"My race, too, is queer" (1): queer mixed heritage Chinese Americans fight for marriage equality (2).
This essay grew out of a presentation at the Seventh Chinese American Studies conference, "Branching Out the Banyan Tree: A Changing Chinese America," on October 8, 2005. It has been revised to integrate my analysis with a narrative of the panel, "Queer Chinese Hapa People and Marriage Rights: Intersections between Same Sex Marriage and Interracial Marriage," which consisted of myself and Queer Mixed Heritage Chinese American community activists Stuart Gaffney and Willy Wilkinson on the subject of the interconnections between the struggle for the right to marry across racialized boundaries and the fight for same sex marriage equality. (3) Just as our parents' generation struggled against antimiscegenation (4) laws, so today are we struggling for the right of same-sex marriage.
Both Stuart Gaffney and Willy Wilkinson have one European American parent and one Chinese American parent who at the time of their marriages (in the early 1950s) were affected by California's antimiscegenation laws (my white father and Chinese mother were married in Hawai'i in 1968). California's antimiscegenation laws had been struck down in 1948, but until 1967, the year of the landmark Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, marriage between whites and "nonwhites" was still illegal in seventeen states. Gaffney and Wilkinson married their long-time same-gender partners when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom made this possible in early 2004. They are now fighting to reinstate the legality of their marriages after the California courts declared them null and void on August 12, 2004.
Because of the history of the Chinese Exclusion Acts and other legislation and customs that limited the immigration of Chinese women, some Chinese American men were involved with the struggle against antimiscegenation laws, or to put it another way, they fought for the right to marry whomever they wanted, including white women. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Chinese Americans are now also intimately involved in the struggle for same sex marriage equality (5) in California. By positioning both the panel and this essay as a space in which to specifically address the intersections of mixed heritage Chinese American and queer identities, I argue that negotiations over the transgressions of race and gender in the realm of marriage rights are a critical juncture for investigating the ontological hermeneutics (6) of Chineseness and also provide a useful space for renegotiating the boundaries of Chinese America.
For the purposes of this essay, I use "queer people" as a reclaimed, nonderogatory term to include bisexual, lesbian, gay, and transgender people. I use the term "same sex marriage equality" rather than the commonly used term "gay marriage" because "gay" is not inclusive.
"Antimiscegenation" is used without a hyphen, to emphasize that there is no such thing as "miscegenation"--a racist term that denotes the degradation of whiteness through intermixing with people of color. On similar grounds, I use the term "mixed heritage" rather than "mixed race" to avoid reinscribing the notion that there are separate "races" (that by the same definition should not be mixed).
"Chinese American" is a complex category that has shifted meaning over time and is now inclusive of first-generation immigrants, like my mother, who were not born in America but expect to live and die here; of mixed heritage people like myself and fellow panelists; and of people adopted from China and raised by United States citizens of any heritage. Chinese American refers not only to a personal identity but also to an affiliation with a community. My use of the term "Chinese American" thus acknowledges that we have community members who have not one drop of Chinese "blood." (7)
I was asked to organize this panel; and another panel on mixed heritage Chinese American media artists, by the conference co-chair, Lorraine Dong. Lorraine asked me to organize as many mixed heritage panels as I could--she stressed that these were important because the focus of the conference was "Branching Out" Chinese America--and specifically looking at "A Changing Chinese America," and she wanted to recognize the significance of mixed heritage people in that reconceptualized community. Even more significantly, she was the one who stressed the need for a panel recognizing the relationship between the historical struggle against antimiscegenation laws and the current fight for same sex marriage equality.
Our presence at the conference means that there is recognition that Chinese America is indeed changing, but how? Is Chinese America branching out the banyan tree to embrace those previously left outside its protection? Or should we be thinking about the shifts in Chinese America in some other way? Insofar as Chinese America is at least partially a self-defined state--and we are now being recognized as part of that "self"--we Queer Mixed Heritage Chinese Americans have in a Derridean sense "always already" been in a process of redefining Chineseness and by extension Chinese America. Queer Mixed Heritage Chinese Americans make us question: What does Chineseness mean when it is not bound by appearance or phenotype? When it is not bound by so-called "traditional" gender roles? When it is not bound by a mandate to reproduce itself in a recognizable fashion? In The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha writes of the "ambivalence of the 'nation' as a narrative strategy" (8) and we can understand from this that the story of ethnic identity, of culture, is always moving between two points (ambi-valent)--the constructed center and its other--leaving the margins between self and other ragged, both torn and unformed.
