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.)

If You’re Not To Marry, Everyone Else Makes Sure You Want To Die

For those in the progressive circles who’ve always seen the radical queer left and their anti-(gay)marriage politics as mere hindrance, or even a pain in the ass, the news of gay marriage legislations (possibly) lowering LGB suicide rates among the youth probably comes as a belated surprise Valentine’s Day gift. Now that gay marriage has proven to deliver real benefits to not just upper- and middle-class working-age gay elites but also young lesbian, gay, and bisexual folks in general, we can finally say that gay marriage was the right cause, that it was just as good a priority as it had been proclaimed and advertised, right? No?

Well, I’m not gonna lie. I am very happy that more queer youth are finding life less painful, that they can now imagine a better future for themselves, so much so that the thought of killing themselves doesn’t occupy as large a portion in their mind everyday as it did before. What a wonderful outcome. There’s no doubt about that.

It hurt me, however, to see this news and have to digest the obvious fact that nothing really has changed. Yes, gay marriage and its campaigns have probably lowered queer suicide rates. Yes, laws can be powerful like that. But isn’t it also true that we still live in a society where being unlikely/unable to marry equals being second-class citizen? What the lowered suicide rates really demonstrate is that our culture is such that if you are not to marry, everyone else makes sure you want to die. And that culture lives on.

Same-sex partners may have now joined the likely-to-marry clique, where most heterosexual folks have celebrated, affirmed, and justified each other and never questioned their values. Welcome to the club. You’ll stick around, because you can now legally marry but you’re no legally blonde.

Elle, protagonist, saying "Oh, OK. I'll just leave, then" while smiling awkwardly, after being rejected by her classmates at a study group session.
A scene from Legally Blonde (movie). Captured from YouTube

Queer By Choice and Ex-gay

I have always been sick of the born-this-way rhetoric that mainstream gay activism has so proudly spread all over the U.S. I don’t have anything against those who were born gay or born whatever, but feeling that one was born gay and saying so are two different things.

I understand that the born-this-way rhetoric has served many of the causes for social justice for most gay and lesbian people (and to a lesser degree, transgender people, too) especially during the AIDS panic where the gay-by-choice rhetoric was used against homosexuals as an excuse for the government’s taking no action about the epidemic.

But it also has created another dividing line between queers, between those with coherent identities and those who experience no such thing. And I fall into the latter category. I have been 100% straight. I have been 100% gay. I have been somewhat bi. I have been definitely bi. I have been “probably bi.” I have been somewhat genderqueer. I have been comfortable and uncomfortable around my assigned gender. I have felt lesbian. And I don’t know what I will be in a 3-year, 5-year, 10-years time.

Whenever someone says homosexuality is something that you’re born with, I feel left out. Me feeling left out is probably nothing important to mainstream gay activists, but I can see that we are going to have a problem if we stick to the born-gay rhetoric just because it comes handy at this moment in this culture. My take on nature vs. nurture is that asking the nature-or-nurture question is itself homophobic most of the time. If it’s nature, so what? If it’s nurture, so what? I mean, anti-gay folks have used both of those rhetorics to attack gays!

And I’m telling you, and all other by-choice queers are telling you, that not every gay is born gay. Just fucking accept that and stop saying “we are born gay” as if it were a universal truth.

I don’t buy the by-choice idea, either, to tell the truth. I don’t think our sexuality is that easy to control. By intentionally, consciously trying to change one’s sexuality, she or he may be able to eventually change it some day, but such effort is just one factor that influences his or her sexuality among other things like upbringing, media representations and languages that she or he has been exposed to, etc. etc. I’m not queer by nature or by choice. I just like what I like and I don’t care if that’s based on my biological disposition or environmental influence, and I won’t let anyone to attack me for loving what I love.

I said I’m not queer by nature or by choice, but I was gay by choice during high school. I (stupid me) thought identifying as gay would open a door for me to mainstream (read: white) New Zealander culture. But it turned out that being gay didn’t cancel out my racial difference, but only added crap to my life. So I stopped identifying as gay. So I could probably be classified as ex-gay, even. But I’m definitely queer in its most vague sense. And I didn’t choose to be queer, nor my queerness is something I was born with.

So my understanding of sexuality and gender identity is pretty much in favor of “right now, right here,” which means what one describes herself or himself as, who they feel like they are at the moment. And this has also led me to be shocked by comments made by pro-gay people to attack ex-gay movement.

A lot of anti-ex-gay people say there’s no such thing as ex-gay, and that if someone is gay he’ll always be so (and I’m using the male pronoun here because lesbians are rarely talked about in this kind of context). So, in their view, ex-gays either are liars (gone back in to the closet) or were straight all along since the day they were born. And I DON’T FUCKING CARE!

The reason why ex-gay movement sucks is not because they’re in the closet or they are straight or they identify as ex-gay, but because their politics sucks, their movement is harmful, and their paternalistic view on sexual diversity is annoying. So just stop saying ex-gays are liars, stop denying what they now identify as, and just focus on criticizing their politics, not their identities!

Don’t you remember the time when homosexuals were called liars just because they didn’t come out to everyone they met? Don’t you realize that calling someone’s identity fake is such a hurtful thing to do with which many transgender people have unfortunately been so familiar? I don’t know – some ex-gays might still be gay, or maybe most of them are still gay. They might be liars. But hiding in the closet is not wrong. Most of us have been there, and are still there. What’s wrong about ex-gay movement is what they do by using the ex-gay identity i.e. attacking homosexuals.

