Tacit Subjects: Belonging and Same-Sex Desire among Dominican Immigrant Men

Tacit Subjects: Belonging and Same-Sex Desire among Dominican Immigrant Men

by Carlos Ulises Decena

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Tacit Subjects is a pioneering analysis of how gay immigrant men of color negotiate race, sexuality, and power in their daily lives. Drawing on ethnographic research with Dominicans in New York City, Carlos Ulises Decena explains that while the men who shared their life stories with him may self-identify as gay, they are not the liberated figures of traditional gay migration narratives. Decena contends that in migrating to Washington Heights, a Dominican enclave in New York, these men moved from one site to another within an increasingly transnational Dominican society. Many of them migrated and survived through the resources of their families and broader communities. Explicit acknowledgment or discussion of their homosexuality might rupture these crucial social and familial bonds. Yet some of Decena’s informants were sure that their sexuality was tacitly understood by their family members or others close to them. Analyzing their recollections about migration, settlement, masculinity, sex, and return trips to the Dominican Republic, Decena describes how the men at the center of Tacit Subjects contest, reproduce, and reformulate Dominican identity in New York. Their stories reveal how differences in class, race, and education shape their relations with fellow Dominicans. They also offer a view of “gay New York” that foregrounds the struggles for respect, belonging, and survival within a particular immigrant community.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822393900
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 04/06/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 328
File size: 738 KB

About the Author

Carlos Ulises Decena is Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, and Latino and Hispanic Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick.

Read an Excerpt


Belonging and Same-Sex Desire among Dominican Immigrant Men
By Carlos Ulises Decena

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4926-6

Chapter One

Tacit Subjects

I did not tell them anything. They did not ask me anything. I know that they know.—DANNY, Filipino.

Basically, you know, she doesn't like my way of life so we don't talk about it. She respects me, she loves me, she spoils me. But it's something we just don't discuss. I think I don't do it out of respect for her, and she doesn't do it out of respect for me.—ALICIA B., Puertorriqueña.

They know, I mean, parents know.... I've had relationships ... and when I've been with these guys, they [his parents] always refer to me as like you in plural.... And if there's like a family gathering or whatever, they'll always invite that particular friend that I'm going out with. So, you know, it's understood but it's never discussed.—PATRICIO, Puerto Rican.

What is funny is I think they know.... I have been living with a man for 13 years and so how can they not ... so I think my family is just living in denial, but I think that they know but they don't want to deal with it and I think it is safe not to discuss it.—UNNAMED, Latino.

You know that's very interesting because I know they know. But my family is like this. They don't discuss it.... My older sister, she and I get along best of all. She loves me to death. But she doesn't discuss it. And if someone tries to discuss it in a demeaning way or something, not about me but just about gay people, period, she will immediately attack or whatever. But no, they don't discuss that.—D.C., African American.

I imagine that my whole family knows, but not from my mouth or because they've asked me. I think that they intuitively know. They prefer not to ask me and prefer that I don't tell them. It's not necessary, it's only my sexual preference.—MARCOS, mexicano interviewed in Guadalajara.

* * *

Conventional views of coming out in the United States celebrate the individual, the visible, and the proud. Given the growing legitimacy of predominantly white and middle-class lesbians and gay men in this country and of models that presume and uphold individual decision making, refusals of speech, pride, and visibility have been generally interpreted as suspect, as evidence of denial or internalized homophobia, or as outright pathology.

These standard interpretations stayed with me as I talked to Dominican self-identified gay and bisexual men who were my friends or acquaintances and, in some cases, who became participants in this study. Much of what I heard in these conversations paralleled the comments excerpted above from the work of other scholars: the men with whom I spoke described their sexuality as something present yet not remarked upon, something understood yet not stated, something intuited yet uncertain, something known yet not broached by either person in a given exchange. The sites where this presence, understanding, intuition, or knowledge mattered were invariably those of family and close interpersonal relationships. I began to realize that to become an apt interpreter of what I heard required me to listen carefully to what people said for what I could learn from them.

As the diversity of the men and women cited above illustrates, other scholars have remarked on this tendency to be present, be understood, or be known as lesbian or gay in several communities of color in the United States without statements or declarations. In the case of the Dominican immigrant gay men with whom I worked, the analysis of them as "in the closet" was consistent with existing views about the way Latinos and other populations of color deal with their sexual identities. These men were at best cast as indifferent to the development of a gay Dominican community and at worst were seen as immigrants whose physical displacement had not helped them overcome the internalized homophobia that supposedly characterized their lives in the Dominican Republic.

A neoliberal interpretation of coming out characteristic of the contemporary United States takes for granted that all LGBTQ people should come out of the closet. Instead of being the beginning of a project of social transformation— as coming out was understood in the early days of gay liberation—individual self-realization through speech has been severed from collective social change. Today, one comes out not to change the world but to be a "normal" gay subject. From this perspective, some queers of color have an uneasy relationship with the closet because they resist the depoliticized "liberation" that coming out promises, which currently resides in a gay identity as a sociocultural formation and as a niche market. Critiques of coming out in its current form have been and continue to be made partly because of the persistence of this way of thinking about gay subject formation and the racial and class biases obscured by this dominant model.

