New Definitions • Part 3: Invisible Veils (Trans Coloniality)
New Definitions is an ongoing series feeling through the journey of finding home in a neocolonial homeland, as el 李 spends six months in Hong Kong visiting community organizations and reconnecting with family. Traversing geography, politics, and subcultures, these articles consider the specificity of the history of Hong Kong as former British Colony and now ‘Special Economic Region,’ as well as how diasporic queer experiences are transnationally impacted.
The day after the typhoon hit Hong Kong, there was quiet, and there was debris. Trees cleaved in half or uprooted in the road, with pictures of caved-in offices and crumbled construction scaffolds pouring onto social media. Making my way into my campus’ painting studio, i found two of my classmates reporting that this would be their second consecutive night sleeping in the studio, since their windows had shattered and flooded with rain during the storm. i delivered them some veggies later in the day.
i’m beginning to imagine my life here as a great tragedy, one that would be written into history as a classic and republished by Penguin Books as a cheap paperback over and over again. It would open on the exterior of a train, speeding through an underground passage. In the interior of the train the main character would be standing, wearing shorts and a cropped shirt — casually trans — with her friend, two reddish-pink streaks running through her hair — coincidentally bisexual. Two men crane their heads to stare, their eyes following, looking through skin and into bone, laughing, looking away, looking back, in and out. The two of them inch down the train, against walls of people. The men move to continue to watch, faces turning solemn, serious. The two girls hop off the train at the next stop, a walk turning into a sprint as the two race down the platform and dive into the last car…
Surely this rollicking, dramatic, trauma-porn of a first chapter would compel the reader to quickly page- turn their way through the beginning of the book in a single sitting. The second act of the novel, though, would tighten its grip, slowing down the reader with nuance, quitetude, and pace. A classroom would be involved, a Q&A formatted lecture, a guest speaker — who, as one of the few out genderqueer celebrities in Hong Kong, is questioned over and over again ‘how they knew,’ ‘why they want to be a man,’ ‘what does it mean,’ as the main character and the same friend sit in the front row.
That Tuesday after the typhoon i skip class to help a local community farm, Mapopo (馬寶寶社區農場), clean away water and debris. The farm is a collaboration of villagers who started organizing against government policies after the Umbrella Movement sparked a regeneration of social movements in Hong Kong. In order to push for increased industrialization and modernisation, the Hong Kong government put policies in place in the 1970s that labeled non-indigenous villagers as ‘squatters’ who are illegally occupying land that developers can then acquire and privatize into high-rise housing, malls, etc.
Here, the language of indigeneity is historically rooted in British invasion. According to the official uses of ‘native’ and ‘non-native,’ anyone in Hong Kong prior to British acquisition is considered ‘native.’ But what does this mean when Hong Kong itself has had waves of migration — entire millennia of hstory — prior to colonialism? The first documented people living on the islands that are now ‘Hong Kong’ are called Hakka (客家 - literally, ‘Guest Families’), and they were here before any Han Chinese moved here to escape famine, before the Sino-Japanese war, before the Cultural Revolution. Do those who reenact the colonial strategies of British land-grabbing have a right to call themselves ‘indigenous’ when organisations like Mapopo draw upon the hstory of ‘indigenous’ resistance to the British? Resistances like the Six Day War of 1899 where villagers in Tai Po armed themselves against the British army, which was in the process of stealing their territory, resulting in the British killing over 500 residents?
This same week i attend a Q&A with Siufung Law, a local genderqueer celebrity, bodybuilder, Ph.D. candidate, and poet. In our conversation after the event, Siufung stresses the priority of making trans people in Hong Kong more visible and empathizable so that discrimination cannot be perpetuated with impunity, without (at least) moral consequence. One of the common comparisons that i’ve heard in similar conversations is: “Unlike the U.S., Hong Kong does not have anti-discrimination laws for LGBT people.” My gut reaction is to exclaim that i need my families — the trans people around the world that have always taken me in and made life livable — to be able to feel safe. But my experience of anti-discrimination laws in the U.S. fall in stark contrast, since iI know from experience that legalities are not enough to protect queer and trans people. There is still rampant discrimination that stems from cultural dehumanization of LGBT people in the U.S. that makes the murder of transwomen a terrifyingly mundane reality.
