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Feelings for knowledge: Reflecting on bodies, borders, and bacteria at Queer Asia 2018

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

Posted on 27/08/2018
Heather Jaber participated in ‘Queer’ Asia Conference 2018.

The work I have been most inspired by draws unconventional links between social contexts, historical periods, and disciplines. William Connolly’s (2008) work, for example, finds parallels between discourses of the evangelist right and US capitalism. Paul Amar’s (2013) The Security Archipelago looks to Cairo and Rio de Janeiro to find similar securitization discourses around particular gendered and classed subjects. Donovan Schaefer (2018) explores the affectivity of secularism, complicating the clean division between religious fervor and scientific ­dispassion.

My experience at ‘Queer’ Asia 2018 provoked similar questions. During the opening panel, Geeta Patel did this by bringing the notion of bacteria into the conference theme of bodies and borders. Evoking Foucault’s biopolitics, she asked how we turn dirtiness into cleanliness and exterminate, using not only language, but also more literally. She referred to a visit to the hospital where this link became resonant, discussing the automated mechanisms and logics which have us turning to anti-bacterial ointment to remove the bad bacteria and probiotics to usher in the good ones.

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This metaphor about a hospital nurse compulsively disinfecting her hands became a metaphor for the everydayness of political projects, colonial and otherwise. Patel also reminded the audience that the word “normative” is a statistical term, and urged us to think about what it means to use it as a descriptor. I think that it is partly Patel’s background in the sciences which provokes the kinds of metaphors that draw three-dimensional lines between frameworks we think of as disparate. It reminds me of the gracious, curious orientation of Eve Sedgwick, whose work on affect was a major contribution to queer theory.

This metaphor about a hospital nurse compulsively disinfecting her hands became a metaphor for the everydayness of political projects, colonial and otherwise.

Affect theory, for me, has become a way to talk about what, as Deborah Gould has remarked, is “often experienced at the very edge of semantic availability.” Schaefer has also noted that “[a]ffect theory’s project is to question the extremely tight fit between language and power.” It’s a way to think about that which is inextricably linked to cognition and language, but which we don’t have very precise words for yet.

Eve Sedgwick herself was inspired by the work of psychologist (and something of an interdisciplinary curiosity) Silvan Tomkins who drew from a range of disciplines to inform his theory of affects and later script theory. At the University of Pennsylvania, he would study playwriting, psychology, and philosophy, going on to run a series of experiments on facial expression which would likely have both the humanities and the social science camps puzzled today (and likely even then). But what he produced from those experiments was a freeing idea. Rather than an infinite number of affects, or some kind of binary state of affect/non-affect, his experiments led him to form a framework of nine affects.

Sedgwick later took this work and used it to intervene at a time when the high humanities tradition was questioning whether science could actually do what it claimed. She waived a white flag on behalf of the former and asked just what might happen if these perspectives met. Putting aside whether there were in fact nine affects (or more, or fewer), Sedgwick championed an ability to think between infinity and the binary, making it an important component of not only queer theory, but for virtually all disciplines.

She understood just how difficult it is to “unthink” a paralyzing binary (freedom/oppression, hegemonic/counter-hegemonic, public/private, normative/nonnormative) and suggested that we wade into other disciplinary buckets to see just what we might find. This was what she called operating within the middle ranges of agency—existing within a space where there is less to know or claim for certain, and even thriving there. It seems like a simple thing, but what it did was give us something graspable to work with. Having a finite number of elements, but also more than an on/off switch, dislodges us from the kind of paralysis we often encounter when thinking about power, especially in the contemporary moment. I think this can do much to alleviate what feels like a paralysis of the right now.

