On Global Queering

by Dennis Altman

© all rights reserved

Responses to this article have been received from David Halperin, Gary Dowsett, Michael Tan, Donald Morton, Christopher Lane, Fran Martin, Chris Berry and Craig Young.

There has also been a reply from Dennis Altman to the issues raised in the above responses.

Between the emergence of ‘queer’ assertion and the impact of AIDS, a major revolution has occurred in how we imagine homosexuality in the contemporary world. In some ways it is a revolution prefigured by the gay liberation movements of the early 1970s, but contrary to the expectations of that time, it has occurred in a period which has also seen the triumph of capitalism and a retreat from principles of social justice and the welfare state. Neither the radicals of the Gay Liberation Front, nor the moral conservatives who dominated the right of twenty years ago, were prepared for the changes which have made the gay and lesbian market a favourite target for car and telephone companies.

The liberal journal, The Economist, hailed the emergence of a global shift in attitudes to homosexuality in their first issue for 1996, with a cover story proclaiming: “Let Them Wed.” In the body of the paper was a three-page article which spoke of the rapid spread of new concepts of homosexual identity and acceptance: “In effect, what McDonald’s has done for food and Disney has done for entertainment, the global emergence of ordinary gayness is doing for sexual cultures.”1

That it has taken almost thirty years for the mainstream press to come round to the gay liberation position–that what had previously been defined as criminal, sick or deviant is no more than a very ordinary way of being in the world–says something about the snail’s pace of social change. On the other hand, The Economist is in some ways far ahead of reality; poofter bashing, state-sanctioned discrimination against lesbian mothers, non-recognition of homosexual relationships remains the norm, even in most of the Western world. The current hysteria around paedophilia in Australia always threatens to become a generalised attack on homosexuality, conveniently overlooking the far larger amount of heterosexual child sexual abuse, often within the conventional family.

In many other parts of the world the very existence of homosexuality is denied and there is state-sanctioned violence against those rash enough to challenge this denial. Nevertheless, the Economist is right in pointing to the rapidity of change, both within and outside the Western world in the past decade (and they draw examples from countries as dissimilar as Slovenia, Argentina, Pakistan and Zimbabwe). Reading their story one might assume that prejudice and discrimination against homosexuals is disappearing as rapidly as are those other targets of The Economist, high taxes and the welfare state.

Exporting the American Dream

The best homosexuality is in America, like the best everything else, and California, where all national tendencies achieve their most hyperbolic expression, is a living beach of writhing male bodies.2

There is a clear connection between the expansion of consumer society and the growth of overt lesbian/gay worlds: the expansion of the free market has also opened up possibilities for a rapid spread of the idea that (homo)sexuality is the basis for a social, political and commercial identity.3 Ironically this connection is somewhat obscured in the United States, where the moral right has become powerful by arguing against government intervention on the side of wages, working conditions, healthcare and environmental protection, while seeing no inconsistency in seeking punitive restrictions on private behaviours. Along with Tasmania, about half the states of the United States retain the criminal status of homosexual acts–in private and between consenting adults–despite the constant national rhetoric about privacy and individual rights.

This position was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986, and unlike Australia, the American government has not granted its citizens any possibility of seeking redress through the United Nations Human Rights Commission. But the hypocrisies of the United States, while a rich subject for satire, are not the primary concern here. Indeed, the development of lesbian/gay communities in the United States suggest that under certain conditions legal restraints are fairly meaningless and will be overtaken by the imperatives of the market. In the same way Margaret Thatcher’s infamous ‘Clause 22’ in Britain, which sought to outlaw any positive discussion of homosexuality, probably helped regenerate the British gay movement.

Yet for all its oddities, it is sensible to begin a discussion of new sexual politics with the United States. Change in America influences the rest of the world in dramatic ways, even though most of western Europe and Australasia can claim to be more progressive in terms of state and media acceptance of homosexuality. While gay liberation can claim roots in the European student riots of 1968 as much as in the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York, it is Stonewall which has become internationally known as the symbol of a new stage of gay self-affirmation,4 symbolised in the recent British film, Stonewall. The ‘macho’ gay man of the 1970s, the ‘lipstick lesbian’ of the 1990s, are a global phenomenon, thanks to the ability of mass media to market particular American lifestyles and appearances.

