Burdens of Representation (1995)

1995. In Maurice Berger, Brian Wallis, and Simon Watson (Eds.), Constructing Masculinity, pp. 291-298, New York: Routledge.

Burdens of Representation, Burdens of Responsibility by Richard Fung

In many ways "identity politics" is for the left what "political correctness" is to the right: a shorthand dismissal. As a critique, its usefulness is in its malleability, deployed as it is against a wide range of political and intellectual positions. And, like the charge of "political correctness," it releases the attacker from any sustained engagement with the specifics of what is being repudiated. Whenever I come across the accusation of identity politics, I imagine, perhaps with a little paranoia, that it refers to me. For while I struggle against a view of race and sexuality as given, stable, essential quantities, as the sole determining factors in experience, or as the only fundamental contradictions in society, my political engagement and my work are not only organized around the deconstruction of socially-produced identities; they are simultaneously and explicitly grounded in my particular contradictory experience as gay, Chinese, Trinidadian, Canadian, a video maker, middle-class, and so on. I do not believe I can shed my social location for a transcendent, universal perspective.

Simply put. I believe that some instances of organizing around identity are valid, others not. Sometimes there are practical reasons for exclusions: discussions of the experience of racism shift dramatically, depending on who is in the room; it therefore makes sense to have Asian-only or black-only spaces, even if one's strategy is to build up a larger, non-race-specific organization. In other instances, race segregation is simply a rote response with little justification or reason. Deciding between the two is a matter of engagement with particular circumstances. When "identity politics" is alleged, however, one is left with little more than a righteous sense of disapproval.

In the prospectus prepared by the editors of this book, the authors were asked to imagine the goals of a critical men's movement, and to explore "the role of male political responsibility" at "a time when religious fundamentalism, right-wing extremism, and divisive identity politics are polarizing the nation." I have two basic questions here: first, is there an identity as men that cuts across race, class, and sexuality, and that could be hailed by such a project of a men's movement? Second, does men's identity, whatever that may be, constitute a valid basis of organizing?

At the heart of the editors' statement lies a desire for social and political reconciliation. Nevertheless, my identity gets in the way of my identification with its premise. For one thing, as a Canadian I live in a country where the nation is always viewed as fragmentary, and where Canadian nationalism has always been defensive and reactive. Can you imagine a House Committee on Un-Canadian Activities? More significantly, however, it is important to me that both gay men and Chinese men have been defined as outside dominant constructions of masculinity—let us call it "Masculinity"—precisely on the basis of responsibility.

Whereas gay men are penalized for the actual transgression of same-sex activity, homophobia is managed through a much broader regulation of difference. There are many ways in which gay men confound notions of Masculinity that bind maleness to particular roles and behaviors—responsibility is one of them. As Barbara Ehrenreich has written, homosexuality is seen as "the ultimate escapism from the male role of breadwinner." Certainly, the image of the (white) middle-class gay man, unfettered by dependents but earning an income that is geared to supporting a family, is a central axiom in the homophobic construction of queers as a privileged minority undeserving of human rights protection.

In the age of AIDS, this trope has been supplemented by another frame of gay male irresponsibility, that of a self-destructive and uncontrollable appetite for sex. Now widely promoted among liberal audiences by books such as And the Band Played On (also a made-for-TV movie), the notion of gay promiscuity as the cause of the AIDS epidemic is both conservative politically and hazardous pedagogically. In the vilification of the baths, washrooms, and parks, the focus shifts dangerously from the kind of sex one engages in—unsafe or safer sex—to a moral agenda around the site of sexual activity, the number of partners one has, and the HIV status of those partners. (In fact, the baths may constitute a safer environment for sex, since they are consciously chosen for sexual activity. Most gay bathhouses in Canada feature safer-sex brochures and posters, free or easily available condoms, and even AIDS education counseling and HIV testing.)

Freedom from heterosexual responsibilities was also a principal charge against Chinese men living on this continent until the late 1940s. Early Chinese
immigrants to North America, seeking employment first as miners and then as railroad builders, were mainly single men. For instance, of the 1,767 Chinese
living in Victoria, British Columbia, at the time of the 1884 Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration, only 106 were women: forty-one were listed as "married women," thirty-one were "girls," and thirty-four were "prostitutes." The commission, called to address, among other issues, "the social and moral objections taken to the influx of the Chinese people into Canada," resulted in the imposition of a head tax on Chinese immigrants. Incoming Chinese were at first charged ten dollars, but by 1904 the sum had risen to five hundred dollars, an exorbitant amount at the time. Nevertheless, the tax was seen as still not enough of a deterrent, and in 1923 the government passed what is commonly known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, which effectively cut off any chance of family reunification for Chinese workers living in Canada. Until the Exclusion Act was lifted after World War II, therefore, Chinese communities were commonly referred to as constituting "bachelor societies."

The term "bachelor" is, of course, a misnomer, since many of the men were in fact married, but were separated from their wives and families by the threat
of racial violence and by the state apparatus—not altogether separate elements. Herein lies the special significance of the term when applied to Chinese Canadians, summoning as it does the poignant image of connubial denial, a profound deprivation in a Chinese cultural context, in which generational continuity is seen as essential to spiritual survival.

Nevertheless, in a society that privileges heterosexual marriage as the right of passage into manhood, the term "bachelor" is burdened with a multitude of connotations. Most significant to me is its anxious suppression of the possibility of sexual relations between men—while the word "bachelor" has often been used as a euphemism for homosexual men, the designation generally turns on a presumption of heterosexuality. Second, while the label can be seen to infantilize the Chinese into nonmen, it simultaneously endows them with the sexual threat (prostitution, predatory sexuality, and so on) of men devoid of socially-sanctioned sexual release. Both connotations were used against the Chinese.

