What do queers want? QA17 Summary

The Queer Asia 2017 conference and film festival was a queertastic, ephemeral event spread over three days, covering queer aspects of and from 25 Asian countries and regions. This was the second run for QA, hosted at SOAS, University of London, yet because the first time was such a hit we added a third day – the Queer Asian Film Festival – allowing more scope for queer Asian explorations. Over the course of those exciting three days, we took interest in Desire – one of our core themes at QA17 – and tried to keep in mind the question: What do queers want?

           Of course many of our presenters and other guests wanted to show important activist work, to illustrate queer Asian identities within various fields and dimensions – but what were the overarching desires under which participants connected? 

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(L to R) Dr. Ben Murtagh, SOAS; Dr. Rahul Rao, SOAS and Dr. Nour Abou-Assab, CTDC

The opening keynote panel of QA17 on Day 1 – “Decolonising Queer Theory” – featured Dr. Nour Abou-Assab, Professor Nikita Dhawan, Dr. Ben Murtagh, and Dr. Rahul Rao, who came together to kick off a discussion on how queer Asian identities in a west-originated and west-dominated academia can be navigated. Dr. Dhawan expressed desire for us to not be distracted by the inadequate term ‘queer’ or categories and label-making, but to maintain the gaze on the post-colonial state, and especially pay attention to subjects who do not have access to the state. Dr. Dhawan spoke of “desubordination” and Decriminalisation (also one of QA17’s core themes) as being extremely important aspects that transcend mere legality. We should want, Dr. Dhawan urged, to support the “sexual subaltern” who do not have the privilege of turning their backs on the state. We should desire thus a “radical politics [that] is located in the realm of civil society.” Dr. Murtagh, in a similar vein, expressed an interest in destabilising categories and viewing queer as a verb – hence we should do rather than categorise. Dr. Murtagh stressed that we should also want to beg the question: Do we even have a right to act as the white western medium? Dr. Abou-Assab presented a desire to unravel the “social fabric” that “has been colonised,” working both within and without academia. Dr. Abou-Assab stated that there was much to learn from both activist and academic communities, acknowledging that sometimes categories are to be rejected but are also useful for mobilising communities.

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Gabriel Semerene

Due to the concurrent nature of the QA17 panel lineup, it was not possible to view every presentation. Though there was much to observe about what so many queers gathering might want. In Panel 1 (“Beyond the Box – Identity Politics”) Gabriel Semerene’s presentation, titled “Mithlī, mithlak? Language and LGBTQ Activism in the Mašriq,” expressed a desire to pursue a non-west trajectory wherein English was not utilised as an excluder of local political resistances, as well as to reclaim the word ‘shaz’ as ‘queer’ has been in the west. Dushant Patel presented on Club Kali in London, urging that we bypass the conventions of mainstream LGBT clubs and resist disidentification. Patel’s presentation was one of serious utopian aspiration, of world-making without the state. Ahmad Ibrahim’s presentation, “Between Empire and the Modern State – Queer (In)visibility and (In)translatability in Contemporary Bangladesh,” called for a resistance to white western expansionism, addressing the reality of ongoing, contemporary colonialisms. Ibrahim desired a refusal to adopt such narratives as that of medical MTF transitional language, and to imagine an indigenous futurity. This desire also spills into the Queer Archive Bangladesh project, which seeks to archive queer Bangladeshi histories and thoughts for the present, including Hijras and other queer unwanted subjects.  

           Other presenters expressed a desire for us all to confront racism within queer communities and spaces. For example on Panel 3 (“Appstract Love – New Media/Apps”) Paul Atienza presented “Intimacies and Horizons on the Move: Dating Apps and Ecologies of Desire in Translocal Manila,” demonstrating the idea of “ecologies of desire.” For Atienza the desire was to overcome class obstacles and sexual racisms within gay virtualities, but to also overcome a metro Manila geography of obstacles which hinder intimacies. The overriding drive seemed to be to endeavour to make connections of intimacy. In Chaturawit Thongmuang’s presentation, “Queering Sexuality of Thai Gay Men on the Internet: A Digital Ethnographic Approach,” there was an apparent desire to pursue an identity politics that goes beyond LGBT. Thongmuang reflected an effort to represent the sexuality of Thai gay men within social media space, and the making of histories through forum sex story production.

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Panel 5: Sexing Authority – Governance

On Panel 5 (“Sexing Authority – Governance”) Rajorshi Das gave a presentation titled “Nationalism and Queer Intersectionality in Aubrey Menen,” wherein there was a desire put forward to include not only queer Asian communities in Asia but also to queer the Asian diaspora. Ismail Shogo’s “Resistance from the Closet: Queer Politics in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” desired more agency for Saudi oppressed LGBTs and desired resistance to the Saudi dynasty’s demonisation of homosexuality. For Shogo, linguistic desires revolve more around change that departs from slurs and which includes a closer translation of the English language ‘homosexual’.