One sees unmistakable signs of American lesbian/gay imagery and self-presentation in almost every part of the rich world. While Australia has developed a strong gay/lesbian movement and highly visible community activities, we retain a heavy reliance on American images and fashion. A few years ago the visiting American Neil Miller observed that “when Australian gays and lesbians talked about books, the authors they mentioned were invariably North American or British.”5 Over the past couple of years this has begun to change, as publishers have been aggressively seeking out Australian gay and lesbian writing. During the past year alone there has been a special Queer issue of Meanjin, the publication of a major guide to “gay and lesbian writing in Australia”, several anthologies aimed at the teenage market and increasing recognition of lesbian/gay writers and themes in most literary events.6

Nonetheless, American books, films, magazines and fashions continue to define contemporary gay and lesbian meanings for most of the world. The Economist is probably correct in suggesting that the very diffusion of modern homosexual identities throughout the world is part of both economic and cultural globalisation. “Jakarta,” wrote Alison Murray a few years ago, “is now gayer than ever, and despite the dominant discourse, gay is a modern way to be. This has undoubtedly been influenced by Western trends and internationalisation of gay culture, and in the process, the distinctive position of the banci has tended to be subsumed within the definition of gay.”7

Murray’s reference to the banci reminds us that almost all societies have indigenous ways of conceptualising sexuality and gender which don’t necessarily correspond with modern Western assumptions. Terms such as banci kathoey (in Thailand), fa’fafine (in Polynesia) are used to describe men whose sense of self places them outside the conventional gender order. (There appear to be far fewer comparable possibilities–and terms–for women.) The American anthropologist Niko Besnier uses the term ‘gender liminality’ to describe this difference, and stresses that sexual relations with men are not necessarily seen as a central characteristic of non-conventional gender roles.8

In a sense the development of ‘modern’ homosexualities means the break with traditional assumptions of a connection between ‘gender role’ and ‘sexual deviance’, thus repudiating the assumption in Western societies that homosexuals are women and men who want to be the opposite sex. ‘Macho’ gay men, ‘lipstick lesbians’, are significant precisely because of their repudiation of this connection, insisting that if gender is performance, as Judith Butler tells us, then there is no necessary connection between a certain sort of gender presentation and one’s sexual preferences. It is only in the past thirty years that this break has become the norm in Western societies, and old assumptions linger on in British television comedies and American films such as The Birdcage.

The Economist sees economic growth and AIDS as the two major forces in creating gay/lesbian communities in the non-Western world. With affluence comes exposure to mass media and consumerism, as well as increasing space and time to develop identities and lifestyles which go beyond the expectations of one’s parents. It is perhaps symbolic that the massive shopping malls of Southeast Asia have become major meeting places for young homosexuals, both men and women, just as they are potent symbols of the ways in which mass consumerism is transforming certain social and economic relationships.

But equally the strength of family ties in even the richest countries of East Asia remains an argument against too reductionist an insistence on the ways in which affluence will change social relations. The weight of family obligations remains a more important fact for young homosexuals in countries such as Japan, Malaysia or the Philippines than for homosexuals in Western countries, who are far more likely to live openly with a partner of the same sex. Little wonder that the Taiwanese film The Wedding Banquet, in which a young gay man living in New York marries to please his Chinese parents, is so popular among Asian gay groups. (The same theme underlies the 1986 Mexican film Dona Herlinda and her Son, in which the mother can accept her son’s homosexual relationship as long as it is never acknowledged.) Family pressures are a real burden on many young women and men in the West, but not, it would seem, as ubiquitous as in other parts of the world. Last year, in Morocco, I met several men who identified as gay–and felt they would need to emigrate to escape family pressures to marry.

This example highlights the fact that in some countries, especially in the Islamic world and in Communist Asia, homosexual cultural traditions are denied both in the name of modernity and in opposition to Westernisation: there is an irony in claiming that Western influences have brought homosexuality to countries such as Iran or China, an irony which becomes a tragedy for those who are victimised because of it.

The Economist is right in suggesting that there is a growing ‘modern’ homosexuality, which is producing lesbian bars and gay gyms in the wake of an expanding global capitalism. But these changes are more uneven and more related to cultural traditions than might seem at first apparent. As homosexual movements develop in non-Western countries they will, in turn, develop identities and lifestyles different to those from which they originally drew their inspiration.

Through the Gaze of AIDS

Among the unexpected consequences of the AIDS epidemic is the rapid growth of an international discourse around sexuality, heavily influenced by liberal Western assumptions. In the interests of preventing the spread of HIV, governments and international agencies have promoted the study of sexual behaviour, which has inevitably helped produce a greater emphasis on categorising and naming practices which often went unacknowledged. In a very Foucauldian way, the imperatives of AIDS education have helped create ‘men who have sex with men’, just as it is producing ‘commercial sex workers’ and ‘people with HIV/AIDS’.

Equally, the imperatives of AIDS have pushed embryonic gay communities in a number of non-Western countries to create organisations, usually along Western lines, to help prevent HIV transmission among homosexual men. In many parts of the world you can now find ‘gay’ organisations which use Australian, American, German literature and posters as part of AIDS education campaigns, and, in so doing, help spread a very Western notion of how to be homosexual. Thus the Library Foundation in Manila, which runs workshops for young gay men, provides participants with a folder of reading materials, largely drawn from American sources, and the Dutch government now has a stated policy of funding such organisations in recipient countries, which has provoked anger from several African governments.

