Thursday, December 30, 2010

We, We, We, All the Way Home

I've been meaning to write about this for some time. Then, just before the dorm closed for semester break, I noticed a student carrying around a copy of Queer Globalizations: Citizenship and the Afterlife of Colonialism, edited by Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé and Martin F. Manalansan IV (New York: NYU Press, 2002). I asked him about it, and learned that he is a big fan of Cindy Patton (as am I), who contributed a paper to the collection. I hope to run into him again in January and ask him what he thought of it. I found it frustrating; like most such collections it was uneven. The tone was set by the editors' introduction, which began with the vacuous platitude "Queerness is now global." They then reported a small contretemps at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) conference on queer globalization at City University of New York in the spring of 1998 (pp. 3-4):
CLAGS's conference on queer globalization drew a wide array of queer activists and scholars specializing in Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe, the United States, Canada, and queer diasporas. To a record-breaking audience, the speakers discussed the economic and cultural transformations brought on by global capital around the world and attempted to identify both opportunities and perils inherent in these transformations and their implications for queer cultures and lives. Yet nowhere were the perils of our present global condition more clearly signified than in a rather pregnant moment during the closing plenary of the conference. In the question and answer session, a well-meaning U.S. queer scholar of note stood up and narrated a vignette, a cautionary tale of sorts that urgently demanded a reply. He and a colleague had been strolling through the recently cleaned-up and renovated Bryant Park, across the street from what was then home to CUNY's Graduate Center, the site of the conference, when they were accosted by an ostensibly Latino man distributing literature about the liberating power of Jesus Christ. Self-possessed, the white scholar answered the Latino man that he and his friend were in fact gay and had no need for this literature. To the bafflement of the scholar, the Latino man replied that he had also been gay once until he had found the Lord. Now turning pointedly to the plenary speakers, the scholar demanded in earnest, How should I have spoken to this Latino man? How could I have made myself understood by him? How could "we" at this conference, well-meaning queer scholars like him, he seemed to imply, communicate effectively with this Latino (formerly gay) man?
There are a number of questions I wish I could pose to Cruz-Malavé and Manalansan, and even more to that "well-meaning U.S. queer scholar of note." Did the "ostensibly Latino" missionary's activity that day just possibly have anything to do with the hellmouth going on across the street, the conference center full of homosexuals full of need for the redeeming love of Christ? I'd be surprised if he was out there trolling for converts by sheer coincidence.

Aside from that, how does a homosexual grow up in the United States without having had to deal with religious nuts trying to save him? How does a homosexual academic achieve "note" without having spent some time teaching and having to deal with hostile students and fellow faculty, and having learned to answer them? The "well-meaning scholar" must also be aware of the existence of gay Christians and other religious believers, so his first riposte to the "ostensible" Latino's overtures was not especially clever. And what does the missionary's ethnicity have to do with anything, either for the scholar or for the conference, anyway?

Though I'm not an academic, living in a college town I've often had encounters with non-Latino (not even "ostensible" ones) Christian kids who go out witnessing as part of their involvement with campus Christian groups like Campus Crusade for Christ. (Every Wednesday night, after prayer meeting.) They aren't sent out unprepared, and it seems that part of the spiel they're taught includes the phrase "I used to be [insert condition here] like you, but then I was saved." I recall fondly one such kid who gulped nervously when he plugged "gay" into that sentence after learning I am gay. (On the other hand, such campus groups seem to get a disproportionate number of conflicted, frightened, queer young people, many of whom later come out.) I'd never take for granted that a missionary was telling the truth about anything, but again, what was the well-meaning queer scholar trying to prove by crying in the wilderness, "You see how These People are? What can I possibly say to Them?" (On the other hand, I'm stuck with the editors' account of this performance; to add to the fun, Manalansan told a slightly different version in his Global Divas [Duke, 2003], to which I'll return presently.)
At this point the three-day conference, which had progressed smoothly, came to a screeching halt. Our speakers had finally been stumped by one of the opportunities and perils of our present global condition: the complexity of contemporary cross-cultural interactions in our globalized world. They had finally been silenced by the white scholar's attempt to regain his sense of self-possession by wielding, in a destabilized, fluctuating world, what he thought of as a stable identificatory germ (gay) -- an attempt that faltered because the ostensibly Latino man (no longer the mythical "other" before the shining glass beads of European culture) could wield the same term (gay) with equal authority and impunity.
In other words, these fine anti-racist, anti-imperialist scholars had never, in their years of study in the US, ever encountered clueless or racist faculty, fellow students, or random citizens. As graduate student teaching assistants, they had never encountered stupid or provocative questions, and had never thought about how they might deal with them. So that a boring typical provocation like the one by Mr. White Guy could bring their conference to "a screeching halt"! If a senior faculty member makes a stupid racist remark in the hallway, a graduate student or junior faculty would probably not feel free to challenge it; but when you're on a panel at a conference, you have more freedom. Maybe the panelists were just too well socialized into American academic culture.

