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.)

Social Justice and Trigger Warning

I have always struggled with handling trigger warning in my own writings and presentations when they have a description of abuse and violence.

Usually, I write my stuff, and then go back to read it to see if any part of it requires trigger warning, although whether something requires it or not cannot be objectively determined.

But as soon as I start trying to come up with a warning, I get lost. I suddenly realize I don’t know how to warn people, and that I don’t even know why I want to give a trigger warning.

Don’t get me wrong. I take trigger warning seriously. I take abuse and violence, and psychological trauma that arises from them, very seriously. I myself am a survivor of sexual violence and have appreciated every single trigger warning that I have encountered.

But I don’t know what exactly I am trying to do by providing trigger warning.

I saw this post on Feministing the other day, looking for some answer to my question, but to no avail. Some say “everything is a trigger for someone” (I value trigger warning for gods sake!). Quite a few people there say they use trigger warning “to be polite” (what’s the purpose of being polite? to feel better about yourself?) This Melissa person even says (quoted), “because we don’t want to be the asshole who triggered a survivor of sexual assault because of carelessness or laziness or ignorance” (so that’s it? you’re not an asshole, and you’re happy?)

I wanted answers and I found none. I could’ve done google search but I was already tired by the time I finished reading the comments like the ones above.

True, I don’t want my readers to experience panics or flashbacks as they read my writing. I cannot force them to read. I should not. But the whole purpose of writing something and publishing it online is for people out there to read it. Whether it’s my own opinion, a piece of information I want to share, or someone else’s idea that caught my attention, I want people to read it, hoping that some of them might actually think it’s useful or insightful.

And by providing trigger warning, I lose a certain audience. I discourage certain people from reading my writing. Part of this is my ego. I want to be seen, read, and heard. But also, if my writing includes information that I think is very important and must be shared, why do I give trigger warning and prevent the very people who most likely need that information from acquiring it? Or, if I am writing about my experience because I hope people with similar experiences can relate and will leave a comment, those people are exactly who I want to reach, and exactly who need trigger warnings.

In the most recent conference presentation I gave, I talked about child pornography. I gave a trigger warning at the beginning, saying, “My presentation includes some description of sexual violence, so if you feel uncomfortable hearing the talk, please feel free to leave the room whenever you need to.” Looking back, I really, really regret using those words.

I mean, this trigger warning was a very unwelcoming, unfriendly, and indifferent one now that I think about it. “Feel free to leave”? I have no right to decide for the audience to stay or leave in the first place. And——this probably is the most important point I’m trying to make here——even if one feels uncomfortable hearing the talk, they might stay, despite the discomfort. And I don’t have a say in their decision to stay or not to stay.

Besides, why did I say, “feel free to leave,” when I was there to be heard, and hopefully understood? It sounded as if I couldn’t have cared less about who and how many people would listen. I sounded very indifferent. That, now I think, was disrespectful to the audience.

But then, should I have not given a trigger warning but just jumped on to my presentation about child pornography? Definitely not. But what could I have done differently?

One thing that just came to mind is that, maybe it’s better to write without depictions of abuse and violence in the first place, than write them and drive certain people away by giving trigger warning. This should not be exercised to the extent that the content lacks enough information for the audience/reader to understand it. But certainly, in many cases, we can apply this strategy to write less details when they aren’t necessary, to write in a way that does not require graphic description of abuse and violence.

But there will always be situations where trigger warning is appropriate. I don’t know how best to warn your readers/audiences, but maybe there is no one-size-fits-all solution. I really could use other people’s input on this.

Child Pornography Law in Japan

(This is a repost of an old blog.)

Child pornography is one of the most controversial topics to blog about, especially when a blogger is openly “queer” like me. The long-standing stigma and (wrong) stereotype of homosexuality is that homosexuals are pedophiles. And today, I assume that anyone intellectual enough or marginalized enough can tell the difference between the two. But what I am concerned with right now isn’t the problem of stereotyping homosexuals as pedophilic. I am concerned with how anti-regulation sentiments against restrictive laws regarding child pornography could be both queer (in terms of protecting the right to privacy of queer people including pedophiles who may or may not act on their desire (of course, child molesters and abusers do and should receive legal penalty for their action)) and hetero-male centrism (in terms of only defending pedophilic male heterosexuals‘ right to assume spectatorship in the realm of sexual display). And I’m appalled at how hard it would be if I tried to make and keep it queer since mainstream anti-restrictionism usually goes with the flow while the “flow” is always invariably in favor of heterosexual males.

