Queer Theory as a Critique of Society: the Closet and Gay Marriage

A guest lecture at Aoyama Gakuin University

On Thursday, December 14, I went to the Shibuya campus of Aoyama Gakuin University to give a guest lecture in a gender & law class (taught in English).

It was a big class, consisting of approx. 140 students, mostly beginners-level ESL speakers. That made giving the lecture quite a challenge for me since I’d have to speak a bit slowly, make sure everyone knew the words and followed the content of the lecture.

That, in hindsight, was quite an educational experience for me. By keeping things simple and slow, I was able to create a much more relaxed atmosphere than in any of my past lectures. Pauses here and there seemed to give the students the time to process the words I was saying, contrary to my baseless presumption that the more words the easier for them to understand. This made me think twice about my QueerESL videos and vlogs where I am trying to be “edutaining” (educating and entertaining) when that may not always be necessary.

Since I made a handout for the lecture and an outline for myself, I thought I might as well share my lecture here off of them. So, without further due, let’s get to it. (Note that during the lecture I paused several times to explain terms in Japanese and that’s not included below.)

There is a field called Queer Theory. It is a perspective with which you analyze things like literature, film, and social phenomena. We have Race Theory, Disability Theory, Feminist Theory, etc. giving us a variety of perspectives other than the dominant perspective that’s White, middle-class, disablist, male-centric, etc. and Queer Theory is one of them. And I’d like to introduce you to it today.

Please raise your hand if you have never met anyone lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or queer——thank you. Well, from now on, you can all say you’ve met one because I am bisexual. Also, my guess is, you also have probably met someone before who is or might be queer. They just haven’t told you yet. They are in the closet, we say in English.

The closet

Now, why do some people stay in the closet? Why do others come out of the closet? People stay in the closet because they are afraid that people around them might react negatively. People come out of the closet because they are hoping that people around them might react positively.

But in both cases, it’s the society’s homophobia and transphobia that’s making us queers choose whether to stay in or come out of the closet.

Now the question is, whose closet is it anyway? I’m here just being myself but the society assumes that I’m heterosexual and cisgender. The society is the one that’s built the closet around me, around all queer people. We never built it. The society did. The closet seems to function as protection from oppression, but we must understand it as oppression in and of itself. The closet is a form of oppression.

We often say it’s okay to be closeted when the circumstances don’t allow otherwise, as if it were up to each queer person and they had the choice. But staying in the closet or coming out of it isn’t a choice at all.

When we talk about LGBTQ rights and politics, we often think about them as a call for choice and freedom. While it’s important to demand rights and gain respect for our dignity, Queer Theory tries to go deeper, even questioning the very ideas of choice and freedom. What social structures make that choice possible? On what assumptions is that freedom based? Those are the kind of questions that Queer Theory asks.

Gay marriage

Let’s discuss gay marriage to see how Queer Theory might go deeper in analysis, beyond superficial praise of the new legal right.

First, is gay marriage a good thing? Many people think and say it is. It gives us so many benefits, right? But let’s pause and ask ourselves again, is marriage a good thing in the first place?

There are so many benefits when you get married: visa sponsorship, hospital visitation rights, the right to medical decision-making for your partner, inheritance, child custody, financial security, healthcare, pension, etc. Gay marriage advocates often mention them.

But the filp side of good things about marriage is exactly bad things about being single. Why can single people not enjoy those benefits? One of the regrets that many queer people have from the AIDS era is that they were often not allowed to visit their friends in hospital rooms——not just partners, but friends. For many queers back then, the traditional family was not exactly understanding or accepting. For them, their queer friends were often just as important, if not more so, as their families. People sometimes have friendships that are stronger than romantic relationships or family ties. The advocates of gay marriage, however, seem to have forgotten the importance of friendship and what it means for queers, but have instead favored and embraced the traditional family values.

The fact that you can only access the benefits through marriage indicates that there are flaws in other social institutions such as the immigration system, medical guidelines, family laws, welfare and social security, which all favor married couples over unmarried couples and individuals. Advocates of gay marriage argue that the fix to those flaws is marriage, that benefits afforded through marriage alleviate, if not eliminate, the problems people may face because of the flaws.

What that ultimately means is that the more problems you face in other social institutions (i.e. the more marginalized you already are), the more attractive marriage becomes for you.