What is the relationship between Chineseness and Americanness? Are they inverse constructions of identity, where the term "American" is constructed as a catchall, the melting pot, the ultimate Baudrillardian simulacra--infinite copies with no original? And is Chineseness, oppositionally, the ultimate original, the point of origin from which emanates global diaspora? Bhabha critiques the metaphor of nation building, "the many as one," (9) which has been in America constructed, E plurubus unum, as though outside of a center, which may be why it is so difficult for America to see itself as an empire. While all roads lead to Rome, America is the land of immigrants, meaning there is, at least in theory, or in popular metaphor, no original American identity. Given these two oppositionally constructed identities, Chinese and American, the question of what it means to be a Chinese American must necessarily include a ragged edge. All Chinese Americans, whether first generation or fifth, gay, straight, or transgender, must live in this liminal space. But even heterosexual, mono-ethnic Han Chinese people in China are also implicated in this question of authentic identity, or originary identity, because, as Bhabha writes, culture is always changing. There is no such thing as static culture. Thus, there is no such thing as authentic "Chineseness." Chineseness is always already changing. One might say that Chineseness is change, but in a different way than Americanness is change. Where do Queer Mixed Heritage Chinese Americans fit within this dynamic view of Chineseness? By virtue of always moving along multiple axes of identity, do Queer Mixed Heritage Chinese Americans bring something important to this town meeting under the banyan tree--a new way of looking at it, perhaps; or a different way of being it? Or both?
Cultural critic Ien Ang, in her book, On Not Speaking Chinese, underscores what she calls the "straightjacket" effect of identity; Ang writes, "'who I am' or 'who we are' is never a matter of free choice." (10) A straightjacket is not merely a restraint like any other--rather, Ang's choice of this specific term evokes insanity, mental disturbance, and schizophrenia. It is a common stereotype that mixed heritage people are by definition schizophrenic, and, in this "compassionate" day and age, the question still commonly asked of interracial couples, "What about the children?" resonates with the potential for "schizophrenic-like" identity crises of being "torn between two worlds." While mixed heritage was never formally recognized by the American Psychological Association as an identity equivalent to a mental illness the way queer sexualities have been pathologized, numerous studies by psychologists and sociologists, and a "common-sense" reading of mixed heritage identity, have reified the notion that to be mixed is to be mixed up. The pseudoscientific construction of queer people and of mixed heritage people as mentally ill is deeply rooted in the history of eugenics, a pseudoscience dedicated to "perfecting" humanity through the culling of those perceived as deviating from the ideal--the straight, white, wealthy ideal. Acting both directly and indirectly in conjunction with structures of misogyny, heterosexism, racism, Christian-centrism, classism, and nativism, U.S. eugenicists advocated the sterilization and institutionalization of women, people deemed mentally ill (for example, gays and lesbians), people classified as sexual deviants, people of color, non-Christians (including Jews and Catholics), the poor, and (non-Western European) immigrants. (11)
QUEER MIXED HERITAGE CHINESE AMERICANS AND MARRIAGE RIGHTS
For Queer Chinese Americans of mixed heritage, particularly for those born before the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, which abolished antimiscegenation laws, the social and legal conflicts over their right to marriage equality reflect their parents' legal and social struggles to love and marry across the boundary of "white purity." (12) Comparisons of the current struggle over same sex marriage equality with the fight for the right to marry interracially reveal important intersections between social and legal processes of constructing race, gender, and sexuality. Mixed Heritage Studies scholar Maria P. P. Root, in her "Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage" (1993, 1994), proclaims the right "to freely choose whom [to] befriend and love." This declaration, the last and by that situation perhaps the most important of the twelve rights Root asserts, is a subtle intersection of queer and mixed heritage identities. Her "Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage" does not overtly address queer issues, focusing instead on race; however, her subsequent "Multiracial Oath of Social Responsibility" (2004) ends with the statements, "I must fight all forms of oppression as the oppression of one is the oppression of all" and under this the commitment, "I recognize that my life interconnects with all other lives." Though Root does not explicitly mention homophobia as a form of oppression, it is clear that her work around mixed heritage issues encompasses other dynamics of oppression, including those around sexuality and gender. Root's recognition of this complexity is no surprise, given that mixed heritage activists and queer activists alike are finding common cause in the fight for marriage equality.
