(Dis)Engagement with queer counterpublics: Exploring intimate and family lives in online and offline spaces in China

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Abstract

There have been ongoing discussions about the ways in which the Internet has created new spaces for sexual minority individuals to meet, communicate, and build their communities in recent decades. Nevertheless, previous studies have paid disproportionate attention to identity politics, civil society, and rights-based movements. They have largely overlooked other possible forms of, and orientations toward, engagement with cyberspace, particularly those that have emerged and been restricted in non-Western contexts. This article examines Chinese lesbians' experiences of using cyberspace and the extent to which these experiences help them develop their intimate and family lives. Drawing on interview data and developing a framework that combines queer counterpublics scholarship with insights drawn from the notion of relational selfhood, this study reveals a wide range of personal, familial, and socio-political motivations for (not) engaging in cyberspace and the mixed feelings of connection and distance experienced by participants. By identifying three forms of (dis)engagement with cyberspace: those demonstrated by ‘pioneers’, ‘skeptics’, and ‘conflicted pragmatists’, this study expands the notion of queer counterpublics beyond its focus on civic and political participation and illustrates the contested and contingent nature of Chinese queer counterpublics. It shows that Chinese lesbians' interactions in cyberspace enable them to explore non-traditional paths to family formation and motherhood. Meanwhile, these interactions expose them to tensions between the new possibilities revealed by online spaces and established socio-political and familial norms. I argue that prevailing heterosexual norms, coupled with material concerns and the regulatory power of the family and the state, continue to restrict the transformative potential of cyberspace and push some lesbians to withdraw from cyberspace into themselves and refrain from taking part in collective action. The article concludes with some reflections on queer counterpublics and the complex interplay between online and offline lives in the digital age.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)139-153
JournalBritish Journal of Sociology
Volume73
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 24 Dec 2021

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