My dissertation, titled "What's in a Name? Language, Culture, and Tongzhi Strategies for Social Change," examines strategies for social change in an authoritarian context that precludes avenues for direct political engagement, such as protests and public contention.
I focus on the contemporary tongzhi (LGBT) movement in the People’s Republic of China as a case in which grassroots groups have achieved significant social change—in terms of visibility, social acceptance, and participation—in virtual absence of public protest, and under conditions of tightening governmental control over civil society groups.
Tongzhi organizations operate in a gray area delineated by the official policy of “not encouraging, not discouraging, and not promoting” homosexual behavior, which grants a certain degree of freedom to groups but also makes it difficult for organizers to know where the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behavior lie. At the same time, groups navigate a treacherous ideological field informed by the transnational circulation of models for sexual identity politics that have been developed in Western democracies, and that promote “out and proud” visibility and an understanding of LGBT rights as human rights. While such models offer opportunities for transnational cooperation and support, their reliance on human rights discourse also makes them politically risky under the leadership of Xi Jinping—whose administration has openly condemned human rights as an ideological attack perpetuated by Western forces.
My work strives to disentangle these multiple social, cultural, and political constraints and opportunities through an analysis of tongzhi organizers’ conceptualizations of, and approaches to, social change. I ground my work in social movement theory and transnational queer studies, proposing a focus on linguistic strategies and processes as mechanisms for change.
I rely on a combination of qualitative methods—including ethnographic fieldwork, interviews, and rhetorical analysis of online content—to analyze the discursive strategies groups have developed in order to navigate the fragmented and ambiguous political environment in which they operate. My findings expose a theoretical gap in social movement literature, by questioning its problematic reliance on models that focus on confrontational tactics, protest, and rights-based strategies as a prerequisite for cultural and political change.