Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Some People Go Mental Over Billboards Signed "God" ...

Some people go mental over billboards with messages signed “God.” This is the sort of thing that gets my goat:

In fact, another activist, Anjali Gopalan, points out, that although there are gay men in India as well as something called gay-identity, “identity is sort of a luxury that doesn't extend beyond the educated upper-classes. The majority of men who have sex with men don't see themselves as gay or even homosexuals. ... we don't have a sense of self in our culture..." She adds that she was once indignantly corrected by a MSM when she made the mistake of asking him if he was "samalaingik" (homosexual) -- saying that he was a mard (man) not a chhakka (fag).

This quotation comes from Suparna Bhaskaran’s book Made in India: decolonizations, queer sexualities, trans/national projects (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), page 100. Bhaskaran is an anthropologist, and she says she’s trying to do something new, somewhere beyond the stereotypical Bwana anthropologist explaining the natives to you on one hand, and the participant-observer who goes too native on the other. But as far as I could see, Made in India is an utterly typical work of academic cultural analysis. Bhaskaran has an advantage, of course, in coming from India herself, but she’s far from the first South Asian to go native in US or UK academia, or the first anthropologist to study an urban commercial culture, or the first cultural critic to deploy the slash (/) mark for purposes of grimly earnest semiotic play. Not that it’s necessary to be the first, but since she’s walking a trail that by now is paved in four lanes, her self-advertisement in her own text is a bit sad in its disingenuousness.

But what's got my pants in a bunch here is the stuff about the supposed novelty of “identity” and “sense of self” in Indian culture. This is shown to be false by the example she gives, a MSM (Man who has Sex with Men) who insisted that he is a man and not a fag. This fellow is emphatic about his identity (he’s a man, dammit!) and he sure seems to have a rather vigorous sense of self. In fact, his sense of masculine identity is strikingly similar to that of many males in the US and elsewhere, who are fully capable of having sex with men without seeing themselves “as gay or even homosexuals.” It even turns out that, although this man doesn’t use English words, he knows local terms and identity-concepts that cover the waterfront of male-male sex and masculine adequacy. They may not correspond exactly to American concepts, but they are not absolutely incongruent either. But even if they were vastly different, having a different sense of identity, with different boundaries and content, is not the same thing as having no identity at all.

Bhaskaran goes on to say:

Although Khan does recognize the simultaneous importance of self-identified categories co-exiting [sic] with the more fluid meanings, the contemporary-indigenous fluidity discourses about MSMs create the binaries of indigenous sexuality/India versus "westernized" sexuality. Indigenous [!] sexuality equals unnamed, unconscious, playful [!] behaviors, and sometimes problematic gender role fluidity. A fluidity that is more marginalized (inequalities of income, cultural capital, and career options) but somehow more Indian in essence especially since it does not involve individuality.
Well, let’s see. First, “unnamed” and “unconscious” (?) behaviors do not necessarily equal “playful” – they can, and often do, equal furtive, shamefaced, and depersonalized. One of her sources, the dread Jeremy Seabrook, made this clear in Love In a Different Climate, which a lot of queer South Asians cite for its romantic, even Orientalist, picture of Indian exceptionalism, while ignoring its unflattering picture of the actual lives of those Indian MSMs. Second, “gay” life in the West is not monolithic: “inequalities of income, cultural capital, and career options” are mirrored in different qualities and styles of life among even the gay-identified – does Bhaskaran really believe that, for example, all American queers own houses on Fire Island? -- and “sometimes problematic gender role fluidity” is a much contested issue even here in the Great Satan.

We also have a large MSM population in the West, and not all of them are first-generation immigrants from the global South. Indeed, the term MSM itself originated in the West. This is really only problematic for people who dream of an Indian queerness that is “Indian in essence,” but calling MSM "a culturally appropriate term (versus the Westernized and elite term gay)" is tripping.

According to queer Foucauldians, we're not supposed to call people "gay" or "homosexual" if it's not the identity they prefer, or if "gay" or "homosexual" wasn't in use in their time and culture. "MSM" is an identity, but I'm not sure anyone actually uses it of himself ("I am an MSM"). Isn't it cultural imperialism to apply it to people who haven't adopted it? Seabrook wrote in Love in a Different Climate that Indian men who have sex with men generally don't think of what they're doing as sex; so it's certainly illegitimate, by these criteria, to call them MSMs.

The word “identity” turns up a lot in what I’ve been reading about sexuality in the West and non-West. As Cindy Patton has pointed out, “Current theory and …especially queer theory have become confused about the issue of identity because there are a range of competing populist and academic concepts of identity, as well as important differences between European and U.S. political experiences of calls to identity” (“Tremble, Hetero Swine!” in Michael Warner (ed.), Fear of a Queer Planet [Minnesota, 1993], 161). Relevant here is the frequent claim, or accusation, that identity is an individualistic concept, at odds with the supposed non-individualist East. While this is true of the kind of identity attested by, say, an ID card (which those Asian-values authoritarian states don’t seem to mind using), it is totally false of the kind of identities I’m discussing here. To claim an identity is to assert oneself as a member of a group, defined by that group’s collective qualities and practices. (Foucault’s notorious and much-misunderstood quip, “The homosexual became a species”, recognizes this. So does "coming out," which in its debutante and gay senses means joining a community.) Of course, everyone has multiple identities, which often conflict; some are ascribed, some are adopted; this is what makes identity so complex.

“Identity politics” is just about everybody’s whipping boy these days. I once had a conversation with a gay East Asian graduate student, trained in the US, who believed that “identity politics” referred only to the narcissistic activities of white, privileged gay men. I tried to explain that African-American racial consciousness is the paradigm case of identity politics in the US, but that the term also covers Asian-American and Latino identities, feminism, a variety of nationalisms around the world, sectarian religious identity (like Hindutva or radical Islam), and so on, but without much success. To see his own identity concerns as stigmatized “identity politics” was too threatening, but that’s understandable. Just in the US, the old-style Left blames identity politics on “postmodernists,” while postmodernists blame it on the old-style Left and other essentialist ideologies – all the while ignoring their own practice of identity politics.

Bhaskaran laments – again, it’s a familiar trope, one that was deployed against American feminists and gay activists from the late 60s by our own indigenous Left – that she has often been asked, “Is Khush Sexuality a Luxury in the Geographic [?] Third World?” “Khush” is an Urdu term that has been appropriated by queer South Asians as an identity-politics label.

As such it appears to be one of those “elite” concepts that are a luxury for poor folks, but apparently are okay when the elites are educated South Asians, or when the word at least isn’t English.

Of course it's an absurd question, since "Khush sexuality" under whatever name has always, on Bhaskaran's own account, been part of Indian culture without doing it any detectable harm. I would answer that question with one of my own: Isn’t bigotry a luxury in the Third World, or anywhere? And while I'm on the subject, isn't ignorance -- of the much more culturally aware work of scholars like Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Aijaz Ahmad, Gayatri Reddy, Ruth Vanita, Saleem Kidwai, Amartya Sen, Steve Derne, Vijay Prashad, and many others -- no less a luxury for queerfolk anywhere and everywhere?