Thoughts on Queer Kinship

twitter threads, Taiwan Studies

Today’s #TaiwanStudies thread is about the book 《Queer Kinship and Family Change in Taiwan》 by Amy Brainer.

(Link to Twitter thread.)

This is not only a well-researched work, based on over 80 interviews, and a theoretically sophisticated text that engages with contemporary queer and gender theory, but it is also an incredibly well written ethnography.

It is well written in the sense that it manages to be reflexive without drawing attention to the writing (the way some more self-consciously stylistic ethnographies are apt to do). It reads as smoothly as the best long form journalism.

Queer Kinship is a book about the relationships between LBGT+ Taiwanese and their families. This isn’t a book about same sex marriage, which was only legalized in Taiwan as the book was near completion, but about queers and their parents, grandparents, siblings, and partners.

There is so much texture and detail in Brainer’s writing that I’m inclined to just tell you to go read the book. The stories and anecdotes used to make each of the points in the book are by turns funny, sad, and poignant.

I can’t do justice to that, but I will highlight some of the main findings. These are largely presented as a series of contrasts, each one adding a new layer of complexity on to the story of Taiwanese queers.

The first one is between older queers and younger ones, each of whom expects a different kind of relationship with their families. The older ones live in a kind of don’t ask, don’t tell” world in which everyone knows, and yet nobody knows.

If you’ve seen The Wedding Banquet, you probably get the idea. As long as there is a wedding (and children), nobody cares about the rest.

Younger queers, however, expect a different kind of relationship with their parents, one built on intimacy and honesty, which requires coming out” 出櫃, although many don’t feel safe doing that until they are already financially independent.

The second contrast is between sons and daughters. I phrase it this way deliberately, since she has at one example of a trans son for whom doing the family rituals associated with the eldest male heir are as important as the sex reassignment surgery.

One of the main points here is that there is a big difference between being lesbian or gay in the context of traditional confucian family values. Lesbians are often expected to continue to do more than other siblings because they are perceived to not have family obligations.

That is to say, the obligations of a second family outside of the one they were born into. Here is a link to a short film made by the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline to bring attention to this problem.

Third is the contrast between parents and grandparents of queer youth. Many Taiwanese are raised by their grandparents (which means grandmothers for the most part). While many came of age in a different time, we learn that at least some grandmothers are quite open minded.

We also learn that some mothers come to challenge or redefine their own gendered position in the patriarchal family through the experience of raising queer youth.

Something similar happens to straight siblings of queer youth, the fourth contrast in the book. These sibling relationships are very important, but while some offer emotional support, others can be antagonistic.

For instance, straight daughters might resent the privileges accorded to a queer older brother whom they perceive as selfish” for refusing to take on the responsibilities expected of them.

Although Brainer regrets not having more data from working class queers, she is sensitive to how class impacts such family experiences and tries her best to highlight these effects whenever she can.

Working class butch (踢)lesbians, for instance, might actually be more accepted dong manual labor than they would in middle class jobs where performing femininity is considered part of the work.

And many working class families are less concerned about any loss of face as long as they know their children will be able to look after themselves.

Finally, the book talks a fair amount about acceptability discourses, such as same sex marriage, and how they don’t really trickle down” to make things better for queers who don’t conform to standard gender roles or have monogamous relationships.