South-North Dialogues on Queer Epistemologies, Embodiments and Activisms
Edited By Elizabeth Sara Lewis, Rodrigo Borba, Branca Falabella Fabrício and Diana de Souza Pinto
South-North Dialogues on Queer Epistemologies, Embodiments and Activisms is composed of research presented at the fourth international Queering Paradigms Conference (QP4), held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In line with the QP project ethos of bringing together diverse epistemological and geographical allegiances, this volume intends to contribute to building a queer postcolonial critique of the current politics of queer activism and of queer knowledge production and circulation. However, rather than perpetuating the North-South dichotomy, the papers gathered here are an effort to establish global dialogues that crisscross those axes, as well as attempts at queering epistemologies, socio-political bonds, and bodies, embodiments and identities. They endeavour to trouble unequal geographies of knowledge – namely the North as an exporter of theories and the South as their importer; the North as a producer of knowledge and the South as its object of study – hosting enormous potential for reinvention.
Multiple Identity and the Performance of Community: The Intersections of Ethnicity and Sexuality within the Queer Community
Multiple Identity and the Performance of Community: The Intersections of Ethnicity and Sexuality within the Queer Community
Introduction: The Queerness of Community
“Without community, there is no liberation” (Lorde 2007: 112)
The words of Audre Lorde still resonate deeply with social movements all over the world. Yet, in today’s neoliberal political climate, they are rendered mute. Community, and social solidarities in general, have become a threat to neoliberalism and have been replaced with individualized acts of consumerism. On a political level, it has become increasingly difficult for non-industrial organizations to truly engage in community work without either falling prey to mainstream political strategies or relying too strongly on short-term goals due to lack of funding for long-term visions.
But the idea of solidarity is still alive in most social movements. For minorities in particular, an underlying structure of support in the form of community is often taken for granted. However, the construction of community should never be treated as simply probable (Rapport and Amit 2002: 25), especially due to the emergence of multiple identities. The creation of community on the basis of a shared fixed identity seems impossible, as the negotiation of multiple community belongings further complicates its construction.
One such area of negotiation is the so-called queer community. It is neither founded on any biological genealogy, nor easily based on a fixed, single identity. Ideally, queerness does not have a gender; includes multiple sexualities, bodily practices, desires and intimacies outside those which are ← 255 | 256 → heteronormative; crosses classes; and certainly does not have a specific racial and ethnic background. Thus, it should suffice to speak about the queer community, instead of queer communities. However, queer community means different things to different people, because the intricacies of queer in relation to identity, community and politics are many. It is difficult to define what it is and whom it comprises, and it is equally difficult to trace its accurate historical origin. We have yet to find explanations apart from the assumption that the queer community is derived from much of the queer activism of the 1990s.
Whatever its historical development and its recent affinity to what David Eng calls “queer liberalism” (2010), the idea of a queer community is still found in much of the work of queer activists. It can be encountered in a vast array of literature, both academic and popular, and it is certainly used in digital lingo and everyday speech. Nonetheless, the possibility of a queer community can be highly doubted not least because the juxtaposition of an anti-/post-identity concept like queer and an extremely essential concept like community seems to be a contradiction in terms. Community has always been closely aligned with ideas of identity and its surrounding politics, because identities emerge in context. Identity has been critiqued widely in recent years, and with it, the idea of community. Judith Butler notes the dilemma of the constraint to freedom that identity brings: “Vulnerable to terms that one never made, one persists [i.e. continues as a subject] always, to some degree, through categories, names, terms, and classifications that mark a primary alienation in sociality” (1997: 28).
As important as the concept of identity has been, and still is, for psychological research on human development, it has also been contested as a reliable value for analysis in the social sciences, because of its disputed fixity within the globalized world:
Globalisation invades any imagined unity and homogeneity of communities around the globe. We can no longer discuss identity, ethnicity or community as if they were stable or distinct entities (Hall 1997). As identities and ethnicities have become increasingly hybrid and contested, so too have the places and groups of people that we call “communities”. (Howarth 2001: 19)
But even in the wake of neoliberalism’s pressing attempts to break collectivities apart and individualize society according to (niche) marketing ← 256 | 257 → strategies, the idea of a national, even transnational, queer community still prevails. Yet, as Miranda Joseph (2002) has warned us, we need to stop romanticizing community and put it to more responsible uses.
