Chris Berry responds to Dennis Altman

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This is a response to Dennis Altman’s article On Global Queering.

Like many other respondents, I think it’s a pity that Dennis Altman wastes so much of “On Global Queering” taking cheap potshots at various targets that have drawn his wrath for their failure to genuflect before him in his father-of-all-gay-knowledge role. I feel this especially strongly because I think that he has spotted another major new development and should be applauded for drawing our attention to it, but that it could have done with a bit more attention from Altman himself too. Like Altman, I am convinced not only that queer is going global, but also that this phenomenon has major implications for the entire gay/lesbian/queer/transgender movement(s) as they go out and multiply, so to speak. And so rather than focusing on matters that have nothing to do with the announced topic, however much they irritate me, I would like to make a couple of remarks about the main issue.

First, like Fran Martin, I feel this globalisation also requires attention to localisation and enough local knowledge to see it and recognise it as it happens. For example, Gary Dowsett is quick to dismiss the possibility that we can speak of the queering of Asia in his response, which only makes some wonder where he has been. Anyone who has looked at the current publications coming out of Taiwan and Hong Kong, including special local “queer” issues of journals, or the various e-mail communications coming out of those places and Korea and Japan, knows otherwise. But to return to “gay”, as Martin points out, what “gay” means in Taipei may not be the same as what it means in New York, no matter how similar to the outward trappings may be. However, I think recognising this should also encourage us to reflect upon our assumptions that we can speak about “Western” post-Stonewall gay identity in any meaningful way, and make us think about who “we” are when we use the term.

In Altman’s article, I found myself tripping over his reference to the film Dona Herlinda and Her Son. I found myself wondering whether the middle-class Mexican culture shown in the film should be seen as Western or non-Western, and how useful this distinction was. Recognising that Altman is correct to note a much greater significance of the blood family in this film than is usually the case in American films, I also began to think about other “Western” cultures. What about Italy and Spain? How does lesbian and gay culture fit in with family culture there? Or, on the other hand, what about the Netherlands, where the almost total absence of the right-wing fundamentalism that gives an edge to flaunting gay or lesbian identity must also create a different valence for lesbian and gay culture? Or the “men-who-have-sex-with-men” subcultures outside “gay” subculture that have become visible with AIDS research?

What I’m trying to suggest is that it isn’t enough to recognise what Altman calls “indigenous ways of conceptualising sexuality and gender”, or even to add on Fran Martin’s recognition of various local forms of “gay” and “lesbian” in the non-West, important though both those things are. To do so simply continues to reinforce the post-Stonewall model of white, middle-class, respectable lesbian and gay cultures as the original, the true identity against which all others are measured, rather than recognising that, however powerful it has been and continues to be thanks to its alliance with consumer capitalism, it is as historically and locally specific as any other way of “conceptualising sexuality and gender”. This is the opportunity that Altman’s insight holds out, if carried through in further research work, and now we must hope that work will develop quickly. However, it might just require a little of that postmodern and queer theory that Altman despises so much to get the job done.

Chris Berry lectures in the Department of Cinema Studies at La Trobe University, Melbourne.

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