In his experimental documentary video, Transgressions (2000), in which Gaffney borrows footage from the 1993 David Cronenberg film version of David Henry Hwang's play, M. Butterfly, Gaffney tells the story of his parents' interracial relationship and his own mixed heritage and queer identity. At one point, Gaffney says, "I don't look or love like my parents." With this simple statement Gaffney encapsulates the complex situation of queer, mixed-heritage people--our identities are different from those of our parents on at least two of the most important identity axes--that of racialization and/or ethnic identity and that of sexuality. And yet Gaffney himself recognizes that his "queer love" is similar to his parents' interracial love--it is, similarly, transgressive. In fact he wonders whether his parents' "transgressive love" had somehow given rise to a "transgressive love in [him]." He equates the "transgression" of interracial love with the transgression of same-gender love, aligning both as what could be called "queer" in the way he says his "race, too, is queer." To be transgressive is to be "queer" in a binarily oppositional world that sees only perfection and nonperfection, white and nonwhite, straight and nonstraight. In the same way, then, that his parents' love was not wrong, Gaffney argues that his own love is just as worthy of legal and social recognition. At a critical moment in Transgressions, Gaffney declares, "From now on I will say my sexuality is queer and my race, too, is queer." This moment is a critical turning point in Gaffney's film, which up to this point has been occupied with questions about identity; this statement is one of the few places Gaffney suggests an answer to those questions. This line, "my race, too, is queer," raises the question: What can be learned from examining the "queering" of race not only in terms of looking at queer people of color at the experiential level, but from--additionally--looking at the social and legal underpinnings of these connected systems of oppression? Critical Mixed Heritage Legal Studies and Critical Queer Legal Studies would best serve their purpose if they would work hand in hand to challenge the oppressive proposal to change the U.S. Constitution to redefine marriage, at a national level, as a union between a man and a woman.
Wilkinson, in her special article to the Chronicle, "Family Values: Lesbian Newlywed Breaks Barriers Just as Her Parents Did More Than 50 Years Ago," writes,
Today in 2004, as interracial marriages flourish and mixed-race people abound, these stories seem archaic, mean-spirited and representative of an era of ignorance left in the past. But are they? Opponents of interracial marriages considered the unions to be "immoral" and "unnatural." Sound familiar? ... Call it what you want--codifying and controlling the rights of marriage for heterosexuals only, insisting that heterosexuals are uniquely qualified to love each other and raise families within the institution of marriage, or just plain asserting that heterosexuals know best--it all piles up to unequal treatment under the law, and that spells discrimination. (13)
Wilkinson equates the abhorrent sounding rhetoric of historical interracial marriage opponents, with that of current opponents of same sex marriage. By making this analogy, Wilkinson's rhetorical strategy suggests that the same, currently socially unacceptable intolerance evident in antimiscegenation logic is at play in the opposition to same sex marriage. This also means that the same application of constitutional rights that applied in Loving v. Virginia should apply in the case of same sex marriage. In Loving v. Virgnia, Virginia's antimiscegenation laws were held to violate the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. In other words, Loving v. Virginia forms the logical legal basis for same sex marriage equality.
The video Gaffney showed at the conference, his 2004 MUNI to the Marriage, primarily consists of footage he shot as a reenactment of riding MUNI to meet his partner John Lewis at City Hall to get married. As with Gaffney's other films, the hypnotic effect of visual footage overlaid with voiceover is experimental in that the video does not always directly depict the actions described in Gaffney's voiceover. This disjunction between image and narration forces viewers to attempt to fit the visual and aural elements together in some way to create meaning. In MUNI to the Marriage, Gaffney's journey on the MUNI can be read as symbolic of the liminal space of being between identities and even of being between states of being. This liminal state, like a doorway, is not just a space between other, more clearly defined spaces (dining and living room, white and Chinese); rather, it is more like a hallway--a space which is a room one can be in as well as a space through which one is moving. In this case, Gaffney is on a trajectory toward one thing and away from another: moving toward being married and away from being barred from marriage. The voiceover narration by Gaffney manifests the fragility of that certain trajectory Gaffney describes the fear he and Lewis had over having the marriage license ripped from their hands before they could actually be married. Viewing the film at the conference, the audience already knew what Gaffney did not know when the video was made--that the marriages would eventually be declared illegal. The fixed track of the MUNI thus represents a space in which one can move both forward and back again, just as Gaffney and Lewis moved from being barred from marriage to being married, then again having the right to marriage, and legality of their marriage, stripped away from them. (14)
In an op-ed piece, Gaffney and his husband John Lewis describe their feelings when they became newlyweds, and, for the first time, "[their] government recognized [their] love as worthy of the highest respect under the law and treated [them] as fully equal human beings." (15) They realized that they had until the moment of their marriage been denied a fundamental human right. Yes, they could live together, yes, they could love each other, but they could not have that love recognized by fundamental institutions in our society. What does it feel like to be told, "Your marriage is null and void"? The people who best understand this feeling turn out to be Gaffney's own parents, who had had their own marriage challenged by social mores of the time. The support of his and Lewis' parents is perhaps even more deeply meaningful to them because of the history of Gaffney's parents' interracial marriage. (16) In fact, Gaffney has said (17) that his struggle for same sex marriage equality has brought him closer to his parents because they have found kinship in what they view as a shared struggle for the right, in the words of Maria P. P. Root, "to freely choose whom [to] befriend and love" (18)--and then to marry.