After a short introduction about the relation between community and identity in general, this chapter shall investigate the intersections of sexuality and ethnicity through the performativity of (multiple) identity and community within three films: Gill Harjant’s Milind Soman Made Me Gay (2007), Amir Jaffer’s Between Places (2005), and Marlon Riggs’s Black Is, Black Ain’t (1995). Drawing on various concepts of community construction in the 21st century, I shall examine the queer community from the perspective of queer people of color. The perspective of queer people of color offers a look at the queer community from its own periphery. This chapter proposes answers to, but is not limited to, the following questions: Does the notion of queerness offer possibilities for escaping a traditionally essential notion of community after the critique of identity and instead lead to new forms of community, or is a juxtaposition of the anti-/post-essential queer and community a contradiction in terms? Can there be any such thing as a multi-ethnic queer community? Queer means different things in different cultural contexts and processes of identity construction derive significantly from specific positionalities within some communities and outside of others. Queer identities are shifting identities, making the common ground problematic. Can this community, which might be recognized and criticized at the same time as an attempt to universalize the queer for the sake of legal and social reform, undermine existing normative structures of whiteness and heteronormativity or does it simply reinforce them?
These questions and the current political climate of “queer liberalism” (Eng 2010) establish the background for the analysis of the three films as they follow and stage performances of multiple identities and negotiate various community belongings. Not only the performativity of identity in a Butlerian sense, but also the performance of community in the sense of a theatrical staging, will be set in relation to the material realities that surround the positioning of the artist in various thematic fields, as well as the circulation and distribution of the films themselves. How does multiple identity shape the performance of community? Ervin Goffman defines ← 257 | 258 → performance as “all the activity of an individual which occurs during a period marked by his continuous presence before a particular set of observers and which has some influence on the observers” (1959: 22). This includes practices and everyday activities in which an individual is not necessarily aware of observers. In extension, Richard Schechner outlines seven functions of performance, one of which is to make or foster community (2013: 46). If we think of community as performance and of identity as performative, we can see an inherent contradiction in the juxtaposition of community and multiple identity. The performativity of multiple identity does not assume agency or a subject. Instead, it contests the very notion of the subject (Butler 1993). The performance of community, however, certainly does assume agency and a subject who performs. Who then is the agent of this performance and how can we think about community after the critique of identity and the subject? The performance of community will not only point toward a staging of community, but also toward the analysis of efficacy that simultaneously haunts the meaning of performance in the same way that the materiality of various identities haunts the performativity of identity.
The goal of this research is twofold: on an individual level, it aims at acknowledging the performativity of multiple identities without neglecting the material reality of the same experience. On a communal level, it aims to counter the inflationary usage of the term queer community as it erases internal differences and promotes an entanglement of homonormativity and whiteness. Homonormativity, as coined by Lisa Duggan, denotes “a politics in so far as it does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption” (2003: 50).
Each of the three films addresses different aspects of the multiple intersections of ethnicity and sexuality and the surrounding materialities these produce. Riggs’s film is a widely acclaimed educational tool, Harjant’s film was screened at queer film festivals across the US, and Jaffer’s film was denied entry into film festivals due to purported considerations that the US nation in 2005 was not ready to screen a film dealing with challenges to the ethnic queer so shortly after 9/11. A queer reading of these films against the background of Queer Studies and Critical Race Studies creates a ← 258 | 259 → dialogue between the social, cultural, and political implications inherent in the performativity of multiple identity and community in the 21st century.
Idea(l)s of Community
Community in the 21st century has become a “zombie category” (Beck 2002), a hollow structure devoid of any fixed meaning except that we apply to it. These meanings usually revolve around feelings of comfort and a sense of safety in times when neoliberalism’s growing trend toward individualization and privatization have made strong structures of support in the form of kinship and community all the more necessary. Yet, as much as we all probably agree about the positive aspects of community, we oftentimes do not realize its constructedness, and that it excludes as much as it includes. The queer community, although based on something as originally transgressive and inclusive as queerness, has produced its own exclusionary norms. Initially anti-/post-identity, it seems queerness has become indeed an identity most likely to be personified by the white, gay, middle-class male.
