Thursday 2 November 2023

Coming out, coming home, coming with: Models of queer sexuality and the role of culture

In 2015, the video "Coming Home" appeared on Chinese social media, released by an organisation that advocates for "a U.S.-style of coming out among Chinese LGBTI". The video targeted parents of queer children and received more than 250 million views before the government made the website remove the "gay-friendly content"

Coming Home narrates the story of a middle-class gay man, Fangchao, who comes out to his parents on the phone. Fangchao’s father scolds him when he comes out: “Since you have already come/gone out, don’t come home again!”(PFLAG China, 2015). With this pithy statement, the scriptwriter makes conspicuous the opposing relational models of coming out versus coming home for Chinese queer subjects. There is a play on words (chuqu 出去) in the dialogue to mean both coming out (as a queer subject) and going out (as in leaving the family). This video weaves together simultaneous movements away from and toward the family: coming out takes on the meaning of leaving the family in order to gain sexual freedom; coming home (huijia 回家), on the other hand,brings to mind the idea of coming back to the family, reining in and covering queer desires in order to stay close to the family. In this rendering, coming out is antithetical to coming home: if you come out, then do not think about coming home again.
Fangchao's coming out turns him into an outcast. Two years later, so the flash-forward in the video, his mother calls him telling him to visit the family during the Chinese New Year: "No matter who you are, you are still our son." At the end, family love overrules and the parents accept their gay son. The video ends with mothers speaking out and encouraging viewers to come out to their families.
The messages of this video are clear: dear parents of Chinese queers, remember how much you love your children and be sure to invite them to come (back) home; dear Chinese queers, come out and then wait for your parents (probably your mother) to invite you to come home.
Coming out and coming home can be seen as models of queer sexuality, each offering norms, aspirations, prescriptions. Huang and Brouwer (2018) see coming home as an indigenous model and coming out as an exogenous one. and elaborate a third model - coming with. The authors conducted interviews with 13 Chinese queer subjects to ...
investigate the distinctness of these models, their points of dissonance and consonance,and the ways in which queer subjects take them up (partially or fully, temporarily or enduringly), revise them, or reject them. Broadly, we express a critical/cultural orientationas we “examine multiple axes of power and oppression …and consider culture to be a starting point for theory and analysis”(Ono, 2009, p. 77). More specifically, we hope to contribute to the projects of culturalizing queer theory and queering intercultural communication. Aligned with these projects, we stay alert to “the ways in which western queer formations,”like the coming-out model, “travel, by choice and by coercion, imposing western values and ideals on non-western cultures within and outside of westerncountries”(Chávez, 2013, p. 87). As we investigate if, why, and how Chinese queer subjects come out to themselves, friends, peers, and/or family members (cf., Bie & Tang, 2016) or choose tactics more aligned with coming home, we feature the particularities of everyday life as Chinese queer subjects express them, and we aspire to counter “the cultural reductionism”(Ban, Sastry, & Dutta, 2013, p. 283) that is persistent in orientalist ways of understanding China.
The questions asked are highly interesting since culture might be a neglected aspect in transnational queer discourse. Coming-out rates are, in fact, relatively low in China (as of 2016, 3% of gay and bisexual men, 6% of lesbian and bisexual women). Not the public but family, particularly parents, is what keeps them most from coming out, 75% of gay and bisexual men and 81% of lesbian and bisexueal women reported "that their primary source of distress" is the family. Only 19% of gay/bisexual men and 25% of lesbian/bisexual women said that they had come out to "some family members".
Transnational LGBTI movements privilege a queer politics that is oppositional and confrontational, with an emphasis on the visibility of sexual identity. Critical sexualities scholars have argued that the predominant narrative of “coming out”is built on a particular kind of queer experience and geography, which is usually from the standpoint of white,middle-class, urban U.S. citizenship (e.g., Chávez, 2013). Due to the transnational circulation of Euro-American queer discourses, identitarian and visibility frames of queerness (Puar, 2007), which endorse a confrontational politics of coming out, have become an increasingly prominent discourse in Chinese LGBTI movements. The movement organization PFLAG China, for example, not only sponsored the video we featured in the introduction, but also sponsored a coming-out story competition for lesbians, gay men, and allies (Bie & Tang, 2016). Transnational queer discourse’s emphasis on a homosexual identity and the politics of visibility has become a new discursive resource that Chinese queer subjects can draw on in order to fight for their sexual freedom. It risks becoming a new hegemony that Chinese queer subjects might be expected to embrace to become intelligible members in a transnational LGBTI imaginary—a form of peer pressure, to use the words of our interviewee Ada, that Chinese queer subjects face. Indeed, an analysis of our data shows that coming out is an important narrative in being queer in contemporary China.
Also of interest...
