In the novel For Today I Am A Boy, Kim Fu tells the story of a young Chinese-Canadian named Peter Huang, who throughout the novel grapples with the struggles of gender, race, and class. Peter’s experiences are particularly complex, namely because of the cultural weight of being the only male child in a Chinese family; however, Peter feels that he is a girl. Kim Fu presents Peter’s queerness through a racialized lens in order to represent the inherent complications of being doubly-marginalized in a society that cannot separate race or gender from a person’s identity. Fu uses Peter’s relationships with white characters to represent society’s inherently racialized view of queerness and its implications on trans* visibility and how trans* people express their gender; in this paper, I will focus on Peter’s relationships with Margie, John, and Mrs. Becker.
Peter just wants to be seen; Margie gives Peter the visibility as a feminine person that he wants to be seen as, however Margie can only see Peter this way through her racialized view of him. Margie has a racialized fetish, and she exoticizes Peter. When they first meet, Margie calls Peter “pretty,” which made him “felt like she had said a word that only [he] knew, that [he] had made up” (121). The word “pretty” is traditionally associated with describing feminine beauty. Being described as a word that is inherently feminine makes Peter feel as if he is truly being seen for the woman he is. However, Margie only thinks of Peter as pretty due to the fact that Western societies present Asian men as asexual, feminine, and delicate. When Peter and Margie have their first sexual encounter, she says to him, “‘So pretty and delicate. Just like I’d hoped’” (126). While Peter is being seen as a feminine-presenting person as he wishes to be seen as, the visibility is distorted because Margie is fetishizing and exoticizing Peter as an Asian person. The only way that Peter can truly be seen is through the gaze of a post-colonist, racist, white woman through her oriental fantasies. To fulfill her blatantly racist fantasies further, Margie “forced [Peter] to wear her panties and stockings […] She applied plum lipstick first, […] with odd care, deliberate motions. […] She peered close, stroke for stroke and impersonal, as though she saw only a canvas” (127). The word choice of “canvas” is particularly significant; Peter is a blank slate that Margie can use to fulfill her every fantasy. He’s not a person, but an object, a means to an end. To Margie, Peter is a “toy,” a plaything to fulfill her oriental fantasies that blind her to Peter’s true racial identity (127). Instead, Peter’s racial identity becomes a caricature, a complete distortion of truth. However, in this distortion, Peter becomes seen as the feminine person he wants to be visible as. The White Gaze allows Peter to be visible, however the two marginalized identities cannot exist simultaneously with the racialized lens; a compromise always exists.
John is portrayed as a white savior figure in order to emphasize that as a queer person of color, Peter’s narrative is not authentically understood or seen due to the fact that queerness is always associated with whiteness. John has a high level of privilege that he fails to recognize. When Peter firsts meets Eileen, she tells him that John is “‘always bringing home curious strays. Thinks it’s his job to educate the whole fucking world’” (217). To both John and Eileen, the people they attempt to help are like “strays,” people who need direction, a home. John has a tendency to find people who he can save, direct, and provide a home for; he feels an obligation or a “job” to save people through educating them about queer issues that they potentially did not have the resources to learn about previously, like Peter. In the context of colonialism, this parallels the roles of imperialist countries and the countries that they colonized in the name of saving people and attempting to help them. In the novel, John represents the colonialist country while Peter is the country in need of help. John treats Peter like a project instead of a person. When Peter tells John and Eileen that he wants to be Audrey Hepburn for Halloween, they assist him in his transformation for Halloween night. This transformation, done by two white people, turn Peter into a white woman, Audrey Hepburn, who inhabits a very specific and idealistic type of womanhood and femininity. The womanhood that John and his friends encourage Peter to be is a normative type of womanhood: a white womanhood. Peter cannot be seen authentically for who he is. Peter reflects on this, saying that “Eileen and John saw straight through me, past me, like a hole had been bored through my chest” (235). This metaphor can be taken quite literally; Peter has no visibility in his relationship with John, who does not recognize Peter’s unique and complex experiences as a queer person of color. When Peter confronts him about this, John yells, “‘You think my life’s been easy?’” to which Peter replies, “‘Yes, I think it’s been fucking easy!’” (234). Because Peter’s narrative of transness has been racialized, his narrative is non-normative. Queerness is understood through a racialized lens; queerness is always a white person. The normative narrative of queerness/transness is whiteness. John, the White Savior, fails to recognize his privilege as a white person, and thus fails to see Peter completely.
Mrs. Becker serves as a mode of white surveillance to represent whiteness policing non-normative gender expression. Similar to Margie, Mrs. Becker uses her white gaze to make Peter visible; however, this visibility is unwanted because it serves to correct non-normative performances of gender. In an early description of Mrs. Becker, Peter says that she is “standing in her yard and watching the sprinkler spit its twitching lines like it needed supervision” (48). The language in this already makes the reader associate Mrs. Becker with surveillance or “supervision.” She is constantly watching, keeping things in “lines,” making sure that everything goes the way it is expected to. When Mrs. Becker catches Peter wearing the apron naked while doing housework, Peter catches “a flash of white in [his] peripheral vision. […] Mrs. Becker was standing in our yard, staring through the window as frankly as a ghost” (50). Peter notices the flash of white, spying on him, policing his private expressions and explorations of gender. The “flash of white” can be interpreted to represent whiteness as a whole, constantly policing how gender is performed. Whiteness is normative; if something is being performed non-normatively, then it must be changed, or not seen. Mrs. Becker is another example of the white gaze, which structures racialized gender and sexuality. The white gaze is a method of regulation and containment, a way to make sure people do not inhabit spaces that they are not supposed to take up. Inhabiting space and visibility are vastly intertwined. Non-normative expressions of sexuality and gender are kept from being visible.
In order to be seen, Peter must transcend both race and gender because the norm is a cisgender, white woman. White colonial structures prevent queer people of color, doubly-marginalized people, from being visible as their true selves without some aspect of their identity being compromised. Between the white gaze, the white savior, surveillance, and fetishization, people of color are never wholly seen authentically.
Fu, Kim. For Today I Am A Boy. First Mariner Books, 2014.