The question about the possibility of a multi-ethnic queer community seems somewhat redundant given the racist rhetoric in some (if not most) leading LGBT organizations, especially after September 11th, 2001. Yet, from a psychological standpoint, the idea of community remains very important for identity creation, and people still build their identities within some and against other communities. I am interested in the performativity of exactly these identities at the intersection of sexuality and ethnicity and in relation to the queer community, because it is one of the intersections the current queer community currently fails to register. Although there is certainly a lot of interesting work done within a queer of color critique (Puar 2007; Gopinath 2005; Hong and Ferguson 2011), it is still often not explicitly part of the agenda, and frequently the language of intersectionality substitutes for intersectional work itself. Yet, there are many events that clearly show that such work must be done. Most memorable, for example, are the discussions surrounding the aftermath of Proposition 8. Prop 8 was a California ← 259 | 260 → state constitutional amendment passed in November, 2008. It eliminated the right for same-sex couples to marry, a right which had previously been granted by the California Supreme Court. Soon after Prop 8 was passed, various media presented data that purportedly showed higher support for the proposition among people of color, especially African Americans and Latinos in California (see also Egan and Sherrill 2009). The discussion arose as to whether “the” African American community and “the” Latino community have been responsible for the initial passing of Proposition 8. As much as the Proposition 8 clash was devastating for some, it also represented, and still does with the recent overturning of the amendment, the current trend in queer politics: the tendency to focus on queer liberal rights such as the right to marry or the right to serve in the military, while turning away from the fact that these institutions are inherently racialized. A discourse about queer human rights is certainly valuable and necessary, and, in the words of Gayatri Spivak, rights are within liberalism “that which we cannot not want” (1993: 45–46). However, they ultimately benefit only a few. Or, to borrow Eng’s words, “When queer liberalism is declaring victory in the name of freedom and liberty, we are at a moment of critical urgency for sustained intersectional analysis” (2010: 47). I would like to add that there is a growing urgency to reimagine the communities in which this intersectional work can be grounded and in favor of which it claims to work in order to challenge the prevailing assumptions about whiteness being a queer signifier and straightness being a racial and ethnic signifier.
It is safe to say that all communities are imaginary instead of spatially and temporally fixed. Benedict Anderson, as early as 1983, stated: “[c]ommunities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined” ( 2006: 6). Although Anderson was referring to national communities, this statement can be transferred to other forms as well. In a similar vein, we can also borrow from Philip Wegner, who states: communities are “not real in that they portray actual places in the world; rather, they are real […] in that they have material, pedagogical, ← 260 | 261 → and ultimately political effects, shaping the ways people understand and, as a consequence, act in their worlds” (2002: xvi). Therefore, it is not important to ask whether there exists something like a queer community, because a simple Google search of the term or the reading of an academic text or a blog dealing with queer issues will help one to understand that there is a strong certainty such a thing as an imaginary queer community does indeed exist. It is more important to reexamine the way we think about this community and the way in which we imagine it, because this has very real implications for the way we act, socially and politically, on behalf of this community. This imaginary aspect of community in general and, consequently, the fuzziness of its borders, are beneficial as well as detrimental to a social, cultural, and political application. Currently, the badge of whiteness haunts the queer community and hinders the possibility for it to be seen as a potential political base or social structure of support for queer people of color. This image and its surrounding politics are probably one of the reasons why Cathy Cohen, for example, states,
In spite of the unequal power relationships located in marginal communities, I am still not interested in disassociating politically from those communities, for queerness, as it is currently constructed, offers no viable political alternative, since it invites us to put forth a political agenda that makes invisible the prominence of race, class, and to varying degrees gender in determining the life chances of those on both sides of the hetero/queer divide. (2005: 35)
Cohen’s critique reminds us that the idea of identity resonates differently with people of color. To simply dismiss the idea of community on the basis of identity would be a dangerous turn.
The Performance of Community
The negotiation of community belongings for multiple identities at the intersection of queerness, ethnicity, and race begs many questions. A look at the performance of the queer community in the aesthetic works of people ← 261 | 262 → of color is a first step to engaging in an elaboration of our thinking about intersecting identities and community. The three films analyzed in the remaining parts of this chapter will offer exactly these various different perspectives on the queer community. I am interested in how the performativity of multiple identity shapes the performance of community, not only the performance in the sense of a staging of community found in the films, but also in the sense of the socio-cultural, psychological, and political efficacy of this queer community. The resulting discussion aims to introduce a rethinking of community that enables alliances across and inclusions of differences, and undermines the current inability of the mainstream queer community to address racism, classism, and sexism within itself and among its most powerful members.
Limited Notions of Identity and Community: Black Is … Black Ain’t
My reading of Riggs’s highly acclaimed documentary Black Is … Black Ain’t differs from the usual reading, as it does not only look at homophobia and oppression within the black community; it also takes Riggs’s analysis of the black community further and elaborates the discussion of community for multiple identities, especially at the intersection of the black community and the queer community. Riggs’s narrative journey from the origins of black culture in the US, through the Civil Rights Movement, toward a black community is not only a call for black people to acknowledge their unity in difference, it is also a call for black queers to engage in the queering of the black community. In this context of multiple identity and community building, it is interesting to investigate the implications the documentary holds for today’s conceptions of the queer community which purportedly crosses ethnicities and races in the same way as it crosses genders and sexualities.
