by Ping-Hsuan Wang



What is coming out? I begin every interview with this question in my research project, ‘positioning in gay immigrants’ coming-out narratives.’ Raising this question in the discussion about coming out for people of color (POC) in the US and abroad is an important step. That’s because we might have a general idea of what it means, but its varied definitions show how coming out can be nuanced, yet sometimes taken for granted. When Sedgwick calls the closet “the defining structure for gay oppression in this century,” she’s not only referring to the marginal(ized) position of sexual minorities but critiquing the binarism it’s built upon.[1] Problematizing coming out doesn’t dismiss its purposes; instead, it illuminates what it does, how it works, and why it matters, especially for underrepresented populations. While the expression of same-sex desire can be found worldwide in various forms, describing its disclosure as ‘coming out’ or disclosing it at all may not be so universal. Indeed, in the US, coming out as an activist strategy has its unique historical background. It has been imbricated with the US identity politics in the post-Stonewall movements to increase the visibility of sexual minorities in public.[2][3] With some scholars examining coming out outside of the English-speaking regions, the US-based model and its associated Western identity categories are being reevaluated (hence the scare quoted ‘gay’).[4][5]

When ethnicity and geography are factored in, coming out (narratives) can be structurally different. In language and sexuality studies, Liang compares ‘gay’ college students’ coming-out narratives and observes an ethnically correlated distinction: while European Americans tend to dwell on the inner conflict with their ‘gay’ feelings, Asian Americans downplay this inward-looking component and focus on disclosing their same-sex desire to others. She attributes this finding to cultural differences: the former may have internalized homophobic values before they become aware of their same-sex attraction, which leads to an internal struggle for reconciliation, as opposed to the latter, who emphasize harmonious social relations.[6] Investigating tongzhi as a label for sexual minorities in Hong Kong, Wong notes that the interviewees’ coming-out narratives are characterized by the code of silence, such as ellipsis and dietic expressions.[7] This runs contrary to the Western notion of celebrating one’s same-sex desire as coming-out narrative develops into a genre. These findings call into question how effective and resonant the contemporary activism around coming out and identity is when it comes to individuals of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Of course, the two examples do not endorse the dualistic view that the East and the West are opposite each other; it should be understood that, when intersected with ethnicity and geography, desires are hierarchized differently and, coming out accordingly gains varying significance and takes on diverse forms.

In this respect, coming out holds a marginal positionality for its ambivalence (e.g., pride/shame).[8] Therefore, positioning, the process of discursively locating the self in certain story lines by performing speech acts, can shed new light on the way we conceptualize coming out and the telling of it. Despite its oft-claimed empowering role in the West, coming out doesn’t always carry the same connotations or produce the same results (forces of speech acts) when different cultural scripts (story lines) are involved. Coming from Taiwan, where coming out isn’t encouraged in the media, I found foreign the ‘out and proud’ advocacy in the US that positively promoted it. This sparked my interest in how other same-sex desiring men who came to the US later in their lives experience coming out. As I continued my research, I learned that although many participants had been cognizant of their own same-sex desire before migration, they acquired new sets of vocabularies for expression only afterward. When the Indian participants say, ‘there was no concept of coming out back in India,’ it implies that the US-based model affords them a new story line to (re)formulate and (re)articulate their desire. For them, coming out as a speech act reconfigures their positioning in terms of sexuality as well as ethnicity and culture. Hence, they don’t simply come out as ‘gay’ but as ‘gay Indians.’ Their accounts offer a new perspective on being ‘gay’ and coming out in the US.[9] 

Rather than Western identity categories, coming out may also be achieved through other culturally specific terms that reference historical accounts or literature. In one narrative, an Indian interviewee was confronted with the inquiry about marriage by his Taiwanese lab mate, to which he replied, “I’m a cut-sleeve.”[10] He assumed that this would be an intelligible referent for the interlocutor, and he was right when his lab mate in turn came out to him. The Chinese idiom, ‘斷袖之癖’ /tuan ɕiou ʈʂɻ̩ pʰi/ (the predilection of the cut sleeve), comes from a historical account wherein an emperor’s male lover fell asleep against his sleeve, so the emperor cut it off lest he disturb him. The idiom has then bore the signification of homosexuality. However, traditionally, this was never a source of identification for ancient Chinese men who engaged in homosexual behaviors. Thus, the interviewee’s appropriation of the idiom is twofold: first, the Chinese index of homosexuality is approximated to the status of an identity label, which then fits into the intransitive ‘I am’ construction for his coming out speech act to be acknowledged in the US context. In this sense, the expression is not just a literal translation but a transformation of how one understands homosexuality from ‘what one does’ to ‘what one is.’

This is the reality that many non-heterosexual POC, immigrants or not, deal with. For example, Human Rights Campaign (HRC) provides resources for ‘LGBTQ’ Asian and Pacific Islander Americans.[11] Still, the above issue remains in HRC’s portrayal of coming out: the identity-centered approach to coming out and understanding sexuality has its roots in the US-based social movements, which requires translation of both the language and the concept. In addition, the proliferation of coming-out narratives gives rise to the prototype that treats ‘gayness’ as an absolute variable in storytelling and ‘outness’ as an ultimate outcome in these narratives. This brings us back to the problematization of coming out: to what extent is the current activism and research informed by this cautionary scrutiny for the former to be relatable to individuals outside of the prototype and for the latter to be mindful of the nuances?