Marriage, in a sense, is a first-aid kit. It has bandage, anti-infectant, painkillers etc. but it’s not surgery. It’s not a cure, it just helps a bit. On the other hand, fixing the flaws in all social systems is like surgery. That costs the government significantly more money and efforts. You see, the government is saving money by having the institution of marriage in place.

What’s really happening here is transfer of government responsibilities to people’s private, family life, giving the family the burdens of child care, elderly care, care for people with disabilities, financial support, etc.——things that should be afforded through the welfare state that most nations claim to be.

Marriage is a diversion——don’t look at those problems, just get married and you’ll be fine. Now, what does that make gay marriage? Gay marriage is a diversion even one step further.

Now, to make matters even worse, not all marriages are happy, and you may not get all the benefits anyway. First of all, we have big issues, within the family, of domestic violence and child abuse, be it physical, mental, financial, or sexual. Financially, your partner may lose their job, you may lose yours, you may be working for a bad company that doesn’t give social insurance to its employees, or your partner may even have debts you know nothing about, which you will nonetheless inherit just like you would inherit their assets.

Another thing to note is that the benefits of marriage are potential disadvantages in the case of divorce. Your partner may threaten to divorce you and take your visa away. I know of a woman who was unable to leave her violent husband for a long time because she was on a spousal visa. Your partner may also say things like, “you cannot possibly leave me and live on your own. You have been a housewife for years.”

See, marriage is a bad promise. It’s fraud that the government uses to deflect people’s attention from all the problems in other social institutions. Instead of trying to make gay marriage happen, therefore, we need to fix the problems in the entire systems, so that the benefits of marriage as of today will be afforded, not through marriage, but directly through each of the other systems.

That is just my opinion. Now that you’ve learned the perspective of Queer Theory, you can reach your own. That’s the end of my lecture today. Thank you.

Below is the handout provided to the class. (Everything is written in full sentence, as advised by the host lecturer, to provide a recourse for students who have difficulty understanding spoken English.)

(This post was originally published on my Medium site.)

LGBTQ politics in Japan, gay marriage, and sex education

I was interviewed by a student in the UK and here are excerpts from my answers.

On recent changes in Japan regarding LGBTQ politics

First and foremost, the acronym LGBT has gotten currency in mainstream media. Many people now know what it means or at least have heard of it and have a vague idea of what it is. The downside to it is that the LGBT politics usually gets reduced to either an economic concept to identify a newly found market. or interpersonal mannerism that gives rise to shallow allyship. Second, Twitter has become widely popular in Japan especially among young people who want to stay anonymous, which means many queer people can talk about their sexualities and gender identities on Twitter. Especially these two years, as far as I know, there has been a surge of queer Twitter users who voice their opinions and share their experiences and feelings, not just activists or activisty folks but also ordinary queer people, giving diversity to the online queer community. Third, and this is a bit dangerous to the advancement of the LGBT politics but, conservative, neoliberal politicians are starting to make alliances with LGBT organizations and startup businesses. The force to co-opt queer causes by the right wing is creating a political fissure among queer communities.

On gay marriage

I strongly believe that marriage as a social institution is a diversion from all the flaws in other institutions such as the immigration system, medical guidelines, family laws, welfare/social security, etc. We have so many problems in those systems because they are made so that one is more likely to suffer from their flaws if they’re single. Instead of fixing those problems, which would cost a lot more money, the government has the institution of marriage in place, like a first-aid kit, or a band-aid. So basically, the more marginalized you are, the more attractive marriage becomes for you. Advocates of gay marriage and gay partnership recognition say that gay people should get the same benefits of marriage, but we must fight for those benefits so they go to all people, gay or straight, married or unmarried. Right now, the most privileged are not straight people. It’s those who don’t need to get married but can choose to, who don’t need to get divorced but can choose to. We need to demand changes in the systems other than marriage, so that the benefits of marriage as of today will be provided through those systems instead of through marriage, and that marriage now will have no meaning whatsoever, making it only a symbolic union of persons. Only then can we say we have achieved marriage equality.