Through his deliberate juxtaposition of personal narrative with collective memory (Halbwachs 1950), Riggs reminds the viewer that identity construction and community belonging are a constant dialogue and a continuous (re)negotiation, resulting not in a single model of identity or community, but in a multiplicity of meanings. The insertion of poems into ← 262 | 263 → the narrative demonstrates this intersection of collective memory and personal subjectivity. Memory, identity, and community are intricately linked to each other. On the individual level, one of the functions of memory is to establish a coherent sense of self, an identity. On a collective level, memory enables communities to remain stable across time and to establish a sense of belonging through a shared history. Memory thus plays an important part as a negotiator between personal identity, collective identity and community. Jan Assmann argues: “[m]emory is the faculty that enables us to form an awareness of selfhood (identity), both on the personal and on the collective level” (2008: 109). He elaborates further that “[m]emory enables us to live in groups and communities, and living in groups and communities enables us to build a memory” (ibid). The mixture of subjective and collective experience in Rigg’s film parallels the process of identity construction as it shows how the (re)negotiation of identity is simultaneously personal, as well as collective. Yet, even this purported collectivity includes as much as it excludes, and the imaginary collectivity in Riggs’s narrative becomes the black community and not the queer community. Although shot during the height of queer activism in the 1990s, the documentary never addresses the promising queer community and never attempts to write the queer of color experience into existence within the context of queer activism. Instead, the film is in search of ancestral affirmation of black queerness, placing the queer of color experience resolutely external to the queer community, but also not completely within the black community due to its “pathos, or worse, historic erasure” (Riggs 2008). Riggs’s message is simple: although oftentimes still invisible, queer blacks are part of the black community, thus challenging its purported straightness and homophobia. This message begs the question if the queer community is yet to come for the queer person of color or if the notion of a multi-ethnic queer community is redundant after Riggs’s queering of his own racial community, keeping the assumed whiteness of the queer community intact.
Riggs’s final work can be seen as a starting point for the discussion about multiple identity and community, because it calls upon the black community to acknowledge its own constructiveness. He traces the performances of community through different time periods, again juxtaposing collective memory, for instance of the Civil Rights movement, with ← 263 | 264 → personal experiences. Trying to find the secret ingredient that binds the black community together, Riggs asks: “How do we maintain a sense of communal selfhood, if you will?” (2008). The answers Riggs tries to give throughout his film are never clear and simple, but rather a mixture of retelling history, mastering different styles, following different narratives, and sharing many opinions. However, the positionality of the film remains the same throughout the whole documentary. Black Is … Black Ain’t never takes a look around to find itself entrenched in a different community at the same time. Instead, it looks at the black community from an inside, yet marginal, perspective.
The performances within Riggs’s black community are thus positioned on different points along the historical timeline, yet spatially they stay within the scope of the black community. But not only the historically recurring performances in the sense of a staging of community are important for Riggs’s sense of community. It is also the investigation of the efficacy, as another meaning of performance, of the black community which lies beneath the narrative. The repressive claim to find unity against the background of the fiction of a common identity is replaced by Riggs’s political claim to find unity through shared social struggles between various subgroups within the black community, among them queer people of color. While the performativity of multiple identity clearly stresses an ongoing (re)construction of identity, the performance of community around a shared social struggle that is, however, confined to the spatial scope of the black community, lacks transgressive potential. Imagined here is not a queer black subject, but a black person who is also queer, challenging the boundaries of the black community, while simultaneously reinforcing a hierarchical structure of identity.
However, Riggs offers a helpful starting point for community (trans)formations in general, when he lets Wayne Corbitt claim, “It’s time, my sisters and brothers, to wake up to a new day. A new day of community where what unites us are not some obsolete fictions of race but our common purpose of social struggle” (Riggs 2008). This statement proposes a possible solution to the difficulty of finding common ground around multiple identities. It could be extended to the construction of community for queer identities that acknowledges their shifting identities defined both ← 264 | 265 → by the need for group resistance to ideals of the norm as well as by highly individualized experiences. Riggs’s way out of the common perception of community as being defined by its own limited notions of identity through a focus on a shared purpose, in opposition to power, is certainly valuable. Yet, his film positions this common purpose solely in the black community, favoring alliance building within the community while foreclosing alliance building across communities. The positionality of Riggs’s black queer subject, on the periphery of the black community but firmly outside the queer community, remains a central narrative thread and does not include a racialization of queerness. Instead, Riggs’s black queer subject, however marginal to the black community, embodies a hierarchization of identity. It disintegrates the romantically assumed homogeneity of the black community through its performance of queer blackness, while it maintains the racial homogeneity of the (white) queer community.