A broad swath of writing has recently been making its way into popular media which identifies how British colonialism is at the root of this cultural dehumanization of LGBT people. I am reminded, in this regard, of Jasbir Puar’s definitions of homonationalism and ‘pinkwashing’:
Homonationalism is the…rise in the legal, consumer and representative recognition of LGBTQ subjects and the…expansion of state power to engage in surveillance, detention and deportation. The narrative of progress for gay rights is built on the backs of racialised and sexualised others…shoring up of the respectability of homosexual subjects in relation to the…pathologised…sexuality of racial others, specifically Muslim others…
The rise of ‘respectable’ queerness in the West comes specifically through the project of representing queer bodies as white, Christian, and secular, creating this image as the new ‘normal’ (or homonormativity), leaving every non-white LGBT person who does not fit these homonormative definitions available to be criminalised. Homonationalism applied to geopolitical strategies is what Puar calls ‘pinkwashing’ — which they identify specifically in the logics around white-feminism and Palestine. According to Western legal logics, homonormativity justifies the state-sanctioned murder of certain groups of people because they, themselves, are construed as “sexist and homophobic.” The U.S. desires to give the white, Christian, secular, respectable LGBT person legal and representative power because it supports the government’s transnational war efforts and geopolitical control abroad.
There are pathways to make queer liberation in Hong Kong a movement which can hold the struggles for ‘non-native’ land use, for migrant domestic workers precariously living in the fear of deportation, and LGBT locals. However, among these broader considerations there is an iteration of ‘pinkwashing’ that is apparent here in Hong Kong. Many of the local pro-LGBT rights organizations are backed by major financial groups, such as HSBC and other banks, as well as the elite class. This is eerily similar to the United States, where Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Amazon, and various airlines are the principal sponsors for Pride marches across the country. While in the U.S., these corporations are able to continue profiting off of a perpetual matrix of colonial practices (the military industrial complex, the prison industrial complex, the medical industrial complex, etc.), the elite in Hong Kong could be seen as the ones who directly benefit from being seen as ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive,’ while they and the government profit off of evicting villages, developing land, and getting foreign investors for privatized malls. Or, by accessing cheap and disposable labor in the form of Indonesian and Filipino domestic workers, without the government having to create more structures for social welfare that support children.
As Ivan of FILO and Baneng of Gabriela Hong Kong say in a meeting where an alliance like this is formed, “Pride is for the elite, not workers or farmers.”
Back in the classroom, i hear these ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions thrown at Siufung, implying the very impossibility of transness even existing — and, by proximity, my identity as a transwoman as well. The call to visibility that Siufung Law makes is not the same as a homonationalist call for LGBT legal rights, even if in the U.S. these two demands ring in the same (white) key.
Instead, the strategy Siufung implements is to make and break respectability, handling invasive questions with patience while making sure that every answer comes with a layer of indigestibility in order to place the language of gender into constantly shifting grounds. Although there may be a push for legal rights wrapped up in the logic of visibility, to be steadfast while circumventing stable definition, as an individual and as a community, challenges the project of colonial law-making and undoes the foundational idea that there are universal scientific or moral parameters that people must follow. This complex embodiment and claim of masculinity and femininity pushes a parameter of ‘queer’ that is far beyond homonormativity. Maybe it is the impossibility of Siufung’s existence, of my existence — maybe it’s the impossibility of the organizers of FILO finding love and intimacy and yet proving otherwise everyday — or the impossibility that agricultural life can still prosper under industrialized capitalism. Maybe, being trans, being a lesbian, being anti-capitalist and watching the impossibility thrown your way helps you designate where the boundaries of coloniality lie, and where they must be broken.