On sex education and the lack of mention of LGBTQ

A government official earlier this year, or last year, publicly stated that the national curriculum should not include information about LGBT people because people were not educated enough. That doesn’t make any sense, because people not being educated enough about LGBT issues is exactly reason why they should be educated through school curricula. But for the Abe administration, not educating is the answer. I’m sure there are individual teachers and school nurses who independently create ways of teaching students about human sexual and gender diversity, but it will be years until we finally see anything LGBT-related in Japanese school curricula. One concern, on a side note, is that many non-profits and queer startups and entrepreneurs are dying to make money off of education through lectures, seminars, workshops, teaching materials, textbooks, and many other products. I will be very concerned, when LGBT issues go into the national curricula, that children might be taught an assimilationist view of LGBT politics, a scientifically-unproven statement (e.g. gay people were born that way), or any other misleading, dishonest, and/or state-favoring messages.

(This post was originally published on my Medium site.)

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The Privilege To Say ‘I Don’t’

The Monologue of Shizuka Minamoto

An unofficial feminist sequel to Doraemon: Part 1

Well, it doesn’t bother me much any longer now, but when the series began, I felt a massive amount of fury deep inside and it rose from the bottom of my stomach up my heart and throat. I had never expected my name to be used that way. I had heard a rumor that Takeshi-san would write manga about his childhood, but the way he described our childhood memories gave me quite a shock. I immediately contacted Nobita-san and Suneo-san. Nobita-san sounded nothing but confused and at a loss. Suneo-san seemed to be trying very hard to suppress his anger toward Takeshi-san who hadn’t responded to his calls. I was just as sad and angry. Not knowing what else to do, I tried to call Takeshi-san, but to no avail.

A year passed by and I was hard hit by the news about Suneo-san’s death. He had killed himself. By that time, I was already single, and without a child, so all I had had to endure was rumors and gossips going around in the neighborhood and some residents of the condominium I lived in occasionally bringing them up in casual hallway chats with me. Attempted extraction in disguise of genuine concern. But that’s nothing compared to Suneo-san. He had a family. He was an office worker. I heard some of the stuff that he had gone through at work. Shortly after, his wife and kids changed their last name to her maiden name and moved somewhere in Tohoku, or so I heard.

Now it’s been thirty years. With Nobita-san gone now, his mother Tamako-san and Takeshi-san’s sister Christine Goda-san are the only people I still keep in touch with. After all, women are strong, aren’t they? Or, maybe we women are just used to being taken our names away and written about in unconvincing stories. Well, except Kanae-chan, I guess, who as a kid used to hang out with the boys just like I did yet never made a single appearance in Doraemon. About 20 years ago I heard that she’d moved to Shikoku where her relatives lived, but I’m not sure if that’s true anyway.

Kanae-chan never got to know what it feels like to be distorted and transformed into a character, a role that sits well in a storyline. I, on the other hand, never get to know what it feels to be erased from the past, not portrayed at all. But one thing is certain. Either she or I needed to be erased. The tragedy that would fall on us immediately following the days described in Doraemon was too complicated, too cruel. There is no doubt that’s why Takeshi-san didn’t want two women in his stories, especially Kanae-chan, who was in a sexual relationship with the old man whom we called Doraemon.

As soon as we started junior high school, Kanae-chan was pregnant. I only knew so much about childbirth and violence——I naturally thought the baby was Doraemon’s. Looking back now, it might have been Takeshi-san’s. Come to think of it, when helpless Kanae-chan talked to us, Takeshi-san was the most eager to offer help. You may think that I’m committing the same crime as Takeshi-san’s through all this speculating, but since Takeshi-san’s no longer, please bear with me and let me continue. You can call it my version of Doraemon. So we gathered at the empty lot at deep night——yes, the one you all remember from the manga——to discuss what to do with the baby. All we came up with was, however, a pile of irresponsible advice like “you should talk to your parents” and “why don’t you keep the baby?” Then from Takeshi-san came one realistic idea: to beat her in the stomach very hard over and over till the baby dies. Very primitive, but with Kanae-chan doing nothing but cry in front of us, no one had a better idea.

It all happened in those Pipes. Remember the Pipes? The ones sitting in the middle of the empty lot? Well, the place wasn’t as beautiful and idyllic as the manga made it out to be. In reality, it was full of overgrown weeds and had an uncanny wooden storage house in the back left corner, whose roof, walls, and windows were all wrecked. It housed five or six pipes, leaving no room for the other two lying on the ground just beside it. The pipes were actually bigger than you see in the manga, big enough for a child like us to enter just by crouching a bit. In the beginning, we all watched from outside Takeshi-san kicking Kanae-chan in the stomach in one of the two Pipes laid on the ground. I was the first to give up, went inside the other Pipe, shaking and cowering. Suneo-san and Nobita-san followed suit. The sounds of violence, low and thick, mixed with tightly suppressed shrieks of Kanae-chan every now and then, would stay in my ears for years to come.