           Panel 6 (“Normalising Tendencies – Post/Colonialism”) featured Tamara L. Megaw & Firdhan A Wijaya’s “The challenge of being normal, mapping colonially in psychological academia,” which was particularly poignant when considering what it is that queers want. Megaw and Wijaya expressed desire for safe counselling and educational spaces in Indonesia for queers, adding also that queers and queer discourses needed to disrupt normative and fixed categories of sexuality. Similarly on Panel 8 of Day 2 (“(S)expats and (s)expectations – Migration/Diaspora”) the desires were often more immediate and pragmatic. In Dr. Gerard Coll-Planas’ ““We can’t live together like those German faggots” – Cinematic representation of queer migrants from Muslim-majority countries living in Europe,” the desire expressed was to combat assimilation and, especially for queer migrants, seek protection from racism and “structural xenophobia.” In Tianqi Zhang aka Panda’s “Queer Intersections: Voices from Expatriates and Immigrants Living in Japan,” we were presented with the want to raise visibility for queers in Japan especially through the media of LGBT shows and events, such as the Tokyo Rainbow Pride. Panda showed us how English-speaking queer community groups adapted to globalisation by building queer networks of foreigners and migrant groups in Japan. Massimo Modesti’s “Asian males challenging sexual racism: coping strategies to subvert and reinvent desirability in gay dating” urged us to resist naturalisations of “racial aesthetic hierarchies” and the “it’s just a preference” rationale of gay racism within dating contexts. Again, Modesti posits that the more urgent desire is to decolonise (Decolonisation another of the core QA17 themes) the mind and to resist the trends of “muscle” which cause Filipino suicides. In Ping-Hsuan Wang’s “Coming out of the Country: Migration in gay immigrants’ coming-out stories,” we are encouraged to ask what coming out means to gay immigrants. In particular, how gay immigrants cope with coming out within a place wherein there is no perception of a coming out discourse. The desire herein is to bridge the disconnect for migrants who are gay.       

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And of course queers just wanna have fun, exponential and experimental! Day 1 saw a range of performance and social events. First off was Loo Zihan’s performance lecture “Proscription of Queer Bodies in Singapore,” which most certainly engaged the audience what with Zihan’s charismatic presence as well as the collective guessing of what particular queer objects might be. Following this were drag queen and king performances at our Drag Asia event, followed later by a Queer Asia/Club Kali drag collaboration in the SOAS Junior Common Room. South Korean artivist Heezy Yang aka Hurricane Kimchi provided extravagant song, dance, and humoured information about his activist work, while Chinese Whiskey Chow entertained with an extraordinary performance art piece. 

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Panel on Decriminalisation and Colonial Legacies

The Day 2 keynote panel, “Decriminalisation and Activism”, included Paul Dillane (Kaleidoscope Trust), Arvind Narrain (ARC International), Yasmin Purba (Arus Pelangi), and Li Maizi (Feminist Activist). Dillane provided extensive information on the UK and other western nations’ efforts to address the effects of colonial-era laws on parts of Asia. Dillane stressed the need to work with (and sometimes take a back seat to) international partners and organisations in advocating for LGBTQ rights. Purba talked about how the situation in Indonesia is worsening, stating: “We used to be under an authoritarian regime, but it was pretty safe for LGBT people.” Narrain spoke positively about losses in South Asian courts experienced by those attempting to repeal colonial law, telling us that “sometimes legal defeats can also be ways that you can change the conversation in society.” Li Maizi explained how the “UN mechanism just doesn’t work in China, [that] international bodies can’t monitor,” instead stressing that “We need to educate our general public. We need to educate the general LGBT community” and that “I need to base [my strategies] on the domestic situation.”         

As with in QA16, QA17 also had a “QueerGlossia” event on Day 2 (“QueerGlossia – Perspectives from Vietnam / Vagina Monologues & China”). While Amazin LeThi in “Perspectives from Vietnam” pointed out that the colonial experience for Vietnam was different to many parts of Asia colonised by the British, LeThi told us of Vietnam’s not-so-rosy “Department of Social Evils.” The desire expressed, for LeThi, is for Vietnam to utilise gay tourism, make more use of company power, and to focus on the community. LeThi demonstrated the pioneering potential of Vietnam which has promoted youth- and lesbian-led LGBT movements and film festivals, advocating also for fitting “more comfortably” into ‘queer’ as identity for Asians over ‘LGBT’. Also illustrated was a sense of coming home rather than coming out, and desire to make positive use of a neutral Vietnamese media that is actively interested in publishing on LGBT topics. Esse-Yao Chen, presenting on the Vaginalogues, expressed a desire to evoke mutual understanding via artistic projects, and to ask who we in/exclude when making this art. Chen desires that we ask: “What are we meaning by Chinese women?” and: “Do we exclude those without vaginas?” We were also reminded to be aware that our activism can be co-opted for art purposes.

