Netflix's 'Queer Eye: We're in Japan!' highlights a big problem with mainstream LGBTQ advocacy

Acceptance, especially in some intergenerational families and close-knit communities, can be powerful even when it doesn’t come wrapped in a rainbow flag.
"Queer Eye: We're In Japan!"
"Queer Eye" went to Japan, but the results were mixed.Kelli Falls / Netflix
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By Natasha Noman

The latest season of “Queer Eye,” set in Japan, explores a lot of the same themes that has made the show a cultural phenomenon in the United States. Viewers have laughed and cried (a lot) for several years now alongside the so-called “Fab 5:” Four gay men and a masculine-presenting nonbinary person. But season five has also revealed some of the show's shortcomings and blind spots.

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The second episode of the season features a Japanese gay man struggling to come out — a classic trope of the show. But in this case, the Fab 5 descend upon a society with disparate and complicated cultural norms to tell the man, Kan, how to be “out” and “proud.” At best, it was a culturally tone-deaf exercise. And at worst, it was cultural imperialism. The LGBTQ movement is supposedly built to empower diversity, and yet the irony of much mainstream queer advocacy is that it remains quite rigid and homogeneous in its worldview.

The LGBTQ movement is supposedly built to empower diversity, and yet the irony of mainstream queer advocacy is that it remains quite rigid and homogeneous in its worldview.

The paradigm of sexual identity tends to come in the form of a binary: One is either out of the closet or in it, proud or ashamed, open or repressed. Embedded in this paradigm is a righteousness, a belief that somehow there is a “right” way to be out. But Western culture is highly individualistic, and what pride and empowerment looks like for an American, say, often doesn’t translate in places that are comparatively more collectivist, or where there is a larger emphasis on familial relations. It’s also a notion created and peddled largely by men (often white) — as are most narratives of the LGBTQ experience — and whose experiences in the world, it barely needs noting, are vastly different from women and people of color.

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The “Queer Eye” experts are trying to do something they think will be positive, that much is clear. But conflating the coming out experience for men and women as one that is equally liberating can be harmful and sometimes even dangerous. For instance, a study published in 2017 that examined the coming out process in Japan found that mothers of "Japanese lesbian, bisexual female and transgender Female-to-Male/X-gender individuals” tended to be “reactionary and abusive” when their children came out, but were “comparatively undemonstrative” when it was “gay and transgender Male-to-Female/X-gender individuals.”

As the study suggests, coming out can be much harder for a lesbian than a gay man, for example. There can be unintended, harmful consequences in suggesting the experiences of different demographics in the LGBTQ community are somehow all analogous. It is also condescending to assume that a Western version of queer culture and activism can be successfully exported to all corners of the world, “liberating” our queer brothers, sisters and nonbinary siblings in the process.

It is therefore incumbent upon those in the community, such as myself, to ask who is creating LGBTQ narratives and defining what it means to live successfully as a queer person. The lack of diversity amongst those at the helm of LGBTQ culture is precisely what quells nuance and alternative modes of existence. Issues of racism and misogyny within the LGBTQ community have emerged precisely because of this problem. “[T]he LGBT world revolves around white gay men to the exclusion of others,” opines Owen Jones in The Guardian.

Even the language the mainstream LGBTQ movement uses for our identities — which invariably informs how we think about them — often doesn’t translate outside the Western world. Let us turn our attention to South Asia, a region I am personally more familiar with. Hijra, a term historically reserved for eunuchs or intersex individuals in South Asia, has been mistranslated and misinterpreted in the West. Hijras are not an emerging identity; they have existed for millennia, playing prominent roles in the Mughal court, for instance. The term hijra has erroneously become synonymous with “trans woman” in the West (perhaps because of this, more recently, the word has locally come to include trans women) and gains made in regards to hijras’ civil rights have been appropriated or claimed by the LGBTQ movement in the West, the very same movement that doesn’t take the time to appreciate, much less recognize, these profound cultural and historical differences.

The West does not have an equivalent for hijras. It is worth mentioning that when governments in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh decided to recognize the hijra community in an official capacity, they introduced a “third gender” category. This shows just how different this community is from the Western trans community, the majority of whom do not not identify as nonbinary, according to the limited data available.

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I know a number of gay South Asian men and women, some of whom live with their partners, who never declared their sexuality to their families, but whose families nonetheless share an inferred understanding of who they are. Loudly declaring any part of one’s sexuality, whether it be gay or straight, is incongruous with South Asian cultural norms. But that doesn’t mean queer people cannot live their lives — they are simply living queerly in another way. And this way of life is no less valid than those who march in Pride parades.

It would be remiss of me to overlook the global LGBTQ community’s advancements, both in terms of rights and acceptance, thanks to visibility. For example, Section 377, which criminalized homosexuality in India (and was ironically introduced by the British during colonial rule), was repealed thanks to vocal resistance, on the streets and in the courts. For those in the community who feel able to visibly resist, I applaud their efforts and feel a sense of personal gratitude. But my point is that varying degrees of visibility and loudness should be just as acceptable to, and just as valued by, leaders within the community. No two circumstances are the same.

It would be remiss of me to overlook the global LGBTQ community’s advancements, both in terms of rights and acceptance, thanks to visibility.

"By you living in your truth, you make it easier and better and more possible for other people to live in their truth,” Jonathan Van Ness tells Kan during the “Queer Eye” episode. “Because it's never the situation. It's always your reaction." This is a heartfelt and encouraging sentiment, especially from a person who was bullied mercilessly as a child. But it is also an extraordinarily privileged one, which does not apply to people like Meeno and Amna, two Pakistani trans women who were reportedly beaten and tortured by police in Saudi Arabia until they died. In their case, it was absolutely about the situation, not their emotional response to it.

And we don’t need high-profile tragedies to make the case that, for most queer people in the world, their context is crucial. From young gay women coming out to their families, only to be quickly consigned to marriage and a lifetime of marital rape, to people — in some cases, with no other means or social capital — being excommunicated by their families and communities, context can be everything.

The “Queer Eye” episode thankfully ends on a positive note; Kan appears to have a quietly receptive family when he introduces his boyfriend. But there is no guarantee the story would’ve unfolded like that outside the relatively safe constructs of reality TV. Nor do we know what happens when the cameras were switched off, much less a few months down the line. It is short-sighted to impose a loud, Western model of being out, largely shaped by middle- and upper-class white men, only to be long gone while the (potential) consequences of this culture clash unfold. It is imperious, not uplifting.

Of course, queer people should not feel suffocated or constrained. As an openly gay woman with a partner who is fully integrated into my life, I cannot stress the benefits of feeling at ease within one’s own skin. But there are a multitude of ways you can be queer — fulfilling ways, I might add. Acceptance, especially in some intergenerational families and close-knit communities, can be powerful even when it doesn’t come wrapped in a rainbow flag.