Queering Domesticity and Gender in China and Taiwan

Lio Chan
BFA ILL 2024

HONORABLE MENTION: We applaud this essay for its nuanced take on a complex topic. The combination of lived experience and scholarly research builds a cross-cultural and inter-generational exploration that feels expansive and experimental. The translingual element highlights the aspects of language and culture that are interdependent—and not always easy to translate.—Meredith Barrett

I’m often told by my Chinese mother not to be trans (跨性别), because, according to her, to be trans is to be unsuccessful in a cisheteronormative society, and as a good parent, she wants the best for me. Because of our different views, I often think about queer generational trauma and what it means to have complicated definitions of domesticity, safety, and kinship. What do those terms mean for other queer Chinese-speaking people, especially those who were raised and still live within their home countries? How might queer Chinese and Taiwanese people have different cultures surrounding these terms? As a member of the Asian diaspora, I often feel haunted by the disconnect between myself and these other queer people who share my blood but not my culture. I was almost a teenager when I moved from 上海 to California—so close to learning about and being a part of queer China. Perhaps my research into queer Chinese and Taiwanese people is a way to make up for that sensation of my cheeks turning red whenever I have to look up slang terms like 铁T (stone butch) or when to use the words 跨性别 (formal) or 变性 (informal, often derogatory) when describing the experience of being trans. But maybe it goes beyond that too—maybe it’s for myself to figure out ways in which I can redefine my own life as a queer Chinese person so far removed from my people. To an extent, I recognize that I may be projecting onto the stories I read about, or even fabricating how they may feel as a response to their own ingenuities in redefining kinship. Memory is all relative, and in a way, collective. Maybe my research is an attempt to dream of reconciliation with my first-generation immigrant mother. Or, finally, it may be a question for myself. In what ways do I want to reform my own definitions of love and gender beyond what I have learned thus far?

Cisheteronormativity, a concept that plays a foundational cultural role in Chinese and Taiwanese definitions of security and home, can be changed and transformed through methods such as dreaming and reimagining safety and love through the queer lens. The past is actively shaped and reformed, and we are in the middle of constantly expanding our definitions within and outside of our own communities. Through envisioning the role we play within these concepts, we can start to bring them into the physical world, into our journeys of healing and strength. In other words, we can use the process of healing through concepts like desire as a vehicle for physical change. Desire as a concept is the antithesis of the world we live in—a place with no rules and no limitations, where one is beholden to their desires and expectations. It is often a place of violence, but it is also a place where your body is allowed to contain physical and nonphysical things it is normally not allowed to, and it is also a place where one’s second self can attempt to survive and can dare to feel safe (Park 24). It is a place where one can confront themselves and ask, what am I capable of doing? By interacting with their social environment as a vehicle to express themselves in the way that they want, Chinese and Taiwanese queer people can improve or compromise their living situations and roles with their identities. Through the reinvention and reimagining of concepts such as belonging and love, queer Chinese and Taiwanese people are able to subvert, confront, and bridge generational and cultural differences and redefine rules of kinship and gender for themselves.

In her anthology Queer Kinship and Family Change in Taiwan, Amy Brainer communicates frameworks in which several Taiwanese parents demonstrate the ways they are deeply entrenched in their traditional and often cisheteronormative definitions of home, gender roles, strategic normativity, and success—the framework in which many traumas are borne. Brainer meets and records the lived experiences of several queer Taiwanese people of all ages, who talk about a myriad of cultural concepts that are constantly enforced through myriad ways. Edward, a gay man (男同志), talks about the way he had been indoctrinated with the idea that sons must carry on the family lineage from a young age from soap operas and Confucian teachings, and that these cultural teachings have existed and endured over centuries yet are still repackaged for younger generations. Yijun, who is a masculine-presenting lesbian (T), talks about several instances of neglect in her childhood, including her parents’ refusal to help her when she got sick. These instances contributed to her sense of feeling like an outcast within her natal family, but through marrying a man, she was able to leave that family under the guise of being straight. She described using the cisheteronormative expectations expected of her as a way to compromise her freedom to practice her sexuality. At that point, she already had a girlfriend named Ming, and her husband knew this and was okay with Ming living with them if only Yijun could satisfy him sexually. Although Yijun agreed, she still suffered from mental health issues that arose from arguments, participating in unpleasurable sex, and feelings of guilt both towards her girlfriend and her husband for not being able to provide either of them with a proper relationship. In several ways, Yijun’s story reflects the misogynistic cultural attitude of forced dependence as well as cisheteronormativity.