I have written at length elsewhere of ‘the AIDS industry’,9 which badly needs its David Lodge or Malcolm Bradbury to do justice to the self-promotion and career building which the epidemic has unfolded. But even allowing for the most cynical interpretation, there is little doubt that the creation of an international apparatus to respond to the epidemic has enabled a growing number of young men across the world to develop a shared perception of themselves as part of an international gay world. I write ‘young men’ deliberately, because the emphasis on AIDS has clearly been far less favourable to lesbian mobilisation, despite attempts at co-sexuality in groups such as the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC).

This argument, partly through its universalizing language of ‘globalisation’, comes down on the side of what I have elsewhere termed the ‘political economy’ as against the ‘anthropological’ explanation of changing sexual cultures. 10 There is another sort of explanation, namely one that places far greater stress on local and cultural conditions, arguing as Peter Jackson has put it for Thailand that: “The mere existence of the word ‘gay’ in the contemporary Thai language does not indicate that a global gay identity or a transnational homogenization of human sexuality is a necessary outcome of the impact of yet another universalizing world culture…Western notions of homosexuality and gay identity are also being accommodated within the Thai cultural framework, in the process becoming as much Thai as Western, if not more so.” 11 Peter and I have argued good naturedly about this for the past few years; the difference between us is clearly one of degree.

The New Fashionability of ‘Queer’ Studies

There is a history to be written of the way in which ‘queer studies’ emerged in the American academy in the early 1990s, the bastard child of the gay and lesbian movement and postmodern literary theory, which, like other unwed mothers, has been very loathe to acknowledge the father.

Twenty years ago there was already a course in ‘homophile studies’ at the University of Nebraska, encompassing theology, law, psychology, anthropology, sociology and literature. The development of the gay/lesbian movement during the 1970s involved numerous scholars and academics (not necessarily the same), and by the early 1980s there were several large international gay and lesbian studies conferences in Canada, the United States and the Netherlands.12 In Australia there was some discussion among academics of developing such studies, and short-lived attempts to promote them in both Sydney and Melbourne.

Much of the early developments were in history, and in Britain, the Netherlands and the United States historians such as Jeffrey Weeks, Jonathan Katz, Lillian Faderman, Blanche Cook and Gert Hekma began the work of excavating the history of how homosexuality had been variously constructed, understood and punished. In several cities, gay and lesbian history study groups were established (their impact is seen in works such as Kennedy and Davis’s history of Buffalo lesbians and Alan Berube’s account of the impact of World War II on the formation of gay/lesbian communities.13) In Australia, a number of feminist historians, such as Jill Matthews and Judith Allen, recognised the need to include lesbians within women’s history, while a group in Sydney, including Garry Wotherspoon, pioneered Australian gay history. (Wotherspoon’s account of gay Sydney, City of the Plain, was the first English language comprehensive gay urban history.)

Like related works in sociology and political science these works were firmly grounded in the movement, and the first generation of gay/lesbian scholars were also activists. This tradition was carried on through the AIDS era by people such as Simon Watney and Cindy Patton (and in Australia by the close links established between researchers at Macquarie University and the AIDS Council of New South Wales 14), but perhaps inevitably a new sort of academic enterprise began to emerge with the rapid impact of postmodernism and its criticisms of both identity–and ideologically based politics.

A number of people in the aesthetic disciplines, of whom the most significant was probably Eve Sedgwick at Duke, began to link discussion of homosexuality to other contemporary concerns: representation, authenticity, positionality, the body etc. 15 This move had the advantage of de-ghettoising gay/lesbian studies, so that homosexual themes and questions began to be discussed in larger contexts. However, new queer scholarship tended to totally ignore the work of movement-connected scholars, and to legitimise the new ‘queer’ scholarship by frequent invocation of postmodern gurus. Odd, of course, that an intellectual fashion which assailed the idea of ‘master narratives’ was so ready to erect its own intellectual idols, which reached its apotheosis in the use — without any apparent irony — by David Halperin of the title Saint Foucault for his most recent book.

As a consequence much of what has become known as ‘queer theory’ appears remarkably unaware of the history and writings of gay liberation, which is sometimes depicted as essentialist, despite a body of gay liberation work which explicitly drew on Freudian notions of polymorphous perversity.16 By 1995, I could read an honours thesis which spoke as if such notions had never occurred to anyone in the gay movement and were the discovery of French intellectuals writing ten years after the early debates in the sexual liberation movements. Even as carefully produced a book as the massive Lesbian & Gay Studies Reader(Routledge 1993, edited by Henry Abelove, Michele Barale and David Halperin) managed to find no room in its 666 pages for a discussion of the gay/lesbian movement nor of politics understood in the mainstream sense of institutions, elections, organisations and lobbying.