Some individuals who do not explain their sexual identity to others are not silent about it, as can be seen in the quotes from the work of other scholars at the beginning of this chapter. Drawing from Spanish grammar, I propose comparing (1) the way some of the informants in this study inhabit a space that is both "in" and "out" of the closet with (2) the tacit subject—an analytic framework that is attentive to the range, interaction, and intersection of the meanings and contexts involved in whether or not informants present their sexual identity in public. Negotiations of information about a person's sexual identity, as I will show, teach us about the forms of knowledge and complicity that structure and sustain hierarchical social relations.

In Spanish grammar, the "sujeto tácito" (tacit subject) is the subject that is not spoken but that can be ascertained through the conjugation of the verb used in a sentence. For example, instead of saying "I go to school," in Spanish one might say, "Voy a la escuela" without using the pronoun "yo" (I). Since the conjugation "voy" (I go) leaves no doubt that one speaks in the first-person singular, whoever hears this sentence knows that the subject is built into the action expressed through the verb. Using this grammatical structure as a metaphor to explain how the informants interpret the way others view their lives, the "sujeto tácito" suggests that coming out may sometimes be redundant. In other words, coming out can be a verbal declaration of something that is already understood or assumed—tacit—in an exchange. What is tacit is neither secret nor silent.

My formulation of "tacit subjects" is partly inflected by my reading of the work of the philosopher Michael Polanyi, in particular his idea of tacit knowledge. For Polanyi, tacit knowledge refers to forms of expertise and ways of carrying oneself in the world that cannot be taught to others by way of verbal information exchange. When we think about skills, "there are things that we know but cannot tell," by which Polanyi refers, for instance, to the coordination of motor skills with balance and other factors that produce a competent bike rider. Another example might be that of a musician who learns to play a piece of music correctly not only by reading notes on a pentagram but also by learning to "hear" how a piece of music is supposed to sound through interaction and collaboration with a music teacher. In The Tacit Dimension and Personal Knowledge, Polanyi elaborated on this conceptualization as a way to challenge what he perceived as a problematic and dangerous scientific emphasis on logic and rationality. He put forward a view that emphasized the importance of learning that takes place through apprenticeship and interpersonal exchange because of how much of knowledge and expertise are developed through learning that goes beyond what is written or "taught" verbally. Although "tacit subjects" might include forms of "tacit knowing," Polanyi's conceptualization has a positivistic end that is far from what I am interested in underlining through "tacit subjects." Whereas Polanyi's "tacit knowing" will ultimately yield an adequate competence (you will get to play the piece "properly") "tacit subjects" cannot be grasped in consistent or totalizing ways. My formulation points to zones of complicity that may include (but are not limited to) shared knowledge. "To know more than one can tell" (to borrow from Polanyi) involves the impossible project of "telling" overlapping layers of collaboration and complicity that structure and sustain sociality.

This is particularly relevant when addressing the question of family knowledge about a person's sexual orientation. How tacit one's sexual identity is to others is a matter of interpretation and requires that the others interacting with the informants recognize and decode the self-presentation of bodies and the information about them that circulates in families. In thinking that their homosexuality is knowable in a tacit way to the people close to them, the informants in this book assumed that many people had the requisite skills to recognize and decode their behavior. Some people may not get the signs, but these men understood that there was a distinction between their intentional manipulation of their self-presentation and impressions that they unintentionally gave to others. Following Goffman, I argue that the men I interviewed understood that there was a difference between "the expression that [they] give, and the expression that [they] give off." They understood that their own bodies traversed the social world and signified in ways that exceeded (and often betrayed) the intention of those who inhabited them. Thus, it was always possible that someone might "get" their gayness despite all effort put into concealing it.

Instead of focusing on an explicit definition or categorization of individuals, "tacit subjects" helps us get at the various complicities that structure social relations. As the examples presented below will show, the tacit subject in specific situations included but ultimately exceeded individual subjectivity and sexuality. Indeed, what materializes in these examples are the power dynamics that shaped the way individuals negotiated information about their sexual identities. In the case of the informants, the concept shifts the analysis away from self-definition toward an investigation of the way they refused the reductionism gayness engendered in the public sphere. Avoiding this reductionism is paramount when the very conditions of one's migration, survival, or (real or imagined) upward mobility depend on people's continuing reliance on the resources that facilitated one's geographical displacement in the first place, as will be documented in the chapters that follow.

However, there is more at stake than just the way individuals made choices to tell or not to tell others about their sexual identity. Some of the examples offered below illustrate potential or real confrontations that actualized, through the verbal utterance of tacit subjects, the way people were linked to one another in asymmetrical power relations that they were invested in maintaining. There is a meaning of the word sujeto in Spanish that is not immediately derived from its pairing with tácito, but that points to a slippage I want to keep between "tacit subjects" (topics) and "tacit subjectivity." When seen as the adjective form of the verb sujetar, sujeto is someone under the power of someone else (as in the English subjected). Yet one of the meanings of sujetar in Spanish, according to the Real Academia de la Lengua Española, is "poner en una cosa algún objeto para que no se caiga, mueva, desordene, etc." (to put an object inside something so it will not fall, move, get disordered, etc.). In this sense, something or someone is sujeto if they are held by someone or something else that prevents them from "falling," from producing disorder.