Yijin talked about six different attempts where she tried to run away from her husband with Ming, one of which was almost successful, but because she was undergoing a C-section to deliver her son at the time, and the procedure required her husband’s signature, she was found out. Eventually, she divorced her husband, and Ming left her, but she happily regards her relationship with her son to this day despite her mental health struggles, saying that he was her “sweetest and closest friend” (Brainer 48). Despite the traumas and devaluation she endured, she describes the queer happiness that she carved out with Ming during her heterosexual marriage, which was something she didn’t think could coincide. She had hoped to bring her desire for queer intimacy into any situation she ended up being in because of her patrilineal obligation. Spurred by this dream, Yijun cared for her girlfriend in every way possible while she was living with her and her ex-husband, including washing and ironing Ming’s clothes and preparing her family special meals every day. Out of respect for the couple, her ex-husband began his own “infidelities,” allowing for the queer couple to exist with Yijun’s son. Currently, as a single mother, Yijun has found her own place within the lesbian and queer community of Taiwan—much later than she would have liked, but nonetheless feeling happy about having a semblance of safety and love in her affectionate relationship with her son. When asked about her relationship with the concept of home (家), Yijin says she identifies as a woman without a home. Given my own knowledge of the word “home,” I believed her to be referring to the times that she literally had to escape the confines of her family to build her own definition of the word. But to her and many other Chinese and Taiwanese people, the word “home” refers to a specific type of social security, a “productive and self-replicating family life, and a specific form of material base on which a legitimate patrilineal household can be founded” (Brainer 49). So, Yijun may have not only been referring to her literal escape from home, but also to her broader lack of familial security. However, through her struggles against fulfilling the duties expected of her by her parents, she persevered in forming an intimate queer relationship through her daily work of patrilineal reproduction.

I came to realize through my research that, in China and Taiwan, the cultural roles we perform within our family and jobs indicate our perceived gender more so than our physical appearance. For example, part of the experience in being a T blurs the definitions between being a lesbian and being trans. Female masculinity is also seen as a culturally significant symbol for feminism, even more so than lesbianism, since the ideal woman during the Mao era was “stoic, sensible, and muscular” (Qian). When asked about how he started his transition from a female to male identity, Zhixiong, a straight trans man in his forties, identified that he first changed the family roles he played in order to communicate to his “family that he is not a woman” (Brainer 54). It was after he fit into his new cultural roles as a man that he truly felt accepted by his family to transition physically through surgeries and hormone therapy, despite never having a formal conversation where he came out to them in a Western stereotype of the experience. Zhixiong proactively began to “burn incense and pray to his paternal ancestors,” a role usually reserved for men (54). At his maternal uncle’s funeral, Zhixiong took on funeral rites for men. Because women do not traditionally take on a large role in funerals, Zhixiong noticed that his family followed suit in introducing him as the son of his family in response to his actions, while attendees didn’t bat an eye—there were too many sons in the family to begin with, and, as Zhixiong claims with amusement, “they had no idea which son I was!” (54).

To Zhixiong, his actions at the funeral proved to be a turning point in his identity as a trans man, because it redefined the rigid gender expectations he was given at birth into a more negotiable definition. It also illustrates a broader definition of gender as something that can be situational—the fact that his family was more than willing to introduce Zhixiong as a son for the purpose of funeral rites demonstrates the way that family is able to create gender, as well as to make gender more accessible. Beyond this, he began to take on other traditionally masculine tasks, such as providing for his mother financially. Instead of feeling like he was restricted to performing these tasks in order to “pass” as a man in his family, however, Zhixiong began to marry different genders together in an attempt to eradicate notions of the gender binary within his family. He began to reshape the concept of family and gender by performing both traditionally male and female tasks after he had culturally and physically transitioned—while he provided for his mother financially, he also went grocery shopping and took her to the doctor, which are traditionally feminine tasks (Brainer 55). When asked about how she feels towards her son, Zhixiong’s mother Amei admits that at first she was uncomfortable with the care arrangement, but after some time, “she feels that it’s right, like ‘I am being supported by my son, not my daughter (我是给儿子养, 不是给女儿养)’ and no one can say anything about it” (56). Although Zhixiong continues to feel the effects of gender created by his family, he has realized that these gender roles are not set in stone and are in fact malleable because he is part of his family network. That realization has granted him agency to assert his transness into his domestic sphere, and through redefining what roles he is allowed or not allowed to undertake, he is able to create and advocate for his own gender.