Some of the interview participants take up the imperatives and practices of coming outas offered by Western discourses. However, several take up coming out in partial and revised ways or reject it altogether as unimaginable, unfeasible, or unsustainable. Partial and revised uptake is mediated by several factors, including the cultural principles of pulu (铺路) and suzhi (素质). Repeatedly during the interviews, the two popular discourses of suzhi (“quality”) and pulu (“path-paving”) emerged as the parameters or preconditions of coming out. The discourse of suzhi/quality is essentially a class issue related to the emergence of a “rainbow economy.”Increasingly, Chinese queer subjects are interpellated into the consumerist position of being “out and proud.”But not all queer subjects answer the hail of interpellation as good consumers. Economic difference predicts whether one is a good consumer, and thus a proper queer or not. Those who do not or cannot afford to be good consumers are sometimes condemned as lacking “culture,”or described as “low quality”(di suzhi), and thus not qualified to be a “good homosexual”(see Rofel,2007, pp. 103–106).
A 19-year-old mentioned class differences in connection with coming out:
I remember when the CEO [chief executive officer] of Apple came out, everybody was talkingabout it. I remember how people responded to it: this is something of the rich. I think whenyou are financially well off, people think that [being gay] is OK. If you are not, then play notricks—get married and have children!
In line with this view, many interviewers reported to prepare themselves and their parents to better respond to the coming out by working on financial success, by "paving their way". Financial success is seen as a precondition for coming out.
The pulu/path-paving discourse suggests a “two-step model to coming out”(Kam,2012, p. 99)—first, to stand up as a “successful”member of society, leaving the issue of sexuality unaddressed, and then to come out as an “outstanding”(youxiu) daughter/son but “less desirable”queer subject. Such a “two-step model”relies on the recognition of,rather than challenges the criteria of, heteronormative society. “The recognition of queers,”Ahmed (2010, p. 106) points out, “can be narrated as the hope or promise of becoming acceptable, where in being acceptable you must become acceptable to a world that has already decided what is acceptable.”The discourse of pulu/path-paving promisesa gift from the “tolerant” heteronormative family, “which conceals queer labor and struggle”(p. 106). Complicity with heteronormativity, in turn, produces a kind of homo-normativity for Chinese queers.
Coming home, on the other hand, focuses on the desire or obligation to remain close to the family. Familial piety is an ethic, a priority. In China, it is regarded as the mot common approach historically and today. Hence, key assumptions of transnational queer movements are questioned since, in many Western societies, they are built on the notion of individualism, confrontational politics that might work there but are not automatically the best way to achieve liberation in community-oriented societies stressing the importance of social harmony. In line with this, the Chinese parents' main concern would be less about their children's identification as lesbian or gay but their marginalisaiton within the family "making the child a nonbeing in Chinese culture".
In conventional Chinese culture, one’s sexual normativity is less defined by one’s sexual preference than by one’s willingness and ability to fulfill one’s filial duties—in particular,the duty to reproduce (Chou, 2000, pp. 24–25). In other words, one’s sexual deviance is not determined primarily by the sex of one’s sexual partner(s) but by the (lack of) adherence to the ascribed filial duty of bearing children. According to the Confucian logic inChinese society, having same-sex desires does not absolve one from the responsibility of engaging in heterosexual activities that ensure the continuation of the family’s bloodline.
The coming-with model stresses the point that parents are not an option to choose but always an integral part of one's life. This approach combines "the preservation of space for one's queer sexuality with tactics that stay with the family either by cultivating parental harmony or actively interrogating heteronormative family structures".
the contours of an alternative model began to emerge as it became clear in the interviews that queer subjects are necessarily “closeted” under the familial discourse, as suggested by the polarizing construction between the Chinese family and sexual freedom, and that Chinese queer subjects do not agree with every connotation of the family institution. The interviewees described numerous ways that queer desires are still possible to circulate within the family institution by living with rather than turning away from the family institution.
The authors come to the conclusion that Chinese queer subjects prefer the coming-with approach that makes it possible to integrate both familial belonging and sexual identification. Coming out, on the other hand, is an approach that is associated with turning away from the family. And coming home would again mean leaving the heteronormative family uncontested (Huang & Brouwer, 2018).

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- Huang, S. & Brouwer, D. (2018). Coming out, coming home, coming with: Models of queer sexuality in contemporary China. Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, 11(2), 1-20, link
- photograph by Eve Arnold (China 1979) via


  1. Saved for later. 📖🔎

    1. Appreciated, Karen! This is one of the most interesting studies I've come across. So good when ethnocentrism is considered.