An incorporation of this meaning of sujeto into my discussion of tacit subjects illustrates the complicities that constitute social relations. The tacit subject not only holds a person or topic from "falling" by bringing shame on those it concerns; the tacit subject holds the social formation as a whole from falling, moving, getting disordered. In the various exchanges and confrontations that I will discuss, at stake were the terms in which people addressed or interacted with one another. When the terms were violated and people confronted one another, what were most exposed and threatened were the social relations established. A sujeto tácito in this context might be constituted by the unaddressed yet understood knowledge (of individuals or issues) that linked together people within specific social groupings. What may fall, break, or get disordered was the very glue of sociality that made survival possible for these men and the people they loved.

* * * Silence [not equal to] Death

The informants' negotiations of coming out illustrate that ambiguity and shared understandings are crucial to the sustenance of individuals and collectivities. Interviews suggest that the main pattern was the refusal of disclosure to others. Indeed, part of their coming out involved taking ownership of their lives. Most of these men saw accepting their gayness as a private matter. This can be seen in their frequent references to personal privacy, especially when it concerned their sexual and romantic attachments. Their understanding of "personal privacy," though echoing the traditional distinction between public and private spheres that characterizes liberal democracies, referenced individuals and contexts where such distinctions were tenuous at best. As will be shown in the chapters that follow, many of these men migrated and survived in New York through the resources within or connected to their families. Thus, they exercised ownership of their sexual identities by negotiating the degree to which their sexual and romantic lives became (or not) points of discussion in family settings. In this way, the informants referenced the public and private realms as "indexical signs that are always relative" and that depended on the context in which they were invoked for their deployment, meaning, and communicative effectiveness.

In some situations, the absence of a family dialogue about an openly lived homosexuality reveals the legitimacy that informants enjoyed, a legitimacy that allowed them to refuse to make their homosexuality a point of discussion. Máximo Domínguez, a light-skinned, forty-five-year-old informant who was unemployed but who came from a family that enjoyed ties to the Trujillo regime, did not like to talk about his life with his relatives. Because of what he characterized as his "strong personality," relatives did not broach the topic with him.

"Nadie se atreve a preguntarme nada" (Nobody dares ask me anything), he said.

"¿Cómo tú sabes que ellos saben?" (How do you know that they know?)

"Ellos no son estúpidos. Mi hermano ha ido conmigo a las discotecas. Y yo me he besado con mi novio alante de ellos." (They are not stupid. My brother has gone to gay discos with me. And I have kissed my boyfriend in front of them.)

This example is, undoubtedly, that of someone who was out to his family while remaining protective of his personal space. Having relationships with men was a part of Domínguez's life that did not need to be discussed. Most readers will probably agree in thinking that this informant was out of the closet even though there had never been a discussion with his family about the issue.

That Domínguez's relatives had seen him kiss his partners shows the degree of openness he enjoyed within the family while he remained protective of the issue to a point where they did not "dare" raise it. This was far from representative of what happened to others. Although some informants integrated partners into their family lives in New York, kissing and other expressions of affection were uncommon. More common were situations in which informants introduced partners as "amigos" (friends) to relatives. The case of Pablo Arismendi's dealings with information about his sexual identity illustrates the ways some informants handled these questions.

¿Quiénes en tu mundo saben que a ti te gustan los hombres? ¿Cómo tú se lo has hecho saber? Donde vivo, mi tía lo sabe. No porque yo se lo haya dicho. Ella lo intuye y se hace la loca. Pero ella sabe, por la manera en la que yo me visto y las salidas extrañas. Mi prima, se lo dije, porque una vez recibí una noticia de una persona muy allegada a mí que murió de una manera trágica. Entonces, yo me puse, como que me descontrolé en ese momento. Y le bombié el asunto.... Y ya después de ahí es historia. Somos cómplices. Mi mamá es otra que lo sabe. No porque yo se lo haya dicho, sino que porque lo intuye como madre y también se hace la indiferente. Los demás familiares se lo imaginan, pero no se atreven a hacer comentarios ni a decir nada.

¿Tu familia se ha enterado de que tú has tenido pareja? Who in your world knows that you like men? How have you let them know? (Continues...)

Excerpted from TACIT SUBJECTS by Carlos Ulises Decena Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1. Tacit Subjects 17

Part I. Leaving Living in the Mental Island 39

2. Moving Portraits 41

3. Desencontrando la dominicanidad in New York City 67

Part II. Body Languages 107

4. Eso se nota: Scenes from Queer Childhoods 111

5. Code Swishing 139

Part III. Colonial Zones 173

6. Virando la dominicanidad 177

7. To Be Someone, To Be Somewhere: Erotic Returns and U.S.-Caribbean Circuits of Desire 205

Epilogue 239

Notes 241

Bibliography 287

Index 303

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