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.)

The Privilege To Say ‘I Don’t’

As I was going through the daily routine of browsing Facebook & Twitter, I found a NYT article, Gay Couples, Choosing to Say ‘I Don’t’, the title of which caught my eye, as I oppose the institution of marriage, and the like-minded people who shared the link in FB/TW seemed content with anti-marriage opinions circulating at last in the mainstream media. Excited, I read on, only to be disappointed, but in a way that was quite unexpected, by the elitist tone of the article.

Whose reality?

The article captures a variety of anti-marriage voices from lesbian, gay, and transgender individuals, most of which I agree with. Yes, the arguments made there are quite convincing and reality-based. But I wonder, whose reality are they based on, really?

The voices quoted in the article are coming from these people: restaurant owners (Brian Blatz and Dan Davis), an artist in New York (Sean Fader), a couple living in Brooklyn (Stephanie Schroeder and Lisa Haas), current and former university professors (Jack Halberstam & his partner, Catharine Stimpson, John D’Emilio, and Mary Bernstein), a retiree (Jim Oleson), a filmmaker (John Waters), a singer-songwriter (Erin McKeown), an East Villager (John Carroll), a New York Medical College student (Eric Routen), and two persons whose backgrounds aren’t disclosed to the reader.

Except the couple in Brooklyn and possibly the artists, the persons/couples quoted/mentioned in the article are mostly on the affluent side of the entire queer population. This socioeconomic bias is especially appalling when you think about the massive activist work that has been done by organizations like Queers for Economic Justice who have maintained close connections to the working-class and homeless people.

I don’t need it, but you may need it

What was most striking about the article for me is, I think, the lack of empathy, or some sort of attentiveness, expressed by the interviewees or the editor for those who do need to use the institution of marriage.

John D’Emilio “sees no need” to marry. Brian Blatz and Dan Davis “[see] little point in marrying.” Jack Halberstam doesn’t “feel the pressure to marry.” Mary Bernstein and Nancy Naples “see little tangible benefit in marrying.”

As someone who has witnessed marriages and divorces in the family, neighborhoods, and friend circles, I know for sure that people get married for various reasons and that there is so much risk-management going on in their minds. And for many people, there does exist a little need, benefit, or point in marrying, and it is a little more complicated than just “the need for external validation” that Mary Bernstein says people wishing to marry have.

The institution of marriage, in complicity with other social institutions such as border control, healthcare systems, social security, etc., is made so that it creates such need, benefit, and point in marrying. Marriage is a package product of the government-owned minority-targeted business in which the flaws and failures in other governmental systems are covered up and kept intact, preventing radical transformations in them and thus saving money.

In the article, Stephanie Schroeder says, “I don’t want to deny anybody the right to marriage,” but marriage is not, and has never been, a personal matter of choice. As opposed to Catharine Stimpson’s idea that “[h]aving the choice doesn’t meant [sic] you have to do it,” having the choice really makes you and almost everybody around you feel that you have to do it.

So basically, the more marginalized you are by the multitude of social institutions, the more point you see in marrying. In the institution of marriage, the most privileged are not married people or heterosexual people, but those who do not see much of either gain or loss from marrying or divorcing, and thus can choose or choose not to marry and divorce when they want to.

The interviewees having or seeing no need, benefit, point, or pressure to marry, therefore, is itself a privilege, the privilege to say “I don’t.” And what’s puzzling is that, these people seem like the kind of people who care about equality, liberation, and stuff like that, and yet they do not sound ashamed or humble at all about this privilege of theirs.

John Waters is quoted to say, “I always thought the privilege of being gay is that we don’t have to get married,” which sort of resonates with what I think about marriage to some degree. But instead of treasuring or protecting that privilege of not having to get married, we must extend that insight to an actual distribution of the privilege to those who do not have it.

Again, marriage is not an issue of personal choice. We must abolish marriage, or at least the form of marriage as we know it today, and by that I mean, abolish the entire social system that creates the need, benefit, and point so that marriage will have no meaning at all.

Queer Anti-Marriage Movement vs. LGBT Alternative Marriages

Another thing I noticed is that, not only are the voices in the article overlooking other realities, the realities of people who do or can marry, the overall tone of the article gave me the impression that the history of feminism is being simplified, and that the roles of women, feminist and married or divorced, in it are simply erased.

Mary Bernstein is quoted in the article to say

For people in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, there was a feeling that L.GB.T. [sic] people can do better than marriage, that relationships can be more egalitarian” when built around untraditional families

Is our queer anti-marriage movement based on the idea that non-LGBT people’s opposite-sex marriages are traditional and thus less egalitarian than that of LGBTs?