Because queer, or Tongzhi (同志), activist organizers in China are keenly aware that their very existence is political, the Tongzhi activist scene actively works to redefine the definitions of their own existence within what is considered political. When ethnographers approached members of the Tongzhi activist group, asking about their collective political goals or how they planned to manipulate political outcomes through campaigns, they were asked to reconsider what they defined as “political activism” (Engebretsen 75). Members of the group continued to meet on Saturdays to chat about life and also held skate outings. For them, the accessibility of planning these events was inherently political, and often was a form of protest in and of itself. In a climate where “rights and opportunities are denied and in which their voices are frequently silenced,” their very definition of “fun” provided a space for discussion and a means to make the everyday more liveable (76). Through the planning of a skate event, Tongzhis are implicitly interacting with forces that may exist in preventing these events from happening; thus, Tongzhi politics is focused on redefining everyday life and the power of having fun. Through coming together and simply existing as a group, Tongzhis are able to recognize that, yes, we are all affected by our traumas, but by being awake, we are “pushing back as a form of dreaming, and letting our actions speak love” (Park 106). Understanding activism within Tongzhi China is understanding the queer language of love and domesticity that is inherently activist because it is redefined and reclaimed by those who live it. Zhang Zhen, a queer (酷儿) Chinese independent filmmaker, believes that the notion of activism refers more closely to “someone who acts from a self-motivated position—interactively, with a spirit of empathy, and from an understanding of the facts—to mobilize the power of affect in order to trigger desires for social change” (Engenbretsen 77).

Through these narratives, I’ve come to understand that there doesn’t need to be a textbook definition of what redefining love and domesticity means for queer people, nor is there a formula for carving out one’s space within the home we come from. As a queer Asian American, I’m often told that queer narratives fall under the binary of either full acceptance and love from your peers and family or complete exile. As this paper and my research within it is an attempt to connect myself with Chinese Tongzhi cultural values that may help me with my own queer journey to joy and safety, I’ve accepted that I have been thinking about love and gender in rigid ways, falling prey to the values of cisheteronormativity I have been trying to escape. And as much as I would like to redefine these terms for myself, the act of defining and labeling can be seen as a Western idea. Why does there have to be a definite answer? The idea of labeling or policing identities creates a right and wrong where there are no rights and wrongs, especially in a world where we can exist without definition. In fact, there is erasure of human experiences that is the result of an institutionalization of identity. With the burden of identity lifted, I am free to dream and let my imagination roam free about my being transgender. I’ve accepted that my journey of unlearning is still at large, and even more so for my Chinese mother, who wants the best for me, but is beholden to her own definition of love and expectations of me as her daughter. However, I’ve come to learn that her ideas of womanhood are not a wrong definition, and that she is not my antagonist. Through learning about cultural definitions of gender beyond the physical, I’ve begun to accept that my values may be more in-line with my mother’s—she wants me to act as a woman, but what does that mean beyond “sit with your legs crossed?” And how does my identity as her only child and the fact that there are no men in our household complicate things? How can I, moving forward, blur my own identities in ways that grant myself agency and allow myself to redefine kinship?

The Chinese concept of “surface” or Mianzi (面子) is culturally significant in that is differs from a Western notion of the subject. It’s a concept that is very prevalent within my upbringing, as my mother often lectures me on how to present my Mianzi in a socially acceptable way, but through my research, I am rediscovering what Mianzi means in a queer Tongzhi context. Mianzi enables Tongzhis like myself to separate their inner self from their outer self, allowing us to occupy and cross gender roles in intimate spaces, in work environments, in family environments, and on our bodies, in ways that seem conflicting from a Western view. Through my research, I’ve come to learn how different Tongzhis from China and Taiwan utilize their Mianzi to create narratives within their own families, defined by their external interaction with their social environment. Yijun has used her Mianzi to mask herself as a straight woman by marrying a man, therefore using the social gender roles expected of her to facilitate the practice of her inner self, creating a queer domestic life full of love with her then-girlfriend and her son. By treating his outward body as a contoured and complex “canvas upon which social interactions take place,” Zhixiong is able to demonstrate and communicate to his family and extended family that he is now to be addressed masculinely through the gendered actions he performs, creating a fusion between gender expectations and his own identity (Engebretsen 116).

Mianzi is an empowering concept, as it grants “the separation of public persona from the private self as enabling ‘great mobility and fluidity of practice, preserving the rights of individuals to pursue whatever pleasures, desires, or fascinations they choose” (116). The concept of Mianzi, of social agency, grants me with cultural dialogue and knowledge of my own queerness that I would not have known from my Western upbringing, and may be the key in which I can bridge the generational and cultural gaps between me, my mother, and everyone else in my life. Knowledge is empowerment. And if all else fails, I know that my ability to go into the world and touch the lives of others is, in and of itself, a way in which I am redefining what love and belonging means for myself.


Brainer, Amy. Queer Kinship and Family Change in Taiwan. Rutgers University Press, 2019.
Engebretsen, Elisabeth L. Queer/Tongzhi China: New Perspectives on Research, Activism and Media Cultures. NIAS Press, 2015.
Park, Coyote, et al. Behind Shut Eyes: QTBIPOC Dream Anthology. GenderFail, 2021.
Qian, Jinghua. “The T on Chinese Transmasculinity.” Popula, 27 March 2019, https://popula.com/2019/03/27/the-t-on-chinese-transmasculinity/.

Lio Chan is mourning the discontinuation of online services for the Nintendo 3DS.