This hierarchization of identity is still reflected in the overt and covert racism of homonormative cultural politics almost two decades after the first screening of the film. For example, on the cover of its December 2008 issue, titled “Gay is the new Black”, The Advocate washed away an ongoing social struggle for black minorities in the US to obtain equality and justice, not just within the legal system but also within a socio-cultural context, within one headline. The assumption that the struggles of black people in the US is a finished project and can be replaced by a new struggle for queer equality and justice is an unjustified and ignorant claim that completely ignores the ongoing racism that some black people face on a daily basis at the same time as it erases the existence of black queers altogether. Thus, the question remains as to whether queer community organizing can be truly transgressive and maintain a radical characteristic, especially concerning racial equality and justice, or if the common perception of whiteness as a queer signifier and straightness as a racial signifier remain at the core of most of its politics.
Consequently, Riggs’s final work reminds us that the search for community and belonging is a very real challenge for multiple identities which has to be met by the various communities the queer person of color navigates. Although Black Is … Black Ain’t focuses on queering the black community, it also offers a glimpse at the possibility for community building beyond ← 265 | 266 → limited notions of identity. This is especially interesting for a queer community that attempts to criticize identity at the same time, as it acknowledges that the critique of identity is by no means universally applicable. The critique of identity, although necessary for the deconstruction of essentializing notions of identity, has very different implications for various cultural contexts. To borrow from Cohen, “Queer theorizing which calls for the elimination of fixed categories of sexual identity seems to ignore the ways in which some traditional social identities and communal ties can, in fact, be important to one’s survival” (2005: 34). A queer community that views queerness as a critique of identity and allows for its construction after the critique of identity nevertheless needs to keep in mind the still ongoing struggles for sexual minorities that are played out against the differing background of exactly these identities.
Citizenship, Belonging, and Collective Memory in Milind Soman Made Me Gay
A different approach to multiple identity in relation to community and belonging can be found in Milind Soman Made Me Gay (2007), an experimental documentary by queer South Asian filmmaker Harjant Gill, who juxtaposes memories of his own past in India and the US with interviews of three other queer South Asian men living in the diaspora. The queer diasporic subject is a both geographically and ideologically mobile and “mediating figure between the nation and diaspora, home and the state, the local and the global” (Cruz-Malavé and Manalansan 2002: 2). A sense of belonging needs, therefore, to be located in numerous distinct contexts. As Ayush, one of the interviewees in the film, complains, he is unable to find solidarity in his diasporic community because it does not recognize his queerness, and he is unable to find a sense of community in the queer community because it refuses to acknowledge his ethnicity. It is also difficult to find a sense of belonging in his country of origin because it also does not recognize his queerness. The importance of a sense of belonging for the queer diasporic subject as a mobile figure becomes obvious. Interestingly, the interviewees in Gill’s film all met with the director at ← 266 | 267 → Khush, a community organization in Washington D.C. that works with and for queer people of South Asian descent. Ayush thus makes a clear distinction between the mainstream queer community in which he cannot yet base his sense of belonging, and the sense of community provided by the organization for local queers of South Asian descent. The distinction between the mainstream (white) queer community and the local South Asian queer community remains critical.
Throughout the film, the mixture of personal memories and historic events create an image of community which is both personal as well as collective. Memory thus plays a central role again in the construction of identity and community. In any community, a shared history and collective memory is needed to build and develop a sense of the solidarity that remains stable across time. The deliberate construction of a shared cultural memory through reminiscence is particularly important for the queer community, since it has to be (re)negotiated constantly. This reminiscence is selective and consequently also constituted through silences and erasures.
My interest in the film is twofold. First, I want to demonstrate how the performance of identity at the border between ethnicity and sexuality is complicated by the contradictory landscape of the queer diaspora. Gayatri Gopinath remarks, in her influential work Impossible Desires,
[t]he cartography of a queer diaspora tells a different story of how global capitalism impacts social sites by articulating other forms of subjectivity, culture, affect, kinship, and community that may not be visible or audible within standard mappings of nation, diaspora, or globalization. (2005: 12)
These other forms of subjectivity in relation to belonging and citizenship are particularly interesting. Second, I want to explore how and what kind of community is remembered and imagined in and through this film.