Whereas cheap Chinese labor was promoted by capitalist interests in the
nineteenth century, Chinese workers were seen as an obstacle to the advancement of the white working class, and of white people in general. In such a hostile environment, it is not surprising that most Chinese men chose not to send for their wives, even in the early days when it was still possible. But because of their failure to fulfill the responsibilities of heterosexuality, the Chinese were blamed yet again. In testimony to the Royal Commission in 1885, for example, a Senator Jones of Nevada paraphrased the thoughts of one of his constituents, a white miner:

While my work is arduous I go to it with a light heart and perform it cheerfully, because it enables me to support my wife and my children. I am in hopes to bring up my daughters to be good wives and faithful mothers, and to offer my sons better opportunities in life than I had myself. . . . How is it with the Chinaman? The Chinaman can do as much work underground as I can. He has no wife and family. He performs none of these duties. Forty or fifty of his kind can live in a house no larger than mine. He craves no variety of food. He has inherited no taste for comfort or for social enjoyment. Conditions that satisfy him and make him contented would make my life not worth living.

The sexual aspect of this danger saw Chinese men as posing a special threat to white womankind. This fear, whether genuine or simply a ploy to attack Chinese businesses, became more immediate after the completion of the railroads as male Chinese workers, barred from other labor, took on traditional women's occupations—in laundries, domestic service, and as cooks—thereby putting themselves in direct competition and direct contact with white women. In the early twentieth century, several Canadian provinces enacted laws preventing white women from working in Chinese businesses.

Even today, when Chinese communities are no longer "bachelor societies" and Chinese men are no longer assumed to be bachelors, the figure of the Chinese man in contemporary North American mass culture still oscillates for the most part between an asexual wimpiness and a degenerate, sexual depravity, reflecting and reproducing this unstable Masculinity. It is notable that, in the current, highly-promoted wave of feature films by Asian and Asian-diaspora directors, there are as many movies with homosexual themes as those featuring heterosexual relationships.

It is only recently that Chinese men have begun to function as regular sexual beings on screen, mostly in films by white directors, like The Lover(1991), Dragon (1993), and Ballad of Little Jo (1993). In films by Asian-diaspora directors, Asian male characters are seldom inscribed within the codes of Hollywood masculinity. Refusing the pressure to deliver role models, these directors often opt instead for a critique of patriarchal values, creating in the process male characters that are damaged and/or damaging to those around them: this is true of Living on Tokyo Time (1987), Bhaji on the Beach (1993), and most of Wayne Wang's films. For, while stereotypes undoubtedly affect the ways that we Asian men live our lives, the feminization of Chinese men in public representations should not be taken to mean that, as a group, we are any less prone to sexist attitudes and behavior. In fact, as an organizer with gay Asian men, I have observed that, in many Chinese families centered around Confucian values, however loose the interpretation, men are often able to carry on gay lives precisely because of the relative mobility allowed them compared to their sisters, a freedom that coexists with the oppressive obligation to produce sons.

Specific histories burden the term "responsibility" for gay men and Chinese men. As a rallying cry for a new and critical approach to masculinity, therefore, its appeal is limited. But men's movements, whether in support of, hostile, or indifferent to feminism, have generally been founded on precepts that come from the experiences of middle-class, straight, white men. For example, a men's movement based either on a response to violence against women or on the supposed victimization of men (because the binary gender division does not allow them to touch, feel, and express their emotions), do not speak to the lives of most gay men. Although gay men are not immune to misogyny, and some gay men are married or in heterosexual relationships, our sexuality generally puts us outside the direct mobilization of men as the perpetrators of male (hetero)sexual violence in rape and spousal abuse. Similarly, while straight men may want to learn to touch other men (and still remain straight), it is homophobia that makes same-sex contact taboo-gay men are already penalized for touching.

When I think of movement and men I think of troops. In some ways this is merely a glib dismissal. But it nevertheless points to a basic contradiction in the concept of a men's movement. For when one thinks of troops, there is the image of a monolithic and coordinated exercise of brute force, in many ways the ultimate statement of male power. On deeper examination, however, there are also internal axes of power and violence. In many real ways, then, men in troops (and there are women, too) are moving to and from very different places in their lives. The rank-and-file is filled with the urban and rural poor, the nonwhite, the undereducated—men with little to sell but their lives. The career officers display very different demographics.

Not only are men's experiences of gender different one from another, but they are different from those of women—and in a patriarchal world they are never on an equal footing. So even when a men's movement is not about learning to touch, feel, or cry without being unmasculine, even when men organize only to support women's demands, they are confronted with—and confounded by—their own power. To organize as men is to organize from a position of power. The problem of a men's movement is therefore related to, though not the same as, organizing as white, as middle class, or as heterosexual. In seeking to confront privilege (and not all versions of men's movement would admit to male privilege), men are forced to replay it.

While the notion of a movement founded on men's demands is difficult to justify, all attempts to bring men together should not automatically be dismissed. Specific projects such as the Canadian White Ribbon Campaign, whose goal is to organize men to halt male violence, offers an interesting experiment. Although suffering from all the problems of expanding a constituency to working-class men and men of color, as well as the dilemma of finding themselves in competition with women's organizations for resources, this project has managed to raise the awareness of violence against women through a large, successful, public campaign.

I have closed this paper by mentioning a specific project, however briefly. because it seems to me that discussion of men's movements and men's organizing is not simply a theoretical issue. While intellectual analysis and assessment are always crucial, I find that questions of movements are best addressed in particular sites and in relation to the actual process of organizing.