CHINESE AMERICANS AND ANTIMISCEGENATION
In Interracial Intimacy: The Regulation of Race and Romance, Rachel Moran describes the history of the social and, eventually, legal processes by which Chinese were added to the antimiscegenation laws that had already been imposed on African Americans and American Indians. Moran describes how Chinese were analogized to blacks and Native Americans, and that with this analogy came the recommendation that the Chinese be removed to reservations. Moran cites "[a] California magazine [which] confirmed the depravity of Chinese women noting that their physical appearance was 'but a slight removal from the African race.'" (19) Further, "These racial images in turn were linked to a degraded sexuality." (20) Ultimately, the result of this campaign was the 1878 California state constitutional amendment to restrict interracial marriage of Chinese with whites and a 1901 criminalization of Chinese-white intermarriage, reinstituted after a legislative correction in 1905. (21) Moran argues that "California's 1905 antimiscegenation law reflected fears of both racial difference and sexual deviance." (22) The sexual deviance rumored of Chinese men was, like that rumored of African American men, a predilection for white women. Chinese women were presumed to all be prostitutes and thus morally lax. In the sense of being outside of normative sexuality, the sexuality of Chinese was deemed "queer"--specifically because of their race. Thus being able to determine or define someone's "race" is the foundation of the power of the state to prevent racially "queer" or "transgressive" sexuality.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON [QUEER, MIXED HERITAGE] CHINESENESS
In her chapter, "Can One Say No to Chineseness?" cultural critic Ien Ang, to use her subtitle, "push[es] the limits of the diasporic paradigm" and discusses the paradox of minority identity in the context of a worldwide Chinese diaspora. (23) The "indeterminate signifier" (24) that is Chineseness intersects intriguingly with identity nodes for Queer Mixed Heritage Chinese people to create a kind of biofeedback loop through which Chineseness itself can be usefully reconceived. Mixed Heritage Studies theorist, George Kitahara Kich, proclaims,
If the ambiguity that comes from the struggle can be tolerated and there is generosity towards reconnection, then the marginalized can reflect back, as an archaeological returning or re-membering to the "monopeoples" of the world, their own shadowed, buried, altered, and disowned projections. (25)
Chinese identity can seem so fixed, so definite--perhaps because of the vast number of people in the world who identify as "Chinese," perhaps because of the longevity of Chinese history and the dominance of Chinese culture and language, but in the words of Wayne Wang's film, Chan Is Missing, the question, "What kind of Chinese Chinese are you?" can generate millions of responses--varying not only from individual to individual, but also over the lifetime of one individual as they change--like my mother who has shifted from Shanghainese to Chinese immigrant to Chinese American. Being open to these shifts and variations may be partially a function of being "generous toward reconnection" on all sides of the margin, and I like to think of the image of the banyan tree--roots and limbs connecting midair--as a symbol of the process by which Queer Mixed Heritage Chinese Americans participate in reconceiving the notion of Chineseness. Being Chinese in the postdiaspora, transnational age is complicated but not impossible. Perhaps the answer to Ang's question, then, is not that one can "Say No to Chineseness" but rather that one can say "no" to exclusionary definitions of Chineseness, or of any category. It requires being free from the idea of a point of origin--whether that is China or Chinatown, and yet continuing to recognize that place as a continued point of reference. To use airline terminology, we are moving away from a hub system dependent on always returning to a particular home base, (26) toward a point-to-point system in which each point is a home, a place to go back to, or a place to travel to in the future. Each point is equally relevant, rather than a system in which the point of origin is the most authentic, and those circles radiating outward, like ripples in the water, become only weaker.
After the panelists made their presentations, an audience member who identified herself as Chinese American came up to us and thanked us for speaking; she also commended Lorraine Dong for being brave enough to encourage such a panel at this Chinese American community event. The woman intimated that the subject matter of the panel was still challenging for Chinese Americans generally, even to a group like that gathered around the Chinese Historical Society of America, who were largely community scholars. Notably, there was a large attendance for our panel (over twenty-five people) and we received only positive, supportive comments from an audience that consisted mostly of community members in their forties to sixties as well as a large group of college students. I thank everyone involved for participating in this community discussion of Queer Mixed Heritage Chinese American identities and issues.
