What does it mean to queer1I use the word 'queer' in this article as shorthand for indicating an oppositional space outside hetero-normativity. I recognise the term as coming out of a particular political moment in the history of lesbian and gay movements in the West, but find it useful in that it is (in principle at least) gender-neutral and connotes an entire range of alternative sexual practices and sensibilities, in a way that 'lesbian,' 'bisexual' or 'gay' do not. the diaspora? The question was floating in the back of my mind as I walked into a recent panel discussion entitled "Queer Festivals Go Global," an event organised by the 1994 New York Experimental Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. The very existence of such a panel, and the dialogue that took place during it, seemed to speak to an increasing need shared by many of us to theorise queerness across national borders. But as I listened to the discussion, it became increasingly obvious to me how exceedingly complicated it is to think in terms of a queer diaspora: it is difficult, if not impossible to avoid falling into murky territory while trying to negotiate a path around existing and competing discourses on sexuality, class, authenticity, language...the list goes on. In fact, I walked away from the panel more aware than ever of the ways in which a project of constructing a diasporic queerness is fraught with pleasures and dangers—and plenty of both. All I hope to do with this article is to simply open up areas and dialogue and speculation on what some of these might be.
We already know about the pleasures: as Sivananda Khan says in Pratibha Parmar's documentary film Khush, it's all about sex and solidarity. We know what a high it can be to walk into a bhangra party and revel in the sight of queer brown folks doing their thing; or to participate in conferences like Desh Pardesh that draw progressive South Asians together from all over the globe. Many of us are also a part of more informal networks of friends and lovers that traverse various diasporic locations. These are but a few of the multiple and proliferating sites—both formal and informal—upon which a South Asian diasporic queerness is being articulated.
This time around the cultural imperialists would be gay people in the West exporting and imposing their particular brand of queer identity upon unsuspecting non-Western subjects.
So what about the dangers? The pitfalls that the film festival panel ran into are emblematic, I think, of the difficulties inherent in recent formal attempts—like festivals and conferences—in articulating a queer diaspora. The panellists at this particular programme spoke about the problems in transporting queer festivals (that were forthe most part conceived in the west) to India, Brazil, Hong Kong, and other parts of the non-Western world. There was a lot of talk among both the panellists and audience members about the need to avoid yet anotherform of 'cultural imperialism,' where this time around the cultural imperialists would be gay people in the West exporting and imposing their particular brand of queer identity upon unsuspecting non-Western subjects.
I could certainly understand where this well-intentioned concern with imposing 'alien' paradigms and strategies was coming from, given that the weapon most often wielded against any struggle for queer visibility and self-definition is that same-sex sexuality is a Western import, something that is not 'authentically' Indian, Brazilian, etc. (fill in the blank). The necessity we feel to work against and grapple with such notions of authenticity also plays out in the ongoing debate around what to call ourselves, the language we use to signify oppositional or marginalised or alternative sexualities in a way that doesn't elide certain experiences and histories.
But this is where it gets tricky: in struggling against one prevailing discourse, we find ourselves reconsolidating a number of other, equally problematic ones. One curator at the panel, for instance, talked about how troubled she was that the programme on body-piercing she had taken from New York to Brazil prompted a body-piercing trend in the Brazilian city where it was shown. She didn't seem to recognise thatthe non-Western 'they' constantly (and at time condescendingly) being referred to has agency, that consumption— whether of identities or fashions or modes of organising—isn't about mimicry but is a productive, imaginative act, that what is consumed is not simply and passively digested but more often than not reworked and forced to resignify. In denying the non-Western 'they' the power to invent—and in reducing 'their' actions to mere mimicry—'they' were effectively shut out of the dialogue that constructs a queer diasporic subject and sensibility.
Nor did anyone problematise the construction of this non-Western 'they' as some kind of monolithic whole, as opposed to one that is differentiated by class, language, and a whole host of other factors. Indeed, there seemed to be a curious reassertion of an us/them binary, where the main trajectory was between 'us' in the West and 'them' in our respective countries of 'origin'—a move that is completely at odds with a diasporic project that sees cultural flow and identity formation in terms of multiple and non-hierarchical sites of exchange and influence.
It's all about sex and solidarity. We know what a high it can be to walk into a bhangra party and revel in the sight of queer brown folks doing their thing.
