Monday, May 6, 2013

Queen of Queens

Sometimes I think that all aspiring anthropologists should have to do an ethnography of their own communities before they're turned loose on other societies.  It has been an ongoing complaint of mine that so many writers compare non-Western homosexualities to an imaginary mental model of gay life in the West, especially the US.

This happens even when these writers' subject is a Western society like Mexico.  (Or Mississippi, for that matter.)  In Flaming Souls: Homosexuality, Homophobia, and Social Change in Barbados (University of Toronto Press, 2012), David A. Murray does it even though he acknowledges that Barbados -- an English-speaking independent Caribbean state -- is Western, or at least not non-Western.  The antigay bigotry he documents is thoroughly Western, in fact Christian.  (As Saleem Kidwai and Ruth Vanita observed about India, the people who denounce homosexuality like to "associate homosexuality with the West. ... On the other hand, they draw on Western sources to legitimize their homophobia.")  He therefore relies on the imperial metropole/colony binary, though he cites Ann Stoler to the effect that "imperial formations are unlike empires in that they are processes of becoming; they are fixed things" (115), and he claims:
From the days of the plantation to the present there have been multiple, fluid, and shifting social, economic, and moral practices operating in Barbados, affecting hegemonic discourses of respectable citizenship, so that these discourses do not sit in as stable a position as they do in settler states like the United States, where the moral codification of white heteropatriarchy has established a stranglehold on sociopolitical and economic order [115-6].
Well, no, I don't think so.  I don't agree that hegemonic discourses of respectable citizenship are stable in the United States,  They're always prone to slippage, because whiteness for example is a highly unstable category, which is constantly being renegotiated.  So is manhood, which is always in crisis.  That the US is a settler state has nothing to do with it.  Empires are "processes of becoming," not "fixed things."  I haven't read Stoler, so I don't know if Murray is representing her views accurately.

Murray also claims that antigay bigotry in Barbados is connected to other, perhaps larger social forces.
Specifically, I argue that it is no coincidence that homosexuality was increasingly debated in public contexts at this historical juncture because Barbados faced major social and economic challenges in its marginal position relative to other international political and economic alliances ... These realignments (or potential realignments) of political and economic power were bringing about significant changes in the socio-economic fabric of life of many Bajans, resulting in what some observers claimed was a submissive, subordinated, or 'feminized' (defined through a heteropatriarchal lens) economy.  Like many other societies, Barbados was also going undergoing rapid technological changes through the increasing presence of computer, television, and mobile communication technologies, which in turn linked Barbadians to multiple, globally circulating ideas, values, and identities relating to sexuality [9].
No doubt this is true, but the same is true of an imperial settler society like the United States.  There was a sharp rise in antigay bigotry here after World War II, associated with very similar "challenges."  And as Sarah Schulman reminded us in Stagestruck (Duke, 1998, p. 124), "Historically, dominant people have always been comfortable with the idea of oppressed people as secretly powerful. The easiest example, of course, is how for almost two thousand years, dominant groups of various stripes have convinced themselves that they were ruled over by a secret cabal of Jews."  Even as the US has imposed its will on much of the world, it still has imagined itself as a pitiful helpless giant, pushed around by its critics and enemies.  Maybe Murray does well to stress these factors in Barbadian life, but since he seems to think that they aren't relevant in the US, he gives a misleading impression.  The same difficulty arises in his discussion of "rights."

These matters are more about history and cultural theory, however.  I was startled when Murray expressed his confusion at the way some of his gay Barbadian informants spoke about themselves, for example:
Throughout our conversations Darcy would interchangeably refer to himself as gay and a queen, which confused me at the time based on my understandings of these terms derived from my experiences as a white, North American, gay-identified male.  In North America gay and transgendered communities are popularly thought of as distinct groups based on their different sexual and gendered orientations ... At this time I thought Darcy's usage of these terms indicated the possibility of at least two or more queer communities existing in Barbados, transgender and gay or lesbian, and that perhaps [he] was telling me that [he] felt comfortable in both groups [65].
My understanding as a white, North American, gay-identified male is different, though it may be out of date.  In the predominantly white college-town gay community in which I made my debut in the early 1970s, "queen" was a generic term for gay men.  One sign of this was the use of "queen" qualified by various modifiers -- chicken queen, opera queen, trade queen, theater queen, danger queen, etc. -- that indicated an individual's quirks and fetishes, not all of them erotic.  Drag (female impersonation) wasn't seen as a transgender phenomenon but a part of gay life, however much it bothered many public-relations-minded homosexuals, and as far as I can tell it still is: Miss Gay IU pageants were annual events in my community until the past few years, when financial woes brought them to an end for the time being.  "Transgender" is a relatively recent category, and it has led to a lot of confusion over who qualifies and who doesn't.

In larger cities, there are enough people to generate specialized segments of the community, so that a young gay man like Murray can perhaps go for years without meeting queeny individuals, and might come to imagine that "gay" refers exclusively to gender-compliant gay males, with everyone else being "transgender" and not "gay."  But I really doubt it.  I immediately think of Seventies clones, one of whom told the gay sociologist Martin Levine, "Darling, beneath all this butch drag, we are still girls."  (Dancer from the Dance, Andrew Holleran's classic novel of the gay Manhattan disco scene of the Sixties and Seventies, depicts this world and mentality very well.)  And then I think of the high-end real estate agent Robby Browne, who celebrated his achievement as Corcoran's 2007 salesperson of the year by putting on a drag show starring himself and a dozen Broadway chorus boys.

No, someone hasn't been paying attention to the community he's been living in.  And once again I wonder how this book found its way into print without one of the many fellow-academics thanked in the Acknowledgements pointing out these misunderstandings.

P.S. Which doesn't mean Flaming Souls isn't worth reading.  Like many academics, Murray gives good research, and his account of Barbadian gay life is engaging.  I especially enjoyed his story, in chapter 6, of the "Jamaican invasion": some Barbadian queens go to Jamaica on vacation and bring some Jamaican men back with them.  (Sexual tourism also works horizontally, you see: between the colonized nations, as well as vertically.)  Hilarity ensues when the Jamaicans turns out not to be as different from their shiftless, no-account Barbadian counterparts as the queens had hoped.  Besides, unlike many academics, Murray actually understands most of the theoretical jargon he must use, and his discussion of political and economic factors is well done.  The problem, as I said, is his faulty picture of gay life in the US.