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  • Viable Social Identities in a Shifting Cultural Landscape
  • William Jankowiak (bio)
Lucetta Yip Lo Kam. Shanghai Lalas: Female Tongzhi Communities and Politics in Urban China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013. x, 142 pp. Hardcover $50.00, isbn 978-988-8139-45-3. Paperback $25.00, isbn 978-988-8139-46-0.

China has a long history of homosexuality. It is a history, however, of which most Chinese are unaware. Believing homosexuality to be a practice that only actors engage in, most Chinese, especially those in the older generation, remain adamantly opposed to its practice. The homosexual stigma, as it was in nineteenthcentury Europe, falls heavier on males than it does on females. For example, during the Ming dynasty, same-sex female lovers were not given the gender identity of lesbian. Women who were sexually attracted to and liked one another were perceived to be emotionally but not sexually involved. For most of Chinese history, female-female friendships were perceived to be a kind of sisterhood devoid of sexual interest. This was and is not currently the case for male homosexuals. For example, Chinese media constantly assert that male homosexuality is a dangerous activity, as it poses a great risk to public health and social stability. It is not clear why or in what ways male homosexuality poses a pressing danger to the social order. This is not so for female homosexuality, which is seldom discussed in the media. Today, there are hundreds of gay and lesbian websites and blogs, and the government, for the most part, does not try to close them. This is a reversal from an earlier view, which held at least until 2001 that homosexuality was a deviant sexual behavior. This is no longer the case. Consequently, young homosexuals no longer believe or fear they are alone, and it is easy for them to make contact with others. Although Chinese have become more tolerant of homosexuality and do not oppose gay and lesbian bars, their tolerance is tested when their only child insists he or she is not heterosexual. [End Page 16]

Into this changing cultural milieu, Lucetta Kam, a Shanghai native who migrated as a child to Hong Kong, entered the Shanghai lesbian (lala) community in order to appreciate and understand how lala women create viable social identities, form enduring friendships, and find personal satisfaction and, thus, contentment. Her sample was small, but suggestive. She contacted college-age women, mostly in their twenties, who are primarily employed in professional white-collar occupations. Because middle-aged lesbians do not frequent social clubs or bars, preferring instead to entertain in private homes, Kam was not able to contact them. For Kam, the middle-aged cohort is mostly invisible and difficult to gain assess to. She focused, therefore, on her own age group, who openly invited her to join their activities. One of her primary research questions was, How do lesbians manage to avoid marriage to heterosexual men while not upsetting their parents? She finds that fake marriages continue to be one way to create an acceptable social identity while also enabling the creation of an alternative and, for most, a more pleasing psychosexual identity. Kam discovered that among the single-child generation, there is a new rationale invoked to justify delaying marriage: The pursuit of a higher quality personal life. This justification is also voiced amongst heterosexual youth who are delaying marriage to buy an apartment as well as learn to live an independent life.

I found the more interesting part of her study to be her discussion, albeit too brief, on lesbian kinship and household organization. It seems it is typical in Shanghai for lesbians to form households, share rent and food costs, and provide mutual support. Unlike same-sex heterosexuals who share an apartment, the lesbian households assume fictive kinship identities: One person will become the father of the household, while another with be the mother, with other members becoming daughters to the fictive couple. If there are additional members, they will be referred to as cousins. These roles, initially formed with merriment and affection, often serve as a new type of fictive kin identity. For example, the mother will listen and give relationship...


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