Craig Young responds to Dennis Altman

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

Having read the Altman article and some of the responses, I’d like to offer my own take on what he describes. Is it the case that US queer identities are being subjected to selective articulation and consumption as he describes? Is “hybridity” a good way to describe what’s going on?

I think it might be, yes. But here in Aoteoroa, New Zealand, there is a specific indigenous cultural heritage that responds to these issues, producing a specific ethnic queer identity -“takatapui.” Unlike Australian aboriginal nations, Maori managed to preserve some territorial and cultural constants despite the colonial onslaught here. Now, I’m not sure how much of this heritage is necessarily genealogical, and how much is syncretist, but it does provide a local alternative set of sex/gender identities to the pakeha orthodoxy. It’s complicated by the various dosages of Christianity that the various tribal community/iwi received. The implication seems to be that the reclamation of gender and sexual pluralism within an indigenous cultural heritage is something that should be nurtured. I think something similar is at work in some of the Hawaiian debates around same-sex marriage within indigenous Hawaiian communities.

This probably points to one of the differences between Australian and New Zealand centre-left politics … that in our case, we have to pay attention to indigenous political issues, identities and communities. Moreover, we also tend to have a stronger sense of Pacific geographical location as part of our spatial identity than Australia seems to.

Let me contribute a recent book on “detraditionalisation” that I met to this discussion. It manages to identify a number of disparate responses to the “loss” of tradition. These are: cultural conservative and homogenous reassertion; syncretism and hybridity; assimilation and loss of identity; and marginalisation and social-spatial segregation — all of which may be experienced as gain or loss. Because of my specific located experience, I would like to ask Altman whether it is as straightforward as the importing of American queer identities? That seems to give the United States an ability to provide a dominant cultural matrix that I find to be increasingly questionable. Is it the case that American commodities and cultural values do go hand in hand, as some critics of “cultural imperialism” deny this. While New Zealand might have become more open to US foreign investment, there is no denying that our cultural development is increasingly influenced by a range of factors, such as the aforementioned Maori Renaissance, but also Asian immigration.

Is it therefore the case that Altman’s perceptions of US identity formation hegemony are based on specifically situated experiences that are out of date in a world where a variety of strategies are at work? I’m reminded of Cindy Patton’s chapter on Africa in “Inventing AIDS”, which explodes the concept of a singular “African” response to the epidemic. Therefore, there are probably a plurality of Asian and Pacific gender and sexual identities. As to whether an American connection necessarily plays a role in providing a dominant share of hybridity, that omits consideration of the growth of a multipolar world and the assertion of local identities and regional networks. It might therefore be the case that some Asian lesbianisms, homosexualities and transgender identities are more assertive in articulating their specificity than others.

Asia-Pacific issues aside, reading Altman’s recent autobiographical volume, as well as Sasha Soldatow’s collaboration with Christos Tsiolkas, I noted a rather conservative reliance on the Freudo-Marxist matrix of one’s youth, as well as a more pragmatic social democratic component.

Altman is sceptical of the originality of Foucauldian discourse theory. So okay, that’s generational. For many queer social democrat scholars of the eighties or nineties, Foucault was articulated via Weeks, Watney and Patton, producing a strong awareness of the utility of his strategic analyses for practical political engagement. I suppose my own work on the Christian Right and governmentality has some echoes of that … because I tend to find Foucault’s insistence on the role of governing and the production of identities through disciplinary and productive power/knowledge to have useful explanatory value. By contrast, Donald Morton (shudder…) seems to be precisely the sort of unreconstructed Freudo-Marxist that people find embarrassing these days …

A brief digression onto Morton’s work. Frankly, it almost makes me embarrassed to be a social democrat. It seems to have no areas of concrete left political engagement. All it does is present a specific form of Marx and Freud without even trying to segue them into praxis. Moreover, it totally avoids any real-world engagement with how political economy is implicated in the production of actual social identities or formations. How can any queer political work of any significance omit mentioning the massive social inequalities that result in high ARC mortality amongst people of colour and parts of Africa, for godsake? However, that is precisely the reason that I really like Gary Dowsett’s work. Although he isn’t saying that Australian gay communities need more of an emphasis on distributive justice, he does demonstrate the need for a politics like that.

I really identified with some of the guys in Gary’s “Practicing Desire” — like them, I’m from a working class background. Unlike them though, I ended up at university and very definitely identify as either gay or queer, depending on who I’m around at the time.

Anyhow, back to Foucault. My own work bears some parallels to Altman’s recent stuff on Asian queer identities, although I focus on the Christian Right. Globalisation here…? Hmmm. Having encountered a growing number of Aussie Christian Right websites, I did some comparisons. I found that there’s a much stronger US influence on Christian Right content on your side of the Tasman than this one. That doesn’t mean Kiwi fundies don’t regurgitate US NCR discourse, but it does mean that they have to be more careful about it. But when they do, it doesn’t travel well. It’s meant that they have not had a good time of it, apart from the NZ anti-euthanasia campaign which hitched a ride on the coat-tails of mainstream medical opinion for its effect. But … why should New Zealanders reject US Christian Right discourse, and why should Australians in places like Queensland and (stretching a point) Tasmania (until a recent glorious May day) accept it?

Logically, Australia’s greater scale should make penetration harder, but we seem to be the ones who have a diminished reliance on US political culture in the formation of our identities. In any case, this means our conservatives are in what looks like terminal crisis. Meanwhile, we are about to follow Canadian and European examples in terms of queer political strategies. Therefore, there is no one to one relationship between political economy and the formation of syncretic queer identities.

Incidentally, why is it that Ausqueer accounts of our side of the Tasman suffer from some fairly major generalisations? Sleepy, bucolic and anglophile? Oh? Why, then, has NZ had an equal gay age of consent for the last decade, no fundamentalist parties in our Parliament, and an anti-discrimination law that has had no problems over police, military or educational discrimination exemptions? And if you make such generalisations about your geographical proximity, then what about further afield…?

Craig Young is a postgraduate student at Massey University, New Zealand.

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