Queer: Again (Overdue)

A while ago I exchanged emails with Frank where he articulated what I felt (and feel) to be a particularly US-centric version of queer studies: Queer = Brown. To be sure, this claim might find ample support in various histories of race and sexuality. Despite its datedness, Sander Gilman’s Difference and Pathology might be the exemplar, coupled, of course, with Malek Alloula’s stunning The Colonial Harem. At the same time, it does not explain how queerness functions in texts like Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya, Wulf Sachs’s Black Hamlet, Elspeth Huxley’s Red Strangers, Yambo Ouloguem’s Bound to Violence. And might actually be an interesting misreading of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin,White Masks. On the other hand, it might explain Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North.

Then, as now, I felt there was a particular wrongness to the claim: it effaced too many other productive ways to think about and imagine the creation of queer bodies by privileging a history of interracial encounter. I was especially bothered by the formulation because it seemed to offer little to my own work in Africa, where issues of normativity and queerness were more often a function of location and occupation (urbanization and prostitution, for instance) rather than phenotypical difference. We might take, for example, this episode from Wulf Sachs’s Black Hamlet:

John had argued with N’Komo about the abnormal ways of love-making practised by many of his patients in the asylum. N’Komo had used them as proofs of madness, but John laughed, declaring that if this were true, hundred of natives in the compounds and in the crowded city yards would need to be put into asylums, for in such places love-making between men was quite usual, as it was between women also. (Black Hamlet 187)

On the one hand, this passage could be taken to suggest that sexual abnormality should be read in terms of colonial epistemology. Such a reading might then support the claim that homophobia rather than homosexuality was introduced into Africa. I find myself skeptical about such claims, mostly because, coming from the western academy, they often re-center the west as the locus of knowledge, good or bad. (Here I use the term epistemology advisedly.) What this claim effaces are the multiple ways we might think about queerness that might be apart from and, indeed, indifferent to western reading strategies, views that have nothing to contribute to a certain queer navel gazing.

Here, of course, I trip up, for it might be impossible to disentangle queerness, as method, as concept, as guiding frame and paradigm, from the particular (western) histories that have allowed it to come into being. Even the process of formulating an “alternative” genealogy in some way re-centers the west I might be trying to escape.

How we might break or expand the possible frames we use to make queering more responsible to history and more attuned to the local? For instance, how might we read the change from traditional circumcision rituals by a riverside to hospital visits as a certain queer moment among the Gikuyu? How might we read debates and fights over clitoridectomy as particular instances of queer history? (the function of singularity here “queer history” remains to be considered) How might we consider inter-ethnic encounters as productive sites for creating queer subjects? How, for example, might we read the claim that only circumcised men can run for president in Kenya as specifically local mode of queering bodies and masculinity?

Of course, the question remains of how the term “queer” functions in these various formulations. Is it merely a fashionable catchword, a declaration of rebellion (no matter how one reads rebellion)? Or might it, as I have learned through US-based work, offer quite powerful ways for reconsidering the relationships between national identity and gender, ethnicity and political subjectivity; might it unsettle the normative claims of ethnicity and citizenship in quite productive (if only intellectual) ways?