‘Queer theory’ shares with much of contemporary postmodernism an emphasis on representation as an aesthetic rather than a political problem, a desire to deconstruct all fixed points in the interests of ‘destabalising’ and ‘decentering’ our preconceptions. Given the arcane language within which much such theory is written–one might compliment Eve Sedgwick for her intelligence, but hardly for her style–this theory is almost totally ignored by the vast majority of people whose lives it purports to describe.

Indeed, there is a basic confusion around ‘queer’, which is sometimes used to describe a particular way of being homosexual, perhaps expanded to include bisexual desires and unorthodox gender behaviour, and sometimes meant to represent the whole gamut of opposition to the sex/gender order, so that lesbian prostitutes and heterosexual, suburban sado-masochists are equally ‘queer’. In practice, almost everyone who has adopted the label for themselves is likely to be in practice part of the lesbian/gay world, however much they may rail against it. The ‘radical chic’ of those heterosexuals who declare themselves ‘queer’ reminds me of the famous late Frederick May, professor of Italian at Sydney University, who once described himself as “a male lesbian”.

I would argue that ‘queer’ is an enormously useful term for aesthetic criticism; a film like Orlando or The Crying Game can be described as ‘queer’, meaning precisely that they unsettle assumptions and preconceptions about sexuality and gender and their inter-relationship. I am less convinced that the term provides us with a useful political strategy or even a way of understanding power relations. Just as political economy needs a better appreciation of the stubbornness of cultural difference, so does queer theory require some basic knowledge of political institutions and an appreciation of the ways in which economic and cultural globalisation is creating a newly universal sense of homosexuality as the basis for identity and lifestyle, not merely for behaviour.

Dennis Altman is Professor of Politics at La Trobe University. He is the author of the seminal work, Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, and is a distinguished writer on contemporary social issues.

Notes and References

1. The Economist, January, 6 1996 p.84.

2. Anthony Burgess, “Notes from the Blue Coast” Saturday Review, April 28, 1979.

3. John d’Emilio argued this in explaining the emergence of powerful gay communities in certain U.S. cities. See his Making Trouble: Essays on Gay History, Politics and the University N.Y., Routledge, 1992.

4. On Europe see M. Mielei: Homosexuality and Liberation, London, GMP, 1980; G. Hocquenghem, Homosexual Desire, London, Allison & Busby, 1978; M. Dannecker:Theories of Homosexuality, London, GMP, 1981. On Stonewall see Martin Duberman: Stonewall, N.Y., Dutton, 1993.

5. Neil Miller, Out In the World, N.Y., Random House, 1992, p.241.

6. See Michael Hurley, A Guide to Gay and Lesbian Writing in Australia, Allen & Unwin, 1996. The Melbourne bookshop, Hares and Hyenas, produces a regular survey of gay/lesbian writing, Screaming Hyena.

7. Alison Murray: “Dying for a fuck: implications for HIV/AIDS in Indonesia” Paper presented at Gender Relations Conference, Canberra, 1993, p.6.

8. Niko Besnier, ‘Polynesian Gender Liminality Through Time and Space’ in G.Herdt (ed), Third Sex, Third Gender, N.Y., Zone, 1994, p.300.

9. See eg Dennis Altman Power and Community: Organisational and Cultural Responses to AIDS, London, Falmer, 1994

10. Dennis Altman: “Rupture or Continuity? The Internationalization of Gay Identities” Social Text, forthcoming 1996.

11. Peter Jackson, “The Persistence of Gender” Meanjin, 55:1, 1996, pp.118-9.

12. For an American history of these developments see Jeff Escoffier, “Inside the Ivory Closet” Outlook San Francisco, #10, Fall, 1990, p40-48.

13. E.L.Kennedy & M.Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, N.Y., Routledge, 1993; Alan Berube, Coming Out Under Fire, N.Y., Macmillan, 1990.

14. See S.Kippax, R.W.Connell, G.W.Dowsett & J.Crawford, Sustaining Safe Sex, Taylor and Francis, London, 1995.

15. For an overview of the new queer theory/politics see Lisa Duggan, “Making it perfectly queer” Socialist Review, 92:1, 1992; Scott Bravmann: “Queer historical subjects” Socialist Review, 95:1, 1995.

16. I am referring here to the early work of Guy Hocquenghem, of Mario Mieli, and to my own book Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, N.Y., Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, 1971.

Responses to this article have been received from =David Halperin, Gary Dowsett, Michael Tan, Donald Morton, Christopher Lane, Fran Martin and Chris Berry.

There has also been a reply from Dennis Altman to the issues raised in the above responses.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]