By nature or by nurture, exposed or hidden, our (and everyone else’s) identities should not be denied. Scrutinizing identities, whether to find out what’s causing them or to expose the “truth” to the public and humiliate others, is not the direction that I would like queer activism to go. Acceptance is a big word in mainstream LGBT activism today. But I find it hypocritical if we are not accepting of other people’s identities (that may change over time). I really hope that we will soon live in a world where even ex-gays join queer activism and fight for queer rights i.e. a world where people who used to be gay do not get questioned by other queers but can live as our fellow queers who have experienced a “queer” (in the original sense of the word) history of sexual preference changes.

It’s Texas, not America. It’s Scots, not the English. It’s a Black girl, not us Whites. It’s the Arab world, not our civilization.

Beaten and burned, a gay man was found dead in Cumnock, Scotland, possibly for being gay, although the attacker’s motive has yet to be investigated. I have seen some online responses to this incident describing how it was shocking. This reminds me of the now-almost-vanishing stereotype of Scots being brutal, savage monsters.

Earlier this year, a transgender woman was attacked and had seizure, with bystanders just watching her hit and dragged on the floor. It was a very brutal attack and it was painful to watch the video footage. It also made me go, “oh shit,” when I discovered that the suspects were Black female teenagers and that the first person to offer the victim any help was a middle-aged White woman. I wrote a short response here.

“IMMIGRANTS ≠ YOUR HOMOPHOBIC OTHER” – that was my sign at the Pride Parade this year. I am not an immigrant, nor are my parents. I was born in Japan. But I think I share some of the experiences that Asian queers face in the U.S. like, being frequently asked whether my parents know my sexuality/identity. I say yes, and they go on and ask, “are they cool with it?” Another version is this: “it must be so hard to be queer in Japan.” There you go. Bang. Slap in the face. I get hurt. Anyways.

I am constantly appalled at how White, self-identified liberals can ignorantly assume that everyone else is lagging behind them in accepting freedom.

In Germany, as Butler says here, there has been some sort of collaborative effort between White-centric queer organizations and the government to harshen the immigration policy to narrow the path for immigrants to live in the country. The idea behind the campaign is that immigrants are homophobic and transphobic, incapable of accepting the values of the West.

I, too, first-handedly have heard people say that Black people are homophobic, that some people are too poor to think of others, or that I won’t like it in Texas if I move there. They fail to see that I myself come from a small town in Japan, grew up surrounded by poor people, and am racial minority in the U.S. I feel more comfortable around people like that than White “liberals” like them.

Nevertheless, until recently I held the view that the Middle Eastern culture was monolithically homophobic and transphobic. I have come to know the simple fact that the Middle East is just too big to make any generalizing statement about. Laws vary. People vary. Values vary. Knowing virtually nothing about the region, I have decided that I should be the listener, not the speaker, trying to learn, rather than tell, how things are in the Middle East. All I know, and thus all I can say about the Middle East, is that things are more complicated than many people in the Western world like to think, and that the Middle East is diverse. Some people still struggle with grasping that simple fact.

Hate crime is not the only indicator of homophobia and transphobia, but queers get killed everywhere. Not just the guy in Cumnock and the trans woman in Baltimore and gays in the Middle East (“except Israel!” say morons). It’s high time that we acknowledged that fact. Queers are killed just everywhere. Through physical violence. Through suicide-provoking bullying. Through governmental neglect.1

It’s time we stopped outsourcing homophobia and transphobia to Middle Eastern people, to Blacks, to immigrants, to working-class people. “Outsourcing” because all cisgendered, heterosexual individuals ultimately benefit from transphobia and homophobia through the privileges that they produce.

This outsourcing is harmful in many ways. It divides up racial minority communities because it places queers of color in an odd place between White “liberals” and “anti-queer” people of color. It puts working-class queers against their own cultures, families, and friends. It encourages White “liberal” queer activists to play the missionary role in helping the more oppressed out. It discourages people of color from joining queer activism. It allows Whites——or more precisely, those who are politically, socially, and culturally privileged (which consist mostly of Whites anyway)——to feel innocent, despite the fact that they are accomplices when they keep silent about injustice, get “shocked” at injustice, and feel sorry for the oppressed who are oppressed by someone else other than themselves.

If anything bad happens in the Middle East, the privileged say it’s because the Middle East is lagging behind the West. If anything bad happens in the West, they say it’s not their problem but someone else’s, outsourcing to Blacks, immigrants, etc. the dirty work necessary to keep their society heteronormative and cis-centered and thus advantageous to all privileged people like themselves.

We must stop this. We must acknowledge that not only the violent attackers but we ourselves are all responsible for what happens to queers and those otherwise oppressed and harmed.

I am not addressing this to just the highly privileged. I am also addressing this to, say, gay men chuckling about how straight men are misogynous, lesbian women laughing about how gay men identify against drag queens and other effeminate types, leftists criticizing the “social structure” that oppresses queers without reflecting on their own homophobia and transphobia, and queer elites looking down on LGBT activists to whom identity politics is still relevant.


  1. Queers also get killed in other ways. Through taxes. Through unemployment. Through criminalization of sex work. Through sexual violence. Through hate crime based on race. Through insufficient government support for people with disabilities. And on and on.