Most readers and viewers of Doraemon probably think that what Takeshi-san did was typical of him, who they know as Gian, the violent, selfish kid with a bad temper. To tell the truth, Takeshi-san was always the quiet kind. He always cared about what other people thought, never expressed his opinions unless asked, and just simply never spoke very much. Suneo-san, on the other hand, had a relatively large body and quite a low voice for a boy his age, and while not living up to the same level, gave a similar impression to that of Gian’s. Nobita-san was kind of in his own world all the time, didn’t care much about what people thought about him, never letting anyone tell him what to do. Shizuka-chan, well that’s me, was quite far from the girl depicted in Doraemon. I was chubby, had slanted eyes, and always wore work pants instead of a skirt. I would always get in a fight with Suneo-san and go home with cuts and bruises, my mother used to tell me in her late years. The only resemblance to the character that I can recall about myself is that I had pigtails.

Now you can see how horrifying it must have been for us to watch Takeshi-san turning so violent in that Pipe that we couldn’t face it. I guess we were not afraid of the violence itself played out in the Pipe, but of the fact that Takeshi-san was capable of such violence. The sounds halted. It felt like forever but couldn’t have been longer than twenty minutes. Instead of the sound of flesh hitting flesh, we were suddenly left with the panting and grunting, the former being of Takeshi-san’s, and the latter Kanae-chan’s. We scarily peeped inside the Pipe, and saw Kanae-chan soaked in blood in the lower body, and Takeshi-san fallen on top of her upper body. Then it happened. It was so quick I couldn’t remember. I almost instinctively jumped at Takeshi-san’s back. Next thing I knew, I had been punching and elbowing the back of his head over and over, grabbing his hair and banging his head against the pipe wall. I knew the baby was Doraemon’s, or so I thought, and I was only mad at the old man. But I was terrified of Takeshi-san’s action, and all I could think was that I had to finish him while he was tired from hurting Kanae-chan for the past twenty minutes. I don’t know why. I just felt that I had to.

It went on for about five minutes, then I was calm suddenly. I had already been dragged out of the Pipe by Suneo-san, his hands tightly grabbing my both arms. As the dark air lit only by the fluorescent streetlight gradually grew deep blue, we knew the night was over. We stood up, in no significant order, and started cleaning up. Kanae-chan was at the water faucet washing her body and blood-soaked skirt and underwear. Takeshi-san, as if he had known all along what was going to happen, took out towels to clean the Pipe. Nobita-san was splashing water into the Pipe using the bucket he had found in the storage. Suneo-san was sitting next to me on the other Pipe, staring at the stars in the starless sky above us. I jumped and started off onto the street. Suneo-san followed me, until he realized I would keep walking regardless. In the corner of my eye I saw him go back to the Pipes.

That morning was the beginning of our silence. We would never spoke again. We certainly had at least two questions about the previous night. Why did Takeshi-san, the quiet boy, become so violent in the face of Kanae-chan’s pregnancy? And why did I, Shizuka-chan, suddenly jump at him who only had completed the task that we had already agreed to assign him? But, those mysteries were to remain, we decided unanimously, without words. A few days later, Doraemon died. Of a heart attack. Tamako-san found his dead body. At least, that’s what everyone decided to think is what happened.

Just one mistake, and we were suddenly children of destined violence and death. Or maybe it was not just one mistake. Perhaps the chain of violence and death, one ofter another, passed on through all human history, branched out and caught us somehow. I think Kanae-chan is everywhere, in the past, in the present, and in the future. In the bodies that are hurt, by gender, violence, and oblivion. I, on the other hand, was assigned a role in a pre-determined story that is Doraemon, as a girl who did not express anger or respond to violence by violence, who could not possibly done such a thing. But in the end, women are strong, aren’t they? We still are alive. Petty existences we may be, but we live. We live, trying to avoid the attacks of injustice that come our way from every direction, or even sometimes letting them reach our bodies and hurt us. On the other hand, Nobita-san will not be released while alive. Suneo-san is already gone. Takeshi-san was killed at his own apartment by someone who jumped out of his sister’s room that was supposed to be empty at that time.