Or maybe not. As Manalansan tells the story in Global Divas, the panelists, who included "Geeta Patel, Norma Alarcon, Michael Warner, and Kobena Mercer," were "noncommittal." There's quite a difference between "noncommittal" and "stumped," let alone "brought to a screeching halt." Michael Warner looks pretty white to me; even if his colleagues were flummoxed, surely he could have taken on his fellow White Man. Perhaps their consternation was more of the "How do you keep walking around with nothing attached to your brain stem?" variety.

I think if I'd been on the panel for the closing plenary, I'd have asked the "well-meaning" (I think this word is meant to be sarcastic) queer scholar why he didn't just ask the ex-gay Jesus freak if he'd like to fool around a bit. (Ex-gays are notorious for not being very "ex" after all.) I don't follow the authors' claim that Mr. White Guy "faltered because the ostensibly Latino man ... could wield the same term (gay) with equal authority and impunity." It doesn't relate to what they say Mr. White Guy said, and it looks like projection to me. But if they're right after all, I can't help but wonder where Mr. White Guy has been for the past 30 years. The world I live in has plenty of ex-gays and Jesus freaks in it -- some of the Jesus freaks are gay, too! -- and they don't surprise me as they evidently surprise him.
In order to break the silence, the speakers could have redirected at this point the white scholar's question, forcing him (as Silviano Santiago, the Brazilian novelist, recommends queer scholars to do in his brief and incisive essay in the present volume) to engage with his own suppositions. In a room full of queers of color, we could have asked him not to presume that we were included in his well-meaning "we." We could have reminded him, that is, that the "other" was already in the room, and that the tendency to figure racial or ethnic difference as impermeable alterity was not so much a symptom of the other's radical difference as of its unsettling proximity.
Yes, "what do you mean 'we,' paleface?" strikes me as a useful response to Mr. White Guy, too. But they're wrong about Santiago's recommendation. His essay has some idiocies of its own (he seems to believe that the US gay movement does nothing but parade around in drag 365 days a year; see page 18), but he addresses the conference as "metropolitans" -- that is, he regards these well-meaning graduate students and faculty of color not as "we" with him, but as "you" or "them", part of the Imperialist Other. He graciously says that he won't invite them to engage with their own suppositions, because he's their guest. (Of course, that's a not-so-subtle way of telling them to do it anyway.) The authors (who are Latino and Filipino) take for granted they have no colonialist suppositions of their own -- upper-class in their home societies, students and later faculty at elite institutions in the US. When I read stuff like this, and I find a lot like it in the post-colonial things I've been reading the past several years, I always suspect that they have their own unresolved hangups to deal with. I sympathize, but their unexamined assumptions will distort the way they teach their students, and that is everybody's problem.
This anthology on queer globalizations is our insistent attempt not to answer the white scholar's query, deflecting thus his colonizing gaze. It is our ethical refusal to provide a grammar that could make the complexity and density of the cross-cultural interactions generated by our present global condition immediately transparent and universally legible. It is our refusal to fix the term "gay," and the powerful legacies of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movements, as a prerequisite for global interaction and coalition. For it is in the permutations of this term and its legacies, as they circulate around the globe, in queer organizations and gatherings, from Mexico City's Semana Cultural Lesbico-Gay to New Delhi's Campaign for Lesbian Rights and Beijing's International Women's Conference, from Buenos Aires's Marcha de Orgullo Gay to the diasporic South Asian and Latino Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade in Queens, New York, that the future of the human and civil rights of queers also lies.
Wow -- I am, like, totally deflected by the editors' courage in refusing "to fix the term 'gay'"! That refusal is of course standard operating procedure in white American queer theory, which means that they are adopting American models "as a prerequisite for global interaction and coalition." So does the claim that the "future of the human and civil rights of queers" also lies in a worldwide "gay" movement, a claim that attracts accusations of cultural imperialism when the wrong people make it. If anything, Manalansan and Cruz-Malavé are playing the same game as their well-meaning queer scholar of note: "What," they are asking rhetorically but with no detectable irony, "should we say to this ostensibly white queer scholar? You see how hopeless These People are?"

Of course, Cruz-Malavé and Manalansan don't have to say anything, to that scholar or to me; it's not their job to educate him or me. Some (many?) white American queer scholars aren't interested. I am interested, though, and I'll go on listening, trying to educate myself. But it seems to me that this sort of grandstanding is a waste of time, when there's so much to be done and learned.