So many women, married or single, have fought for women’s rights, for both married and single women. We also know that many of the feminist efforts, including anti-marriage ones, that have existed have been made or joined by a huge number of married women.

If relationships built around untraditional families are going to be more egalitarian, and that is considered better than marriage, what does that make married couples? Are they fools who once felt “the need for external validation”? Were they so weak that they gave in to the social pressure? Or, are they just unlucky to have that bit of need, benefit, or point because they are marginalized in this society the way they are, unlike the people interviewed in the article?

No. Our movement must have at its core, along with our queer voices, the voices of heterosexual and bisexual individuals whose life has been, is, or can be greatly affected by the fact that they can choose to marry. And that means, we are looking to make a large-scale social transformation, the scope of which must include immigration, prison, poverty, sexism, disability, health, aging, taxes, labor, and many other things that affect our lives every day. And that is not just for queer people. Not just for single people. Not just for legal citizens. And not just for people waiting to say, “I don’t.”

Gay Marriage: Why I Don’t Like It——or Why Anyone Who Doesn’t Support It Must Fight Against the Notion of Citizenship

There is no doubt you can get all sorts of benefits and rights through marriage. I myself will not stubbornly stick to my anti-marriage belief if I really need to marry someone for, say, the purpose of surviving. I will even let myself take up a job in the marketing industry who utilizes gayness as a commodity, if there is no alternative. To me, survival always comes first and always before my political beliefs. However, in fact for precisely that reason (that I will put priority on my life), I should not act as if there were no problems in the marriage system or the LGBT marketing. When I take part in those things, I should not feel I have the right to. I should be ashamed.

However, I can not necessarily picture myself getting married and all of a sudden my life getting better. To some people, marriage is a gateway to poverty. Not everyone has a stable job. You probably don’t. Maybe your partner, too. Marriage as a safety net does not fulfill such function anymore, although most people believe that marriage is the solution to lots of issues like lack of access to social security and non-citizens’ immigration-related burdens. This is exactly why I do not attack pro-gay marriage folks just because I don’t support what they believe. But personally, I believe that anyone, married or unmarried, should be able to lead a safe, stable life.

Yes, there are people who want to get married but cannot because it would be illegal. That’s no good. But more importantly (at least to me), there are people, including those who cannot get married, who are single and live unsafe, unstable lives. Moreover, there are people who are married and live unsafe, unstable lives.

I agree that the ban on gay marriage is discriminatory. But I have things that I am more concerned about which I believe to be more pressing than gay marriage. Everyone’s got her or his own priority so I am not trying to convert anyone here, but I do not think I can fight the fight for a better legal system for partnership together with those whose first and foremost goal is to legalize gay marriage.

I am not saying that securing a stable life is such an important thing that wanting to marry is always less significant and must wait. If you want to get married and you can’t because of the same-sex status of you and your partner, that’s downright discrimination. But I choose not to spend my energy or any resources that I have on taking part in the gay marriage agenda.

This probably is due to my own upbringing and my relationships to class issues. Among all my friends, relatives, and other people I personally know, foreigners, single mothers, and workers in the sex industry whose lives are far from being secure totally outnumber those who lead a stable life and whose only concern is that they cannot get married.

Newer friends of mine, i.e. my friends in California, Tokyo, and Chicago, probably have no idea what my life back in Northern Kanto (Japan) was like, because if you look at me right now, my life totally looks middle-class (which, in fact, by the way, is not true——if it had not been for the full-tuition scholarship, I would be working multiple jobs in a local town in Japan). But that does not mean that my family, neighbors, friends, and those in my social network back in Northern Kanto are also middle-class or have middle-class cultures.

I recognize the danger in prioritizing the issues that confront the people who are immediately around me, since it makes it really easy for me to overlook the pains and inconveniences experienced by people whose lives I am not familiar with. But, while I try to avoid that, I also believe that if I fail to care about people surrounding me, I will never be able to sincerely care about anyone else, either.

Therefore, to me, social security comes before marriage. Marriage should not be a solution to social security issues.

Now, that automatically holds me responsible to fight against the notion of ‘citizenship’. Why? Because at the moment, marriage is the most accessible means of obtaining a citizenship or permanent residency in most of the developed countries, to which, of course, same-sex couples do not have access. By prioritizing social security over gay marriage, I am already guilty of contributing to the postponement of the wider opening of opportunities for homosexual non-citizens to legally establish residency. If my scope of ‘better social security’ falls within the confines of the notion of ‘citizenship’, then my decision not to rigorously support gay marriage becomes utterly unjust.

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.