Two scenes from Gill’s film are useful starting points. The first is the opening scene that takes place at the airport, where Gill waits for his flight to India to depart. The viewer sees a close-up of Gill’s US passport against his voice-over narration, in which he admits that he cannot relate to all the other South Asian people at the airport questioning each other where in India they are from. Instead, he senses a connection to a silent ← 267 | 268 → white boy at the airport, because he is gay like him. In this scene, Gill’s sense of belonging is only made possible through the momentary erasure of his South Asian-ness in favor of his queerness. At the same time, implicated through the close-up of his passport, the sense of belonging is only made possible through his US citizenship. This scene is emblematic for the contradictory space South Asian queers living in the diaspora have to navigate. They have to adapt to the proper multicultural landscape in the US as members of a so-called “model minority” (Eng 2010: 110) in which straightness is traditionally seen as a racial norm. Simultaneously, they have to buy into the illusion of the US being the beacon of (sexual) liberation, yet, a country in which whiteness is seen as a sexual norm. How does the South Asian queer diasporic subject perform identity and community in this space?
Citizenship is central to the airport scene and plays an important role in the performance of identity and community for the queer diasporic subject. Questions of belonging are always related to questions of citizenship status, and these in turn are regulated by queer desires, as well as ethnicity. But “[c]itizenship requires more than the assumption of rights and duties; more importantly, it also requires the performance and contestation of the behavior, ideas, and images of the proper citizen” (Manalansan 2003: 14). Thus, the performance of proper citizenship can only take place within the static realm of various modes of identity categories. The straight ethnic model minority or the white queer subject, each acts as the proper citizen, rendering the queer diasporic subject a non-proper citizen.
This reading is supported by the stories the three other queer South Asian men share throughout the course of the film. They collectively state that coming-out has been a process finalized through their arrival to the US. This teleological move from queerness as a practice to queerness as a visible identity is essential to the neoliberal political framework within the US, because only visible identities can be regulated by the state. However, this sequence in the film falls short of many different cultural expressions of queerness that do not fit the framework of visibility so important in the mainstream queer community, and how they further complicate belonging for the queer subject. The three interviewees all render the performance of a racialized queerness difficult. This is due to their need to perform ← 268 | 269 → identity and negotiate belonging in various different communities: the diasporic community, the national community, and also the queer community, all of which presumably read ethnicity and sexuality as analogous but not parallel.
The search for belonging and community is further complicated by the constructedness of the queer community. The queer community is a community of choice, although regulated by its own power structures, but not a genealogically structured community. Instead, it is in a constant process of negotiation, making it susceptible to various influences of power and interest. Thus, the queer community is also very inclined to regulatory mechanisms of who makes decisions about membership and who does not. In such a community, those in power mostly promote the collective memory that is needed to regulate the community. Collective memory guarantees the persistence of community across time. However, memory is always intertwined with power and interest. It is most often shaped by those in power, making the queer community susceptible to the intertwined connections between power and representation.
In the film, through Gill’s recollection of Matthew Shepard’s murder, these power structures surface clearly. The movie aids the construction of the queer community as a homonormative space where the erasure of the bad queer subject is a prerequisite for the inclusion of the good queer subjects. Gill’s reminiscence of Matthew Shepard’s murder is the second point of departure for examining how community is remembered and imagined in and through this film. When Gill remembers the year of 1998, in which the murder took place, he also recalls being told not to be so gay in school. Gill wonders if this is a fate every queer man has to face in his life and, had it happened to him, if anybody would have cared, because he was not an American at the time of the killing and certainly not white. The answer to this question can be found in the documentary itself. Gill refuses to acknowledge similar homophobic hate crimes, such as the killing of Sakia Gunn five years later, and thus aids the construction of a collective memory that centers on the good white queer subject. In 2003, Sakia Gunn, a queer African American girl, was brutally murdered in what was classified as a homophobic hate-crime due to the legal aftermath of the Matthew Shepard murder. The media coverage was almost non-existent ← 269 | 270 → compared to that of the Shepard murder, answering Gill’s question as to whether or not anybody had cared. At the same time, the Sakia Gunn murder complicates Gill’s question as to whether or not anybody would have cared, had it happened to him, on the premise of citizenship. Sakia Gunn was American. However, she was not part of a model minority, and thus nobody cared. At the time the murder happened, Gill had already gotten his US passport and could no longer ask the question of citizenship. This silence implicates that membership and belonging foreclose a certain kind of memory in which Gill’s “official” belonging in the form of citizenship situates him in a place where he can only demarcate his own queerness against the silencing of others. The erasure, through omission, of black queerness, as the bad queer subject, makes Gill’s queerness even queerer. Gill’s silence, thus, marks Sakia’s queerness as substantially constitutive of his own queerness. In addition, the omission of the memory of Sakia Gunn (or countless other queer people of color who have been the victims of so-called hate crimes) also passes on the possibility of rewriting memory. Instead, Gill aids the hegemony of whiteness within the queer community as he selectively contributes to the creation of a shared cultural memory of his viewers. Gill’s queerness, which before he had based upon the erasure of his South Asian-ness, is also based on the erasure of blackness. Still, it is formed against the background of his US citizenship, buying neatly into the neoliberal rhetoric of multiculturalism and equal rights for sexual minorities within the US. Gill’s film promotes a place of belonging through a performance of sameness, instead of a performance in difference, which is a sharp contrast to Riggs’s work and leaves the question unanswered as to whether or not a multi-ethnic queer community is indeed possible.