This is something I thought about in relation to my own work throughout the conference. Just before my panel, I got into discussion about my research into the crackdowns around the Lebanese band Mashrou Leila in Egypt and Jordan within the last few years. The band has been banned from performing in these spaces amidst controversy and panics around the lead singer’s sexuality (he is openly queer). I’ve been curious about not only the way the band has been celebrated by Western outlets as something of revolutionaries, while they have been barred from playing in several spaces in the Arab world. I’ve been looking at not only the way that dominant discourses in Egypt and Jordan construct homosexuality as inauthentic to the region (because this is not a new narrative), but the way it has become an issue of national security. At once, these minority bodies have been simultaneously hailed by those in the region as symbols of pride, but also as anxiety-provoking, both through an affectively charged link to the “global.”

I’ve been curious about not only the way [Mashrou Leila] has been celebrated by Western outlets as something of revolutionaries, while they have been barred from playing in several spaces in the Arab world.

One participant asked me whether those in the Egyptian community identified as queer or homosexual. Or alternatively, did they identify as something else altogether? Questions around language are important ones, and it’s especially critical to understand the nuances of particular identity formations and the material effects they have on the way that we live in and experience the world. But in thinking about how to answer, I also thought about what Chris Nickell called “the absurdity of speaking for (and to) an entire region at once in the crosshairs and in the spotlight” (p. 9). He was referring to remarks by Mashrou Leila lead singer Hamed Sinno to the audience at a US concert following the Orlando shooting at Pulse Night Club, where he called attention to the impossible spaces occupied by those at the margins: “This is what it looks like to be a terrorist and a faggot.”

“This is what it looks like to be a terrorist and a faggot.” – Hamed Sinno

I now realize why my initial question of whether a queer space was opening through the globalization of this band and their performance sites was not a question I was comfortable with answering, and one I had not really been trying to answer. What would it mean to say yes or no? Perhaps it is a worthy question for someone to answer, but to say that Egyptians authentically identify using the words queer, homosexual, gay, or mithaliyin, or whether these spaces are queer or un-queer, feels in some ways like it is falling into the trap that I am trying to evade.

In recognizing the disparities and power imbalances intensified by colonialism, postcolonial theory has given us vital tools to name those dynamics and try to highlight, understand, reverse, archive, fight, and move beyond them. And while it is important to recognize these differentials, it is even more important that we don’t risk reaffirming them. I think here of work which, in its quest to uncover these legacies, ends up constructing the colonial and colonized as part of a global/local, authentic/inauthentic binary, whereby all those who identify with broader collectivities risk being labeled foreign, deviant, or the output of penetrating, imperialistic projects. As I think of the recent crackdowns in the Arab region and beyond, I remember that there is great violence associated with this kind of posturing.

So while we are examining these disparities, we must at the same time recognize our convergences, shared realities, and the interconnections among the global phenomena we are experiencing. I am thinking of Marwan Kraidy’s recent work calling for attention to these interconnections, and I would add that it is perhaps through attention to affect that we might have the tools to do so. There are also other ways of producing knowledge about the things we consider worthwhile, and I think those can be discovered through gracious and curious exchanges of knowledge between historians, statisticians, playwrights, neuroscientists, economists, psychologists, artists, and other theorists and practitioners.

For all of us who find ourselves steeped somewhere between the humanities and social sciences, I would say that this is perhaps the most productive place we can be right now. As Schaefer has noted, we would do well to consider the way that producing knowledge feels, not only for academics, but in our day-to-day, as humans. I do not yet have a solid answer for what that looks like for my own research, or what unconventional places I may turn to, but I imagine that this is something that takes time and effort to cultivate. And a lot of gracious curiosity.

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Heather Jaber is a researcher from Beirut and Boston. She holds an M.A. in media studies from the American University of Beirut (AUB), where she studied the emerging visibility of characters coded as homosexual in Lebanese musalsalat, or Arabic-language television dramas. As a doctoral student, she is interested in the intersections between gender, sexuality, popular culture, and geopolitics in the Arab world and beyond, and particularly in interrogating the symbolic function of deviance in the construction of the nation.