Can we, then, avoid replicating this kind of conceptual violence and at the same time in terms of a queer diaspora? How do we allow for the fact that same-sex eroticism exists very differently in different diasporic contexts, while simultaneously recognising the common forms of violence that we face every day because of our sexuality—regardless of whether or not we or others label it as 'queer' or 'lesbian' or whatever? For that matter, what does 'diaspora' mean for South Asians in the first place? Addressing the last question first, we need to keep in mind the limitations involved in theorising ourselves as 'diasporic' subjects at all, even while acknowledging that the notion of diaspora is a useful and necessary one for those of us who inhabit multiple and often contradictory geographic and psychic spaces. As one critic writes: "To be cognisant of oneself as a diasporic subject is always to be aware of oneself, no matter where one is, as from elsewhere, in the process of making [an] appeal to be considered as if one were from here."2Kenneth Warren, Appeals of (Mis)Recognition: Theorizing the Diaspora in The Cultures of United States Imperialism, editors Amy Kapland and Donald E. Pease.
It is this simultaneity of diasporic experience—of being inside/outside—that is so perfectly captured and negotiated by South Asian transnational popular cultural forms such as bhangra. Bhangra has become a general signifier for South Asian-ness from New York to London to Toronto to Bombay, calling into existence a diasporic network of 'affiliation and affect'3The phrase is Paul Gilroy's which he uses to discuss Black diasporic cultural production. See The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), p16. that cuts across national boundaries with remarkable fluidity. In this sense, bhangra enacts a subaltern 'counter-public' space, as queer theorist Jose Munoz terms it, that resists the exclusionary norms of a bourgeois public sphere4I am indebted to Jose Munoz's recent lecture on Latino Bodies, Queer Spaces, given at Columbia University, for this formulation of the 'counter-public.'. Yet, as with most constructions of community and ethnic identity, however oppositional, current articulations of diaspora tend to replicate conventional ideologies of gender and sexuality; once again, certain bodies (queer and/or female) are rendered invisible or marked as Other. I have only to think of a recent bhangra party I went to, where it became rapidly clear to me that I couldn't dance the way I wanted to or with whom I wanted, the space being aggressively and unrelentingly straight.
So how do those of us who fall outside the heterosexual, monogamous norm centre ourselves as diasporic subjects? Perhaps the strategic appropriation of bhangra by queer South Asians in the West—where it has become a staple at parties and parades as a way of signifying South Asianness to mainstream (white) queer communities, as well as to other queer people of colour—offers a glimpse into what a queer South Asian diaspora could look (and sound) like. To look at the uses to which queer South Asians put bhangra or filmi music or any other popular cultural form available to us is to force us to theorise identity in a way that confound the easy cultural imperialism argument that was being put forward at the film festival panel. It is to realise that such forms of transnational popular practice mean radically different things in different contexts, that it's not about a one-way flow of commodities, identities or models of being and organising; rather, it's about a non-hierarchical web of exchange, where queerness and South Asian-ness are being contested and made anew every step of the way.
It is here, perhaps, within queer South Asian diasporic cultural practices, that a new paradigm of queerness is beginning to take shape. And it seems to do so in a way that formal attempts at forging new ontological paradigms (the film fests and the panels) have yet to catch up to. This isn't to romanticise popular culture, or to reassert the old theory versus practice split, but I do get the sense that what's going on through informal cultural practices (like bhangra) exceeds the theoretical models that we've been working with so far. Paying closer attention to these varied performances of a queer South Asian 'counter-public' demands that we theorise queer diaspora in a particular way: not in terms of some sort of static, general queer South Asian subject that inhabits this diasporic space, not in terms of a notion of both queerness and diaspora that replicates existing power structures between the West and 'the rest.' Rather, this new theorisation of diasporic queerness opens up tremendous possibilities, posing a powerful challenge to hegemonic constructions of both sexuality and nationhood while articulating the linkages between the two.
I would like to thank Hiram Perez, Arita Echavez-See, and Shabnum Tejani for much thought-provoking discussion around questions of queerness and diaspora.
- I use the word 'queer' in this article as shorthand for indicating an oppositional space outside hetero-normativity. I recognise the term as coming out of a particular political moment in the history of lesbian and gay movements in the West, but find it useful in that it is (in principle at least) gender-neutral and connotes an entire range of alternative sexual practices and sensibilities, in a way that 'lesbian,' 'bisexual' or 'gay' do not.
- Kenneth Warren, Appeals of (Mis)Recognition: Theorizing the Diaspora in The Cultures of United States Imperialism, editors Amy Kapland and Donald E. Pease.
- The phrase is Paul Gilroy's which he uses to discuss Black diasporic cultural production. See The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), p16.
- I am indebted to Jose Munoz's recent lecture on Latino Bodies, Queer Spaces, given at Columbia University, for this formulation of the 'counter-public.'