest, the end of the 60s and into the 70s, we only talked about male and female homosexuals.  In was only slowly that we eventually had “L-G-B-T” (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender)—these were all added—and who knows in the future 5 – 6 years what else we may add.  Other sexes, other things, who knows they could all come running out.  That’s why, I think, before we used to talk about LGBT a lot, but now, there is less of an emphasis on sexual identity.  Nowadays, discussion centers around “queer.”  This is to say, you choose, if you are different from others, [then] you’re queer.  It doesn’t matter what you choose, everything goes.  It’s more and more simple; and this, to some people, is incorrect—you should be clear about your identity—if you’re gay then you’re gay.  But me personally, I also think sometimes not being able to clearly categorize our identities is not necessarily a bad thing.  Because for the future—since we know this is a process—you first have to categorize, but after we’ve categorized clearly, in reality this will again become some type of “form” or binding—just another form that we’ll have to break.  [If] everyone becomes so clear about these types of categories and identities… well, it would still be best to return to a non-categorical existence.  Because these types of strict identities and categories can also be very restrictive. 

For example, some men, [and/or] some heterosexual people, they might not mind to be close friends with another guy.  And this is quite common.  But because the concepts of “homosexual” and “bisexual” have developed, it might suddenly make some people uncomfortable.  So, these types of close relationships now seem to have limits.  [Even though] your sexual actions do not represent your interests and personality, but after you have these types of defining “lines” [(of sexual identity)], your body suffers from a type of “binding.”  It’s like, OK, so there are some gay guys who think, “Ah, girls are so disgusting!”  And oftentimes I will question them, I’ll say, “Are girls really so disgusting?”  I mean yeah, I can look at a girl and not really be interested, but I would never think she is disgusting.  So I think, this type of cultural emphasis can progress to the point that gay men will find women’s bodies disgusting.  But really, this is quite an abnormal phenomenon.  How could women’s bodies become disgusting? 

Maybe one day if people are born without any concept of gender, then it will cease to be a problem.  If there were no concept of the male-female dichotomy, that would be enough. But of course, there would be a lot of resistance—What do you mean there is no male-female dichotomy?!  Originally it was just male and female!  But, perhaps, we could create some new words to describe the male-female gender concept.

Stephen Leonelli, Natural Resources Defense Council, Beijing, China, ‘09

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