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Amazin LeThi (Left) with Shantanu Singh, QA Committee Member

          As with in QA16, QA17 also had a “QueerGlossia” event on Day 2 (“QueerGlossia – Perspectives from Vietnam / Vagina Monologues & China”). While Amazin LeThi in “Perspectives from Vietnam” pointed out that the colonial experience for Vietnam was different to many parts of Asia colonised by the British, LeThi told us of Vietnam’s not-so-rosy “Department of Social Evils.” The desire expressed, for LeThi, is for Vietnam to utilise gay tourism, make more use of company power, and to focus on the community. LeThi demonstrated the pioneering potential of Vietnam which has promoted youth- and lesbian-led LGBT movements and film festivals, advocating also for fitting “more comfortably” into ‘queer’ as identity for Asians over ‘LGBT’.

Also illustrated was a sense of coming home rather than coming out, and desire to make positive use of a neutral Vietnamese media that is actively interested in publishing on LGBT topics. Esse-Yao Chen, presenting on the Vaginalogues, expressed a desire to evoke mutual understanding via artistic projects, and to ask who we in/exclude when making this art. Chen desires that we ask: “What are we meaning by Chinese women?” and: “Do we exclude those without vaginas?” We were also reminded to be aware that our activism can be co-opted for art purposes.

          In the Day 2 talk “Feminist and Queer Perspectives in West Asia: Tensions and Complicities” by SOAS’ Prof. Nadje Al Ali, a desire was expressed to pay attention to the lower classes and challenge normativity. We were urged to break out of bracketed sexuality, avoid purist activism, and be clever about money-raising. Similar to what Dr. Abou-Assab discussed about activism and academia, Al Ali also cautioned against discrediting people for producing knowledge outright (academics), but demonstrated a will for more intra-Asian encounters that are key to raising more funds and allowing a greater sense of integrity.

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Panel discussion on imagining queer worlds through cinema and countering censorship in Asia

The final day – Day 3 – of QA17 was the Queer Asia Film Festival. The festival featured films from India, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Myanmar, Singapore, Brunei, China, and films which explored the diaspora and desire outside of Asia in British and Canadian-Filipino contexts. Our closing panel, “Imagining Queer Worlds Through Cinema”, addressed the conference themes of Desire, Decolonisation, and Decriminalization. The panel featured director Susan Thompson, director He Xiaopei, Not Only Voices co-founder and director Gabriel Alves de Faria, director Selim Mourad, documentary filmmaker Joella Cabalu, actor and writer Abdul, and screenwriter and editor Apurva Asrani. Dr. He Xiaopei proposed that we use film to express an understanding of queer versus a normalisation of LGBT movements, while Asrani desired that through film-making we might find our own words and terms to facilitate “self-worth” and queer festival-type events. Cabalu expressed a desire that we do not impose western ideals through film, and it was also suggested that we use our stories as a basis for artistic gesture and not necessarily for pushing or promoting ‘queer’. Cabalu also stated that we might use film to understand how devout Filipino Catholics reconcile with queerness, providing us with the perspective of a cishet-identifying position. The important function of such tools as YouTube was also discussed, with which film makers should shine light on human rights offences and a platform via which viewers could watch queer film safely online. Mourad advocated for a film for a “global everybody,” one that held no particular aim such as festival organising or academic idea, to which it was also added by Zainidi that we advocate for the reactionary, for affect and personal as the political, for progressive art. Particularly poignant was Dr. He Xiaopei’s statement that, through film, we must reignite the class/poverty divide to redress mainstream LGBT discourse and queer elitisms and essentialisms, which in many contexts have hitherto abandoned certain others in the exchange for or pursuit of specific rights.

          As with in QA16, QA17 also had a “QueerGlossia” event on Day 2 (“QueerGlossia – Perspectives from Vietnam / Vagina Monologues & China”). While Amazin LeThi in “Perspectives from Vietnam” pointed out that the colonial experience for Vietnam was different to many parts of Asia colonised by the British, LeThi told us of Vietnam’s not-so-rosy “Department of Social Evils.” The desire expressed, for LeThi, is for Vietnam to utilise gay tourism, make more use of company power, and to focus on the community. LeThi demonstrated the pioneering potential of Vietnam which has promoted youth- and lesbian-led LGBT movements and film festivals, advocating also for fitting “more comfortably” into ‘queer’ as identity for Asians over ‘LGBT’.

         Queer Asia also featured a special event on legal complexities regarding intersex persons. This Day 2 event “Intersex in the Law: Perspectives” with Hong Kong activist Geoffrey Yeung and Indian Supreme Court lawyer Geeta Luthra demonstrated desires to reeducate activists on the LGBTI acronym and to prevent trans/intersex confusions, willing us to go and witness the work and hear the voices of intersex people rather than rely on second-hand reports. Also desired was an effort to avoid insensitivity to androgyny – especially in the Indian context – and to raise awareness around “pure prejudice at work” and “congenital abnormality” – real grounds for job denial. This related to a desire for qualified doctors who are experienced in dealing with intersex persons in India so as to protect them from the paramilitary forces’ judgements of what – and who – is fit/unfit to serve. We were told that negotiating with the law is to be desired, since it does encourage discourse even when it is backwards, being both that which oppresses and that which empowers. The will should be, we are told, a reversal of oppressive bills and a taking back of bills to parliament for improvement.

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Selfie Time!

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Written by Allan C Simpson aka Queer Hinny

Allan is a co-founder and committee member of Queer Asia

 

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