Takeshi-san selfishly created a story to conceal our untouchable past. He probably wanted to rewrite our past to comfort himself with something more innocent, something we can finally call childhood. But by doing so, he removed the adhesive bandage off the secret wound and broke the promise that we all had silently agreed on not to lick the wound or rub salt in it but leave it as is. A past is multiple, and we should never pick one. A past is always a mystery, intangible and never reachable. That is exactly why we were able to live after what happened. Doraemon, to us, was a shadow. It was the shadow of the secret wound that we were so close to forgetting, that almost was a blur by now. Presented Doraemon before us, we were instantly drawn to negative theology——what truths are not written in Doraemon?——a question we had never dared to ask, but now desired an answer to very badly.

My eyes are not slanted. I’ve never been even close to being chubby my entire life. My parents bought me my first skirt at 3rd Grade and I was so happy I wore it to school every single day. But, I just so hated Shizuka-chan in Doraemon. She and I were so alike. Takeshi-san depicted me with near perfect accuracy. There are more to her, of course, outside the panels on the pages and the celluloids. But what you have all seen in the manga and anime is pretty much true. That’s why I cannot possibly forgive Takeshi-san. And that’s why I am speaking up now, after all these years. Not everything I said earlier today was a lie. Kanae-chan was real. Doraemon was an old man. I killed him.

Summer was over and school started, and I was wearing my very first skirt to school every day. The old man spoke to me on the street one day. He lived in Nobita-san’s house, but it was unclear, and still is unknown to date, what kind of relations he had with the family. But I assumed he was Nobita-san’s grandfather and followed him to the family’s house and into his room——or should I say, his closet. After six months of our “play” in the closet day after day after school, he suddenly stopped showing up on my way home from school. I found it strange and snuck into Nobita-san’s house from the back door to find out what was going on. Upstairs, Kanae-chan and the old man, was what was going on, in the same closet where he and I had been going on. I took a few steps back in shock, turned around quickly, ran downstairs and out the back door and more. That was it. The old man and I never spoke again.

That may sound like I was angry at the old man because I was jealous, or because I wanted to have him to myself but couldn’t. That is not true. For one, it astounded me that my existence, or more precisely my body parts, my crotch and breasts, were interchangeable with that of Kanae-chan’s. Another revelation was that, precisely because her body and mine were interchangeable, I suddenly experienced a feeling of my body becoming one with hers, existing in the same coordinates of the universe, a feeling of identification, where my pleasure was hers and hers mine. That totally changed the way I saw her. If my body and hers were identical, I thought, my body was hers, and hers mine.

So, when the old man was touching her body as he pleased, and when Takeshi-san was hurting her body in the Pipe, I was being violated, too. My body. My breasts. My sex organs. My womb. Those were the things I had to protect. Now I realize how arrogant I was. Kanae-chan’s body is hers and hers only. But I could not stop seeing it as one that I should protect. That was all I could think of. That was my desire. It’s the kind of desire that Doraemon never tells. It was my secret desire. It is far different from the wishes and hopes that Shizuka-chan should and could have had. Didn’t it, however, once explode, when I kept hitting Takeshi-san? Didn’t everyone, however, see that?

Like I said earlier, it was either Kanae-chan or me who would have been erased anyway. Why was it Kanae-chan, then? Well, that’s perhaps not because she was sexually assaulted by the old man or experienced unwanted pregnancy and had to terminate it. It was because she represented my desire. What was erased is not just her, but my desire. A woman nowadays is not erased from a story just because she is desired, abused, impregnated, forced to terminate pregnancy, or in other words, deprived of control over her own body. Easily erased is a woman who desires, a woman who abuses, a woman who impregnates, and a woman who forces another to abort. Doraemonerased my desire, my violence, and my possession of Kanae-chan’s body, by erasing Kanae-chan altogether.

(This post was first published on my Medium site.)

I’ve been writing on Medium now.

I’ve published so far:

The Monologue of Shizuka Minamoto – An unofficial feminist sequel to Doraemon: Part 1

LGBTQ politics in Japan, gay marriage, and sex education

Queer Theory as a Critique of Society: the Closet and Gay Marriage – A guest lecture at Aoyama Gakuin University

UPDATE: I was going to completely switch to Medium but decided I should crosspost instead.