Learning and Exploring at ‘Queer’ Asia: A perspective from Central Asia

QA Blog Series: QA18 Bodies X Borders: Reflections on the conference and film festival

Posted on 17/08/2018
Altynay Kambekova participated in ‘Queer’ Asia Conference 2018.

My journey to Queer Asia 2018 conference started long before my feet actually stepped into the International Airport of Astana named after the unchanging president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. I remember submitting my abstract just two hours before the deadline. It was a New Year’s Eve, and my partner and I were cleaning up the house after doing a last grocery haul. This New Year’s Eve was special for both of us. This is because, in Kazakhstan, New Year’s Eve is celebrated with one’s family and friends. This year was the first time I spent New Year’s Eve with my partner. In this excitement, I nearly forgot about the deadline, but looking back after the conference I was glad I managed to squeeze in time to submit to the conference.

When I first found out about the conference, I was very excited, and now looking back I can say that my excitement was justified as it broadened my perspectives on a variety of issues, one of them being the issues of national identity and nationalism.

I hold an MA degree in Nationalism Studies, and when I was writing my master’s thesis, I remember the reaction of my professors to my ideas on (the relationship between nationalism and queerness for example) – they were not welcomed. In most European schools, the study of nationalism is based on colonial heteronormative patriarchal discourses that is uncomfortable with the voices of ‘the Others’, the ones that have been silenced, made invisible for centuries.  Furthermore, it makes people from academia (made up of deeply capitalist elite institutions) feel uncomfortable. Here, I should also point out that when someone refers to academia, it is always implied Western institutions that are considered to have the only “valid” and “objective” knowledge on everything. I wrote my thesis from a decolonial perspective, using gender and sexuality as the main frameworks for the ideas of nation, national belonging, and borders. This sat in contradiction to white patriarchal and heterosexist theories of nationalism enshrined in most elite universities. Only if you’re “lucky” your professor does include intersections of gender and nationalism into the syllabus at the end of the semester, making it of less importance of not least for students to focus on this topic.  Furthermore, this still privileges heteronormativity and the gender binary of male and female with no mention of queerness.

Only if you’re “lucky” your professor does include intersections of gender and nationalism into the syllabus at the end of the semester, making it of less importance of not least for students to focus on this topic.

Such a master’s course was deeply disappointing. Instead I was thrilled when I read the description of the “Queer” Asia 2018 conference. Not only geographically does it give voice to us, the bastards of colonial discourse, but also shows to the Western world that it is not them, who bring “civilization” by demanding gender and sexual diversity and artificially imposing it. Moreover, queerness is exploited by the Western world constructing symbolic borders for refugees and migrants under the premise that we, “uncivilized” chords of Asians and Africans, do not tolerate cultural plurality or queerness. In this sense, the conference is a big and loud claim that we exist, we live and love, and we are queer. It is now that the word queer is proudly used abroad by white people, making it another trendy phenomenon. But hardly any of these people would consider me, a bisexual woman of color from Central Asia as queer, because the word is appropriated and used as a capitalist and neoliberal trend. This usage makes queerness a matter of fashion and glamor, something that those outside of the Western world inherently lack. However, unfortunately, the lives of queer people are rarely glamorous, instead, they face and have to fight with myriad problems every single day. In this regard, the ‘Queer’ Asia conference was a refreshing reminder of the lives of non-Western queer people, and was a great celebration of our actions.

The conference and the film festival gave me a lot of insight and was eye-opening on many fronts. From the first day of my arrival at the event, I felt as if I was reunited with my family, something I had been long in search for. I did not feel any sense of alienation  intrinsic to most academic conferences where value is affixed to the number of publications or the institutions of affiliation. Here I felt I could let my guard down and just be myself. I won’t lie, I was shy the first few moments, but everyone around me just took me into their warm embrace. It felt like home. This was a strange feeling because I was very critical and hesitant about attending the conference. I could not understand why the conference on ‘Queer’ Asia should take place in London, the place that is among the most difficult to reach starting from the visa issuing process and ending with daily expenses. I was afraid that this event was going to be just another one, where we are brought together by Western academia, maybe as a sort of amusement, or an object of study, or out of “moral duty” once a year to let us speak. This is a tactic used by cultural hegemons that Spivak describes. It works like a divide and rule strategy, when the “master” chooses the “special” or “deserving” people to be part of the feast for a while, under the pretense of recognition. In this sense, the feeling of betraying queer people in Kazakhstan, feeling of not deserving to be queer or not being queer “enough” had followed me on my flight to London.

However, what I felt on my way back was completely the opposite. This conference gave me a lot: I attended fascinating panel sessions. I felt both challenged and nourished. For example, the panel “Un/doing Disciplinary Boundaries: Methods, Theory, and Beyond” challenged me to think about the limits through which disciplinary methods and theory affect the ways in which we think or are allowed to think. I saw wonderful installations at the art exhibition, films at the festival, and even plays created by extremely talented people, such as Humera, written by Fatima Maan, a Pakistani queer woman. I met some brilliant and kind people and my conversations with them were not less insightful than the academic panels I attended. However, there is one thing that I am mostly grateful for to this conference is that it gave me Pride. I am proud to have been a part of this conference, and, yes, I am privileged to have been able to visit London, but I found peace with it. The fact that my voice was heard is still better than if no one had presented on Kazakhstan, and to think that by having this privilege I somehow owe something to the West is just falling prey to a colonial way of thinking. So, the humble sense of pride has been growing during the whole conference, and now I can loudly say: I am Proud!

Finally, we, queer people from Asia, face precarious situations every single day of our lives, because we are constantly in danger and are the targets of elimination. After one of the conference days, I was talking with one of the participants, and I was complaining that I have so many doubts in my future, such as if I will be able to live with my partner and enjoy my life, if our parents accept us, if the society in Kazakhstan will ever accept our presence, etc. His response was brilliant: we, people, tend to underestimate uncertainty, we want everything to be clear, everything to be in certain patterns, but uncertainty itself is queer. To live in an uncertainty is to accept yourself and strive. To conclude, I was moved by the opening keynote panel where Geeta Patel underscored the close metaphorical similarity between queer people and bacteria. This metaphor is not just one of disturbance but also one of survival. As bacteria and unwanted members of society we are suited to strive to survive in the uncertain nature of our societies.

Altynay Kambekova works on the UNI Project – At risk men’s involvement in HIV treatment continuum in the Republic of Kazakhstan (2017 – 2021) The Global Health Research Center of Central Asia.

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