Analyzing the film via the intersectional aspects of ethnicity, sexuality and belonging exposes the ambivalence of the queer diaspora. It also exposes how the regulating mechanisms of the state, which determine who is a proper citizen and who is not, need to be addressed through a queer reading that does not stop at the borders of static identity categories, yet also does not ignore identity completely. Gill’s film raises awareness of these issues if we read its silence as more than just a failure of memory or a failure of affect, but rather as a failure in structure which can only be ← 270 | 271 → countered through what Jasbir Puar calls reading sideways, against dominant ideologies (2007: 117).
Silent Erasure in Between Places
The third and final film differs from the first two, insofar as it is not a documentary. It is a fictionalized film shot in 2005 by Amir Jaffer, who places his narrative in the months shortly before and after the attacks of 9/11. This break from narrative style, from documentary to fiction, is important to take into account because it is not a highly subjectivized comment, as we can find in Riggs’s and Gill’s work, but rather a scripted comment acted out through a scripted performance. The film’s protagonist, a queer Muslim man from Egypt who takes on a job in the US and gets involved in a love triangle between his white gay neighbor and his female Pakistani co-worker, is one of the first to get fired after the attacks of 9/11. The situation is complicated by the fact that his white boyfriend does not understand his refusal to come out and his female coworker does not know of his queer relationship. An attempt to marry his co-worker so he can stay in the country legally after 9/11 fails once she finds out about his “closeted” queerness.
Jaffer confirmed on July 16, 2012, in a personal email conversation, that his work was denied entry into most film festivals due to purported considerations that the nation was not ready for a film dealing with the ethnic queer post 9/11. Thus the film’s dedication at its beginning was rendered mute at the time it came out: “Dedicated to the people who were persecuted and killed because of their sexual orientation”. With this straightforward statement, the filmmaker positions his film clearly in the queer niche marketing area and attempts to create a sort of collectivity on the basis of shared cultural oppression and mourning. The dedication is problematic because it evokes queerness as singular, detached from many intersecting factors at stake in the killing of queer people. Furthermore, it is accompanied by a dialogue toward the end of the film that also suggests a sense of selective collectivity. When the Pakistani woman quits her job, the African American supervisor attempts to comfort her with the words: ← 271 | 272 → “I wish things were different for all of us”. The phrase “all of us” in the final dialogue of the film could have many different meanings. It could mean “all of us women”, “all of us people of color”, or “all of us humans”. I read the statement as suggesting a kind of pseudo-collectivity made possible through the silent erasure of queerness on which the shared collectivity between the two women is based. Nagib, the queer male protagonist, has left the company and has left his co-worker. His ethnic origin forces him to remain outside of the nation after 9/11 and his racialized queerness leaves him outside of the traditional, state-sanctioned marriage paradigm. He clearly remains outside of the women’s shared collectivity.
Between Places suggests a failed attempt at a teleological move from a hidden (and forbidden) queerness to an “out-and-proud” visible queer identity represented by the protagonist’s white gay neighbor. This is, however, not what Nagib is able and willing to comply with, because he refuses to come out to his white boyfriend. Again, his performance of queerness in relation to his ethnicity fails in the eyes of his white boyfriend, who does not recognize the ways in which queerness is performed differently across various cultures. This storyline is similar to many “queer liberal” movies in which the queer person of color living in the diaspora needs to be introduced to Western Enlightenment thinking in order to be able to live a happily-ever-after, visible queer life (e.g. Shamim Sarif’s I Can’t Think Straight  and Pratibha Parmar’s Nina’s Heavenly Delights ). Jaffer positions his film clearly in such a discourse, calling on Muslim queers and ethnic queers to come out, to be visible even against opposition. With his film, he implies that without a proper performance of queerness, belonging cannot be fulfilled. Belonging can neither be accomplished in the new host country, nor in the country of origin, similar to what the interviewee in Milind Soman Made Me Gay criticized. If we set this message in relation to the performance of community, both in the sense of a staging and also in the sense of efficacy, we can only arrive at an image of community that is also a space of visibility. This predicament of visibility constrains many forms of queerness outside of queer mainstream thinking and, thus, deeply troubles the idea of a queer community as the basis for radical queer politics. Yet, it also exposes the difficulty of building community around such highly individualized experiences incorporated in queerness.
