Fran Martin responds to Dennis Altman

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

I want to respond to the model of the colonisation of global “homosexual” space by Western-inflected “global gay/ lesbian culture”, which Altman invokes in the first part of his article.

Perhaps the question to ask is whether it is not in fact such analyses of “other sexual cultures” as Altman gestures at here, that perform the banal homogenisation of difference which he describes: are we dealing with transparent “description” of the global scene, or a veiled desire for sameness on the part of the “Western” critic? And what might “ordinary gayness” be within the current moments of cultures with rich indigenous histories of same-sex sexual activity such as China, Thailand, the Philippines?

Altman has written elsewhere of a future in which “Western” gay identities may become hybridised in other contexts. 1 However, as Michael Tan makes clear in his response to Altman in this issue, for the present, this “Western” subject seems able to see in another cultural context only that which he already knows, missing complex and potentially productive interactions and hybridisations both within and between cultures.

Altman’s association of the spread of these global yet American gay / lesbian identities with the extending reach of a “consumer society” also associated with the US, repeats a certain nativist nostalgia for the “vanishing primitive” familiar in ethnographic writing 2 The dismay expressed over the ruination of the “authentic native culture” by the “inevitable” encroachment of Western-style “development” in fact makes the same neo-colonialist assumption of which it is ostensibly critical: that the ‘Western” observer is in a position to unproblematically read, translate, and prescribe what is best for “other” cultures. “We” know best, and we’re telling “them” that their cultures are being tragically and irreversibly polluted by our own, “stronger” culture (placing the “sympathetic” ethnographer as saviour.)

One of the things such an account of the circulation of “Western gay / lesbian identities” inside global space misses is the notion of hybridity: not as something that happens when transparently “Western” identities impact on transparently “other” cultures, but rather as the basic condition of cultures on both sides of the “East / West” divide (wherever that might fall…) at this moment in the concurrent processes of decolonisation and the globalisation of economies. Altman’s article assumes that the incursion of literature or imagery produced in the US, Australia and Europe into “other” parts of the world means that “a very Western notion of how to be homosexual” is swallowed whole and easily digested by women and men in those other cultures who then begin to exhibit the symptoms of the “global gay / lesbian”: you see an American-produced poster in a women’s bookshop in downtown Taipei, rush out and buy yourself a stick of Pillarbox Red at Watson’s and BAM, you’re a “global lipstick lesbian”. This account assumes that it is always only the “American” side of the exchange that holds the power; that the “other side” will never return to seriously disrupt “our” assumptions and forms (might this be one of the attractions of such an account…?)

After a year in Taipei and in the light of my continuing association with aspects of Taiwanese lesbian scenes, I am left wondering: are you still a “global lipstick lesbian” if you live in a Chinese society and identify not as a “lesbian” nor as a “femme” but as a po , complete with lipstick and k.d. lang CDs as well as a girlfriend who’s not butch but T ? The question is not that of the comfortable interminglings of cultural pluralism; rather, we should ask: what might the many lexicons of counter-normative gender and sexual role/ identity from all over the globe mean for the supposedly homogeneous and “Western” future – and present – space of the “global gay”?

In his piece in Asian and Pacific Inscriptions Altman explores, in the growing identification in Asia with a “universal” Western gayness, the establishment of a “global community, whose commonalities override … those of race and nationality” (127). Globalisation of a Western-style gay culture means that a bar in Quezon City is simply “a Third-World version of something like Club 80 in Melbourne” (124). This desire to see in “Asia” a set of gay identities in which we recognise “our” own reflection might be described by Homi Bhabha’s explication of the discourse of colonial mimicry as “the desire for a reformed, recognisable Other, as a subject of difference that is almost the same, but not quite (not white). 3 This desire constitutes an attempt by the colonising power to exercise control over the other place, but it is Bhabha’s point that colonial mimicry turns easily into menace precisely because it inevitably highlights the relationship of coloniser to colonised, showing the limits of the colonisers discourse when it is faced with its “others”.

The staging of a “universal (Western) gay identity” in Asian contexts and its production of lesbian, gay or queer identities which we recognise as “almost the same, but not white”, could most productively be seen to point not to the inexorable spread of a homogenising “global gay” Western culture, but rather to the limits of that culture itself, as well as to the politics of the desire to see “our” culture as singular, “universalised” and invincible in the spread of its own homogenising banality.

Fran Martin is a postgraduate student at the University of Melbourne.

1. Dennis Altman in Suvendrini Periera ed, Asian and Pacific Inscriptions, Meridian, 1995, pp 134-135.

2. See for examples Clifford in Writing Culture, University of California Press, 1986, p. 112.

3. Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture, Routledge 1994, 86.

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