In the conventional equation, coming out leads to a ‘positive gay experience.’[12] When this practice is laden with moral values against the backdrop of identity politics, being ‘out’ is considered responsible to the community and honest to oneself, whereas staying ‘closeted’ is a sign of shame, a phenomenon that Rasmussen terms ‘the coming out imperative.’[13] Yet, Decena explains the sexuality of ‘gay’ Dominican immigrants in New York City with the ‘sujeto tácito’ (tacit subject) in Spanish grammar.[14] Homosexuality is tacitly understood and assumed by their family with their displays of same-sex affection instead of explicit categorization through verbal disclosure. Such dynamics blurs the manifestation of a ‘gay’ subjectivity in the speech act of coming out within its own story line for positioning. In fact, this is reminiscent of what society is said to be like for ‘cut-sleeves’ in ancient China. For some same-sex desiring men, they would get married and have children to fulfill their duties, and their family would look past their affairs with other men. Again, this shouldn’t be interpreted in a dualistic way that paints the East as more tolerant. Apparently, heterosexuality was still privileged, but coming out wouldn’t be necessary when homosexuality found a space for existence in this hierarchy.

Decena’s study is another example that the US-based model of coming out is but one means of organizing (homo)sexuality. At a time when most language and sexuality research designates coming out as a process of sexual identity construction,[15] it begs the question: is it possible to decenter the identity-centered theorization of coming out so that the studies cited herein are presented as variations rather than deviations from the norm? For many POC, they do not necessarily reside in the story line where coming out is imbued with legitimacy, but that doesn’t mean their sexualities, albeit irreducible to normative identity labels, are less valid. I hope that, by proposing positioning theory as a heuristic, this article has indicated some directions for answering the question of what coming out is from a non-heterosexual POC perspective.

To conclude, a film analogy that juxtaposes Love, Simon (2018) with Moonlight (2016) should illustrate the main point here. The protagonists in both films are shown to express same-sex desire. However, they have rather different ideas about identity and coming out. Simon identifies with the label ‘gay’ from the outset, and the eventual coming out affirms his identification. Conversely, Chiron in Moonlight navigates the derogation of homosexuality, in which coming out is neither ideal nor practical. How does activism reach them respectively, and how would research handle these contrasting positions? I have started to lay the groundwork for addressing this issue in this blog post, which begins with understanding how desires are hierarchized in certain sociohistorical context to create sexualities that may or may not necessitate coming out.

 

Ping-Hsuan Wang is an English Researcher at the Language Training and Testing Center in Taipei, Taiwan, applying academic insights to developing EFL assessments. He obtained a BA in English from National Central University and an MA in Linguistics from Georgetown University. He has presented at conferences (AAAL, ICA, LSA, etc.), using discourse analysis in contexts ranging from family, politics, therapy, to computer-mediated communication. His research interests include positioning in gay immigrants’ coming-out narratives (Narrative Inquiry), stance-taking in online comments (Discourse & Society), chronotopes in Taiwanese Americans’ conversations (Language in Society), and framing in family mealtime discourse. He tweets at @hoganindc2015.

 

To read more about LGBTQ+ linguistics from LGBTQ+ linguists, check out the rest of the COZIL Blog posts here

 

[1] Sedgwick, Eve K. (1990). Epistemology of the closet. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

[2] Armstrong, Elizabeth. (2002). Forging gay identities: Organizing sexuality in San Francisco, 1950-1994. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[3] Bernstein, Mary. (1997). Celebration and suppression: the strategic uses of identity by the lesbian and gay movement. The American Journal of Sociology, 103(3), 531–565.

[4] Currier, Ashley. (2012). Out in Africa LGBT organizing in Namibia and South Africa. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[5] Massad, Joseph A. (2009). Desiring Arabs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[6] Liang, A. C. (1997). The creation of coherence in coming-out stories. In Anna Livia and Kira Hall (Eds.), Queerly phrased: Language, gender, and sexuality. (pp. 287–309). New York: Oxford University Press.

[7] Wong, Andrew D. (2008). The trouble with tongzhi: The politics of labeling among gay and lesbian Hongkongers. Pragmatics, 18(2), 277-301.

[8] Milani, Tommaso M. (2017). The politics of the margins: Multi-semiotic and affective strategies of voice and visibility. In Caroline Kerfoot and Kenneth Hyltenstam (Eds.), Entangled discourses: South-North orders and visibility (pp. 173-188). New York: Routledge.

[9] Wang, Ping-Hsuan. (2021). “When I came to the US”: Constructing migration in gay Indian immigrants’ coming-out narratives. Narrative Inquiry. https://doi.org/10.1075/ni.19088.wan

[10] Wang, Ping-Hsuan. (2017). Out of the country, out of the closet: Coming-out stories in cross-cultural contexts. Southern Journal of Linguistics, 41(2), 173-198.

[11] Coming out: Living authentically as LGBTQ Asian and Pacific Islander Americans. Available at https://www.hrc.org/resources/coming-out-living-authentically-as-lgbtq-asian-and-pacific-islander-america

[12] Plummer, Kenneth. (1995). Telling sexual stories: Power, change, and social worlds. New York: Routledge.

[13] Rasmussen, Mary Lou. (2004). The problem of coming out. Theory into Practice, 43(2), 144–150.

[14] Decena, Carlos Ulises. (2011). Tacit subjects: Belonging and same-sex desire among Dominican immigrant men. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

[15] Sauntson, Helen, and Kyratzis, Sakis. (2007). Language, sexualities and desires: Cross-cultural perspectives. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.