I must admit that I am against the laws that make it punishable to possess child pornography. There are so many things in what anti-child pornography activists say that I agree with; for example, I agree that as a society we need to protect children from harm, that child abuse and molestation are cruel crimes that occur at every site of creating live-action child pornography, and that producing, distributing, and earning money by selling child pornography should not be done and should be prevented by all means. Period. Production of child pornography is always accompanied by some kind of sexual activity between the child and the crew. Getting money out of such products is totally unethical and unacceptable, just like it is to sell a video specifically intended to entertain viewers in which real murder takes place. Also, distribution of child pornography without earning money from it is problematic because it violates children’s privacy and their right not to be publicly exposed without consent, the violation of which puts them in jeopardy in psychological terms and their social life ahead. But watching child pornography for excitement does not push such injustices any further. Yes, the gaze that they direct at children in pornography might be very twisted and disturbing to some people, but that does not and should not constitute a legal ground for punishing consumers of child pornography. Punishing them does not reduce the number of actual sexual abuse/molestation cases because for the most part, a child molester is the victim’s relative such as a father, uncle, and cousin or acquaintance such as a neighbor, sport team coach, and teacher–and they are usually the same people who make child pornography by videotaping their abusive activities.

So if child pornography is growing, spreading, circulating and ever increasingly easy to obtain and possess, especially because of the Internet, then what we should do is to enforce the laws prohibiting sexual abuse/molestation and distribution of child pornography (profit or nonprofit) in stricter ways, not to bust consumers totally uninvolved in the process of production or distribution of whatever pornographic product he or she may have and enjoy (if they are involved in production and/or distribution, then they must face penalty according to the laws prohibiting those actions, putting aside the fact that they possess child pornography). Gaze cannot be controlled by the state. History alarmingly tells us that when it comes to “fixing” or deflecting deviant sexualities, no attempt has been successful. So in order to protect children from harm, I would suggest the followings: (1) to make harsher the laws against production and distribution of child pornography, as well as, of course, child abuse/molestation where pornography is not produced, (2) to supply some kind of alternative–and I’m thinking about animation or 3DCG pornography–to people who have relied on child pornography for sexual satisfaction and would not be able to access it because of decrease in number of child pornography available in store or on the Internet because of the laws with (now) harsher punishment, and (3) to better educate children, parents, teachers and citizens on child abuse/molestation: for example, teaching protection tactics for children and offering prohibitive workshops for parents to help them understand that their child’s body belongs to no one but the child him/herself and that even if the child seems to enjoy it while having sexual interactions with them, it might leave deep scars in their mind for decades that sometimes cause flashbacks and emotional confusion.

Those things are what we need to do in order to really protect children from harm. In other words, as a society, they are the only ways that public administration can interfere in the matter of sexuality. Criminalizing possession of child pornography, or in other words, criminalizing possession of pedophilic gaze, should not be the answer. Such restriction on having certain desire would be based on the categories of sexuality, which has its history (remember the sodomy laws and spousal exemption in rape laws which honored and advantaged male sexuality within marriage). Instead, we need to focus on reducing real harm like child abuse, molestation and violation of children’s privacy.

(We, however, must not forget that what can be done legally is not all we can. Critique can play a significant role in opening up the ways that we critically interpret, evaluate, and judge child pornography in non-restrictive ways. It can produce many counter-arguments against the ways children are portrayed and represented in child pornography without appealing to state power that might enact censorship or criminalize possession of child pornography, which would give them monopoly over cultural representation of children’s sexuality.)

