CLAGS Reports

Chung To, founder and chairperson of the Chi Heng Foundation and
a member of CLAGS’s International Resource Network Advisory
Board, presented a talk on “The Impact of the Internet on the Tongzhi
(LGBT) Movement in China.” (In China, “tongzhi” generally means
“comrade” but in the 1990s sexual minorities began using it to refer to
their communities.)
According to To, there are now over 300 LBGT websites—portal
sites, regional sites with chat rooms and personal ads, and niche
specialty sites for everything from SM to LGBT Buddhists. Until recently,
To reported, most LGBT sites in China were nonprofit. Over the past
year, however, more and more commercial sites have emerged, selling LGBT items, sometimes illegally,
from films to sex toys, or charging for short messaging services. That commercialization, To said, is
encouraging. “In the past, development of LGBT sites was not strong partly because many webmasters
were doing it on a part time basis, after school or work.”
But there is still much censorship of Tongzhi sites, even though sodomy is no longer a crime and
homosexuality is no longer in the list of mental disorders. “Sometimes local governments have shut
websites down directly, going into the homes of webmasters and confiscating the computers. Other
times, it’s the hosting companies that censor by canceling the service.”
To suggested that the LGBT communities might be on the verge of another crisis because of the
looming AIDS epidemic in China. Official government figures attribute 160,000 deaths to AIDS, and
estimate that there are 840,000 people now living with HIV and AIDS, and international NGOs think the
figure is much higher. “If nothing effective is done soon, China may face an AIDS population of
10,000,000 by 2010. The dilemma is that China still does not recognize men who have sex with men as
a legitimate group in AIDS prevention, although it has recognized IV drug users and sex workers.”
Through the Chi Heng Foundation (chihengfoundation.com), To has been working to creating HIV/AIDS
resources for webmasters to use on their sites.
“Ironically, the recent openness of Chinese society and the emergence of LGBT community
actually makes AIDS prevention a lot more challenging.” To compared the situation in China now to
that of the US in the 1970s. “Like then, there is a post-repression celebration and I see China repeating
the same disaster. It’s a more open society, there’s an emerging gay scene, more gay bars and saunas
are opening. But if AIDS prevention doesn’t go hand in hand with the openness, it is going to lead to
another disaster.”
Tomasz Basiuk, from the American Studies Center, Warsaw University
in Poland and CLAGS’s visiting Fulbright Scholar, questioned the
argument that American gay men’s autobiographies are best read simply
as coming-out stories in his talk, “Exposures: American Gay Men’s
Autobiography and Edmund White’s Work”
Basiuk took issue with Paul Robinson’s argument in Gay Lives:
Homosexual Autobiography from John Addington Symonds to Paul Monette,
that the “coming out” story is essentially a form of conversion narrative,
and that this “genre” is laden with the language of self discovery or
revelation. “The category of conversion narrative can make it easy to
dismiss these works as consciousness-raising political pamphlets. But to
accept Robinson’s diagnosis is to contain autobiography within the formula he makes and therefore to
divest them of their specific powers.”
“Coming out does not exclusively mean coming out of the closet in the rhetorical sense that
Robinson invokes—making a public declaration of one’s homosexuality. It can also mean one’s first
same-sex sexual experience, as well as coming out in the life, into a circle of gay friends. And while these different kinds of coming out may be related, a public declaration of homosexuality need not
supercede the other kinds nor does it always shape a person’s life more completely than the other
kinds.”
Basiuk suggest that, “we may need to think of the conversion narrative as the too exact opposite
of conversion hysteria, which as Freud tells us results from the damming up of affect. I wish to suggest
that there is too hasty a transition from complete repression of affect to the self-evoked overcoming of
such repression implied in the coming out story as conversion narrative, as well in the political slogan
of gay pride. The transition can be an ellipsis, one that unfortunately eliminates the middle ground in
which important cultural work needs to be accomplished and is in fact being accomplished.”
In comparing Edmund White’s autobiographical fiction and his overt life-writing to memoirs
written by gay men, including Andrew Tobias, Paul Monette, Mark Doty and Daniel Mendelsohn,
Basiuk invoked “exposure” as a more apt metaphor, one that captures the emotional and aesthetic risktaking
which accompanies self-exposure, the interplay between direct mimesis and manipulation of the
subject that inheres in the term’s photographic meaning, and the inescapably fragmented vision of
what constitutes an appropriate account of a gay life.
Lisa Cohen, an independent scholar and the recipient of the CLAGS
Fellowship in 2002, ended the fall Colloquium Series with her talk,
“’Velvet is Very Important’: Madge Garland’s Life in Fashion.” Cohen’s
talk about the British fashion icon and one-time editor of British Vogue
was part of a larger project, a book of biographical essays in which she
attempts to make the labor and discourse of fashion and of other even
more ephemeral forms of cultural production visible in the aesthetic and
historical context of trans-Atlantic modernism.
In addition to her work at British Vogue and other magazines in
the 1920s and ‘30s, Garland was the founding Professor of Fashion at
the Royal College of Art after the Second World War, a consultant to
textile firms, an advisor to the government on international trade in
clothing and textiles, and the author of many books on fashion.
Cohen said that Garland was “someone whose story lays bare the questions about achievement
and about evidence raised by fashion, biographical writing, and queer criticism.” She noted that one
of the organizing questions of her research has been “What is evidence—of a life, of affect, of labor, of
significance—and how is it produced?”
Garland was “someone who did not assume that she was destined to be remembered, and for
whom necessary and desired public visibility co-existed with intensive efforts to cloak herself. Studying
this particular queer life—a life that was shaped by and that shaped modernism—has meant redressing
the history of modernism; paying attention to the place of fashion and decoration in that history has
meant understanding the strictures and possibilities of a queer life in England in the first half of the
twentieth century.”
Cohen asserted that “we can’t understand British
modernism without understanding discretion, and that we
can’t understand either without revising our assumptions
about biography so that it takes into account, but does not
simply celebrate, the lives, work, and archives of figures like
Madge Garland.” Cohen then used Garland’s life to suggest
that “it is a mistake to think of discretion of the opposite
the artful, arch, apparently public stance of camp.”