Christopher Lane responds to Dennis Altman

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

Like Gary Dowsett, I found much to admire in Dennis Altman’s essay. To my mind, Altman’s thoughts about “global queering” bring a healthy skepticism to some of queer theory’s claims. Of these, perhaps the notion of “queer hybridity” deserves most scrutiny. Sharing a link with Altman’s argument about consumerism and queer “globalization,” the term “queer hybridity” seems to mask not only cultural arrogance and blindness to specific political factors, but also unhelpful idealizations of desire, bodies, and identities. Altman reminds us with refreshing candor that we need to rethink our cherished assumptions about sexual desire and diaspora, particularly the naive hope that North American arguments and imagery will explain profound cultural differences by putting them all in the same queer bag.

Yet like Gary Dowsett, I sense that despite queer theory’s limited account of diaspora and hybridity, we cannot summarily dismiss the issue of queer globalization as simply a phenomenon North America has foisted egregiously on other cultures. Altman’s points about “exporting the American dream,” though well taken, leave unanswered more difficult and pressing questions. What, for instance, is so compelling about the queer model of desire that numerous lesbians and gay men in different countries have received it with a kind of avidity Altman finds galling? Although it’s difficult to consider this question, given the ease with which one could simply respond with political arguments about power, I suggest that reading “global queering” with the subtlety the phenomenon demands would reveal a situation that is both disquieting and profoundly enabling.

In many ways, my claim resembles John D’Emilio’s argument, in “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” that the opportunities industrial capitalism offered many men and women in late-nineteenth-century Western societies–opportunities stemming from changes in the organization of families and marriages–cannot all be dismissed as coercive sexual categories that trap us permanently in a “reverse discourse.” Nor can we simply make these Western formulations reducible to patterns of consumption or “political economy.” The history from which these formulations derive is much more complicated, as D’Emilio explains, since capitalism’s structural changes profoundly assisted limited forms of sexual freedom. If the analogy can stand, we can advance comparable, though tentative, arguments about contemporary models of queer desire and identity. These models emanate most visibly from the United States, but the process also makes available a capacity for sexual identification that cultures tolerating few (if any) representations of gay and lesbian desire greatly impede. Altman seems to miss this point in moving too swiftly from a critique of “political economy” to an emphasis on “indigenous ways of conceptualising sexuality and gender.” I will try to show that the argument about sexual identification falls between these terms.

If made unthinkingly, arguments that the “political economy” may be enabling can appear patronizing, perhaps even as a messianic support for US cultural exports. As Altman explains well, the problem is surely that US culture and many of its queer intellectuals have advanced some arguments unthinkingly, often with embarrassing inattention to the politics and histories of non-US cultures. Yet it’s also rather too easy to claim that “indigenous ways of conceptualising sexuality and gender” have necessarily benign formulations of male and female homosexuality. Generally I agree with Altman that in many cultures these conceptualizations are benign. But don’t such arguments also begin to fix sexual identifications in ways that implicitly judge them if they “stray” from their respective cultures? Despite the idealism of queer theory’s frequent celebrations about performativity, its desire to theorize “queer hybridity” surely derives from suggestions that our cultural and sexual identifications are multiple and contradictory, asymmetrical but not always conscious. It’s worth emphasizing that a counterargument such as Altman’s, which aims to halt the global spread of US lesbian and gay imagery in the interests of political purity, could also be construed as depriving many of forms of sexual knowledge and identification–the very forms indigenous cultures frequently do not tolerate. Certainly, this is not the same as saying that alternative indigenous forms do not exist or that they have never existed.

It’s important–though also slightly ironic–that Altman notes how countries such as China often represent homosexuality as a pernicious Western influence. Earlier in his article, Altman references, The Economist, claiming that Zimbabwe is one of a number of countries in which queer globalization has had some effect. Zimbabwe, however, is another country in which claims about pernicious Western influences have been made with appalling effect. Altman is faulting The Economist for its facile claims about global politics, but doesn’t Zimbabwe’s political reality (and that of similar countries) radically diminish the suggestion of global queering, even pointing to a quite different reality?

It’s worth dwelling on this argument a little more. Since the late 1980s, Zimbabwean lesbians and gay men have endured escalating police and state attacks on their groups and communities (including GALZ, Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe). The situation worsened in January 1994 when Mr. Dumiso Dabengwa, Minister of Home Affairs, announced to Zimbabwe’s press that he was “anxious” to arrest that country’s lesbians and gay men because homosexuality is illegal in Zimbabwe and lesbians and gay men are therefore criminals. President Mugabe’s homophobia, which is very similar to Mr. Dabengwa’s, and which the Western press has at least helped to make notorious, derives from a related suggestion that homosexuality is a European export to which Zimbabweans occasionally succumb in moments of weakness. Ironically, such fantasies of ridding Zimbabwe of this export have an unfortunate relation to Altman’s concerns about global queering, at least insofar as both perspectives on homosexuality share an implicit concern about political economy and cultural purity.

I don’t wish to belabor this point, for it’s clear that Mugabe’s sexual politics are utterly malign in this respect while Altman’s are just the reverse. However, in such conditions, it’s not always sufficient to stress indigenous ways of conceptualizing sexuality and gender as a useful reprieve from US interference. The point is surely that in Zimbabwe–and in many other countries besides–one cannot slough off decades, even centuries, of sexual imperialism to reveal an untainted indigenous discourse beneath. (In terms of colonial history, Thailand, one of Altman’s examples of a country with a benign indigenous conception of homosexuality, is–like Botswana–quite different from countries that were officially and economically colonized.) Considering the intolerable conditions in which many lesbian and gay Zimbabweans have lived throughout the 1990s, however, it should not surprise us that many would form strong psychic attachments to Western Europe and North America, as I discovered when I taught in that country for a year. Such identifications may be partly compensatory, but they are no less valid for that reason, particularly when Zimbabwean culture tolerates few alternatives, and when its indigenous conceptions of homosexuality are thoroughly bound up with Victorian homophobia.

Given the scale and complexity of these arguments, it’s possible to advance very different perspectives from different cultures. What’s true for Zimbabwe today, for instance, is not at all true for contemporary South Africa, a country with which it shares a border, but where the “indigenous” conception of homosexuality–while greatly influenced by US political economy–nevertheless shows hopeful signs of change. If anything, the complexity of gay and lesbian global issues is such that we’re forced to address these issues in their complexity and chastened when we try to describe them in blanket terms. I read Altman’s essay as a useful reminder of this complexity, for although his essay contains simplifications of its own, Altman reminds us with conviction and integrity that we need to rethink the concept of “queer hybridity.”

Christopher Lane is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

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