Wei Ming Dariotis, PhD
(1.) Stuart Gaffney, Transgressions, 2000, videotape.
(2.) I wish to thank both Willy Wilkinson and Stuart Gaffney for a lively exchange of ideas as well as the careful attention they each gave to this essay. That being said, however, any and all mistakes are mine, and this essay should not be taken as a representation of them or their ideas, only as my interpretation. This essay has been revised to present a narrative of the panel, while portions of my analysis of Gaffney's video, Transgressions, have been reconstructed into another essay: "'I'm Not Bisexual, But I should Be': Bisexuality and Biraciality in Transgressions by Stuart Gaffney." The two essays can be read as companion pieces.
(3.) The term "sex" is fraught with misuse. In this specific case of legal definition, the term is used to mean biological sex assigned at birth. In contrast, gender is about personal identity Thus, according to Willy Wilkinson, "No one is talking about same-gender marriage because the legal battle is for marriage recognition based on legal sex, not gender identity." (Personal correspondence, December 2005.)
(4.) I write antimiscegenation without a hyphen because I disagree with the racist concept of "miscegenation"--that is, the fundamental illegality of marriage between people of different racialized groupings. By writing antimiscegenation without a hyphen, I wish to delegitimize the legal and social structures that coined the term "miscegenation" in the first place.
(5.) Though I do not discuss it, it is important to note that the lead plaintiffs in the California same-sex marriage equality lawsuit, Woo vs. Lockyer, include Chinese Americans Cristy Chung and Lancy Woo.
(6.) Ontology, originally based in religious arguments about the existence of God, has come to be a system by which logical arguments are made regarding the existence of ideals. Hermeneutic, meaning interpretive, has roots in religious, philosophical, and literary interpretation of texts. By using the phrase "ontological hermeneutics of Chineseness," I am trying to suggest the idea of Chineseness as a kind of text or ideal that is communicated between people, where relative levels of "authenticity" are measured in relation to transgressions of race, gender, and sexuality.
(7.) And I make the blatantly biological reference to blood deliberately to invoke the tension between biology and self-identity that runs throughout this essay
(8.) Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), 140
(9.) Bhabha, Location, 142; italics in original.
(10.) Ien Ang, On Not Speaking Chinese: Living Between Asia and the West (New York: Routledge, 2001), vii.
(11.) Please note, I wrote these words several days before former Secretary of Education William Bennett's remarks to the effect that crime would be greatly reduced if all black babies were aborted. Eugenics, it seems, is not merely a theory from the past (September 28, 2005).
(12.) Antimiscegenation laws were always about maintaining the presumed "purity" of whiteness; they were always designed to prevent intermarriage between those deemed white and those deemed nonwhite. That there were never laws preventing intermarriages between groups of people of color implies that the principle of preventing "race mixing" across the board was never the issue; the only concern was "white purity."
(13.) Willy Wilkinson, "Family Values: Lesbian Newlywed Breaks Barriers Just as Her Parents Did More Than 50 Years Ago," San Francisco Chronicle, March 5, 2004, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/ chronicle/archive/2004/03105/WBGGC58DQQ1.DTL.
(14.) I am tempted here to liken this to being moved by BART from the suburban outreaches of the Bay Area into the city center of San Francisco and then having to go back again.
(15.) OPINION I Open Forum by Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis, September 13, 2004, PlanetOut.com (accessed October 1, 2005).
(16.) John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, "September 2004 JUST MARRIED: John & Stuart, 'Newlyweds' After 17 Years Together," San Fancisco Spectrum (accessed October 1, 2005).
(17.) Stuart Gaffney, phone interview, October 6, 2005.
(18.) Maria P. P. Root, "Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage," http://www.drmariaroot.com/.
(19.) Rachel F. Moran, Interracial Intimacy: The Regulation of Race and Romance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 31.
(20.) Moran, Interracial Intimacy, 30.
(21.) Moran, Interracial Intimacy, 16.
(22.) Moran, Interracial Intimacy, 32.
(23.) Ang, On Not Speaking Chinese, 37.
(24.) Ang, On Not Speaking Chinese,. 38.
(25.). George Kitahara Kich, "In the Margins of Sex and Race: Difference, Marginality, and Flexibility," in The Multiracial Experience: Racial Borders as the New Frontier, ed. Maria P. P. Root (Thousand Oaks, CA, London, and New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1996), 276.
(26.) This is a reference to Shawn Wong's 1979 novel--irresistible, given that I also moderated for the conference, the sneak peek at Mixed Heritage Chinese American filmmaker Eric Byler's film version of Wong's novel, American Knees. Byler's film is titled Americanese.