The above is the argument that I made in my other blog in response to the Japanese parliament’s reformative proposition of child pornography laws. The World Congress III Against Sexual Exploitation of Children and Adolescents (November 24, 2008) reached an international agreement that all participating countries would undertake to criminalize the possession of child pornography including cartoons (animation, comics, 3DCG, etc.). The parliament decided not to include bans on possession of animation/comic/3DCG child pornography in the bill but apparently they wanted to. Fortunately, though so for only a little while I guess, the parliament is going to be disbanded pretty soon and all the bills currently up will be turned down. But I’m sure the bill will come back on the table sometime soon if not immediately. So I made a Twitter account (LINK–requires Japanese language compatibility) specifically designed to deliver related news, articles, academic papers and blog entries that I think will bring some insight for people who find the bill dangerous.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, as I will explain later), there are so many people on the Internet that explicitly protest against the bill. Online forums are flooded with anti-reform comments including ones celebrating the disbandment of the parliament. This seems like a phenomenon that Cass Sanstein calls “cyber cascade”, creating echo chambers and accompanied by another phenomenon called group polarization. That means, for example, people first respond to something (like a news article) and search on the Internet using terms such as “problem child pornography reform” and “importance child pornography reform,” but putting words like “problem” and “importance” in the search box already reflects their initial response to the news, and websites that show up are the kind of websites that they wan
t
to read, allowing them indulgence and interactions with other people who also hold the same or similar views with them, which makes it more likely for them to agree with each other and believe that their opinion is flawless. And that sometime leads to extremism.

But there’s nothing one can do to prevent or stop a cyber cascade once it’s started. But several attempts have been made to slow down cyber cascades, among which the most relevant would be this. When anti-feminist backlash gained so much popularity and some influence on real politics between 2002 and 2005, a famous blogger and friend of mine, Chiki Ogiue, created a comprehensive web page (Japanese) where he provided correct information about feminism and what was called gender-free movement, the two of them being two different things while overlapping each other in some aspects. And the web page became good resource for Internet users to bring up in online forums and use for better understanding of what was going on. Chiki thinks that the decay of the online backlash in 2005 had nothing to do with the web page, but it definitely played a role.

But the question is, why is it that cyber cascades in Japan have never happened in favor of feminism or queer activism? Putting aside the problem of cyber cascades being misinformed and narrow-minded, how come we have never had a feminist or queer cyber cascade? It’s easy to imagine that such a thing would be similarly misinformed and narrow-minded, but let’s just say it’s okay for a moment and ask, why always conservative? Because it’s easier for the average person to be conservative? Because conservatism can be spoken about in everyday language and thus easy to jump onto? Maybe because many feminists and queer activists are not brave enough to take a definite stand but willing to take time to take into account more things than they can handle within the length of their life? Well, I don’t have any answer. In fact, it could be very dangerous in many ways when a cyber cascade of that kind (feminist/queer) occurs; for example, one particular feminist idea might be picked and celebrated in the cascade, whose opposing idea, also feminist, is completely discarded and disrespected by those flowing in the current of cascade. Or, perhaps more probable is that some feminist idea gets picked and all the queer ideas (even ones shared by many feminists) are ignored, or vice versa. So it might be a good thing that there’s no feminist or queer cascade.

But the Twitter account that I opened is my attempt to somehow create a queer cascade, or more precisely, make the anti-reform cascade currently going on into a queer one–or, if that’s just too optimistic, just put a little bit of queer twist into the cascade. And I am doing this because (1) now is one of those rare times that there is a huge flow of ideas that some (but not all, I know) feminists and queer activists can actually agree with and there are so many people who support the ideas, and because (2) without queer intervention, the anti-reform cascade would most likely end up being yet another heterosexist, male-centric defense against egalitarianism that attempts to protect marginalized people (women, children, foreigners, disabled people etc.) from erotic male gaze that has historically been by all means defended and even promoted by various cultural artwork, especially pornography. So what I want to do is to make people in the cascade realize that what they are doing is not, and should not be, only to protect male heterosexuals’ right to have pedophilic fantasies, but also part of a larger movement of queer and feminist nature and thus supported by queer and feminist theories, whether they like it or not.

I myself personally couldn’t care less about male heterosexual fantasies about young girls. I wouldn’t raise my voice and say I’m against the reform bill if that were the only thing we are going to defend. But I’ve gotten my ass up, thinking that this attempt, if successful, would create a society a little bit more inclusive of our queerness. In other words, what I am trying to do is to use the cascade for the sake of queer mobilization.

I don’t know if that’s gonna work. I don’t know if other queer activists and feminists will agree with the idea. So, yeah, wish me luck.