I read the individual performances of identity in the three films as comments on multiple identity and the queer community, with its inherent power structures that need to be renegotiated constantly. All three films imagine, comment upon or dismiss community in different manners. Yet, they all engage with the idea of community or a sense of belonging in one way or another. It is important to note the variety with which the imagination of community takes place and how it is complicated by multiple identity. This multiplicity of meanings results precisely in the hollow structure of community I mentioned at the beginning. The queer community as it is perceived right now not only in the heteronormative mainstream, but also in homonormative queer thinking, is indeed a hollow structure and of very little use for providing social support and engaging in political struggles across differences. Even in the non-mainstream films analyzed in this chapter, we can find a hierarchization of identity that makes us recognize the very importance of identity, as well as the dangers of essentializing it. We need to re-imagine the queer community differently in order to enable radical queer politics and to broaden the possibility of providing people with a safe space and stability instead of depriving them of identities and communities essential for their survival (Cohen 2005: 34). Can this queer community be multi-ethnic? The three films all show how specific the experiences of queers of color are in relation to the nation, diaspora and belonging. Yet, if we focus on the positionality of queerness in its relation to power, instead of wrongly assuming a transcultural queer identity, the possibility of a multi-ethnic queer community seems more possible. The performativity of queerness at the intersection of ethnicity and race enable the symbolic and political performance of a queer community that engages in struggles against heteronormative power. A queer community that does not account for intra-group differences certainly excludes and reinforces normative structures of whiteness and homonormativity. However, speaking of a multi-ethnic queer community still does not solve the contradiction inherent in the juxtaposition of queerness and community. Therefore, I want to propose that a renewed queer community can best be imagined as ← 273 | 274 → an assemblage, because “assemblage, in its debt to ontology and its espousal of what cannot be known, seen, or heard, or has yet to be known, seen, or heard, allows for becoming, beyond being” (Puar 2007: 216). Community as assemblage evokes an unfixed temporality, a constant movement in and out of places and across borders that cannot lead to a fixed identity readily available for surveillance and oppression. Rather it imagines a queer community on the basis of a shared marginal position to power that engages in radical actions aiming at true equality and justice instead of achieving legal rights for a privileged few. It promotes a constant moving in and out of different contexts and places, an ephemeral performance which, although fleeting, nevertheless leaves traces in the form of memory, thought, and affect. We need to construct this imaginary queer community as assemblage, because we must concern ourselves with the constantly changing realities which demand us to rethink our communities over and over again. If we recognize the multiple assemblages of queerness, then we can actually put the queer community to better social, cultural, and political uses and enable indeed a performance of community in the many senses of the word.
In conclusion, this chapter has aimed to offer an elaboration of multiple identity in relation to community beyond a structural hierarchy. Community in general is a ubiquitous concept, frequently used in all forms of discourse, whether it is grassroots political organizing, academic analysis, or everyday speech. Yet, its zombie status enables community to be filled with different meanings and to be imagined differently in every context. The pitfalls of this openness are the oppressive power structures that might result from it. The idea of a queer community as assemblage proposes a potential imagination of community after the critique of identity that assembles and reassembles anew in opposition to oppressive power structures. However, if this queer community wants to remain the political base for the radical queer politics from which it was derived, it needs to account for intersectional experiences of multiple oppressions, especially across the lines of sexual, racial and ethnic differences, among others. Therefore, it cannot neglect identity completely. The constant reimagining and discursive reconstruction of a queer community as the basis for social belonging and political organizing across cultural differences remains urgent, valuable and necessary. Queerness, ethnicity and race are constitutive of this ← 274 | 275 → imaginary queer community and enable the symbolic and political performance of it. How this queer community as assemblage can realize its political potential and whether political recognition needs to be its goal is an interesting question beyond the scope of this chapter. Here I have made an attempt to promote the reimaging of the queer community, in which the subjects who haunt the community from its own margins take center stage and engage in a critique of the present, envisioning a brighter future.
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