Read More about the upcoming CARGC-fellows biennial conference, Popular Culture and Coloniality: Decolonizing Global Media and Communication” at the University of Pennsylvania on March 28, 2019. Interested participants can send their abstracts by September 15, 2018.

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.

Silence That Breaks the Boundary: Voicelessness as a Queer Asian Art Expression

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

Posted on 17/08/2018
Ping-Hsuan Wang participated in ‘Queer’ Asia Conference 2018.

Film Trailer: Sisak (Dir. Faraz Ansari, 2017).

The shots alternate between two men, with close-ups zooming in on their facial expressions as they exchange eye contact across a Mumbai train, building up the emotional intensity and establishing a subtle tacit connection for the audience to grasp. After several encounters on the train, they become aware of each other’s presence but they always keep their distance. No verbal or physical interaction is initiated; not even when the suited man waits by the door right behind the other man in traditional clothes, or when they stand face to face holding onto a pole to support themselves on the moving train. Emerging is a boundary between them that cannot be crossed. Not a word is uttered. Sisak is an Indian film narrating a love story between two men that is not only unspoken, but one that is unspeakable. The short film ends with a powerful message: homosexuality is a crime in India, dedicating itself to the voiceless romance. Screened at ‘Queer’ Asia 2018 Film Festival (screened at The British Museum), Sisak captivates me in many ways: the cinematic tensions carefully constructed from frame to frame, and the ambience of desire surrounding the two men. Most importantly, it’s a thought-provoking viewing experience for me after I spent three years in Washington, D.C., having gotten used to the LGBTQ advocacy as well as media representation in the U.S.

Coming from Taiwan, where being gay is acceptable as long as you don’t bring it up, I was struck by what I perceived as the “gay agenda” when I first arrived in D.C. in 2015, shortly after the historic Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage across the U.S. As a gay migrant, I quickly noticed this difference and came to adopt the idea of being outspoken with respect to one’s queerness, with, for example, newsflash of celebrities coming out on social media. This trend observably reached a peak when two gay-themed Hollywood films caught the public’s attention: Call Me by Your Name (2017) and Love, Simon (2018), celebrating the visibility of gay romance in mainstream productions and speaking to viewers who are taking a firmer stance on the issue of being seen and heard. With a keen introspection of this aspect of queer life, my exploration of being gay in D.C. culminated in my master’s thesis on gay Indian immigrants’ coming-out stories in the U.S. Sisak, in this regard, turned out to be a fateful revisit of the concept pertaining to border-crossing: out of the country, out of the closet.

In my study, I take the theoretical proposal that coming out should be reconceptualized as “describing one’s social location in the changing social context,” (Rust, 1993) to consider how transnational migration can complicate coming out as a personal and impactful process. For my study participants, the changing social context is two-fold: leaving their home country for a foreign destination, and denying the heterosexual assumptions for realizing their gay identity. Sisak, in a similar vein, encourages us to reconceptualize homosexuality as situated in a different social context unlike that in the U.S., using riveting storytelling. It does so exactly through its voicelessness that allows us to engage with same-sex romance in a non-Western society.

For one, it vividly showcases the narrative of being gay in India that I found in interviews. While participants in the U.S. live openly in local communities, their counterparts in India are positioned as succumbing to the societal pressure of arranged marriage while their gay identity remain muted. This quietly echoes the appearance of the wedding rings we see in Sisak on the two men’s fingers that flash from time to time when they move about their hands over the handrails on the train. For another, it challenges my mind that has been primed to expect gay romance dealing with the typical conundrums: family and friends, sexual relations, and accepting oneself. Sisak, by contrast, is less about having a happy or sad ending that we’re used to seeing than about silent and despairing inaction. It can be read as anti-climactic; it’s a rising action that leads to no final resolution under inauspicious circumstances.

To this end, being “India’s first silent LGBTQ story,” Sisak leverages the lack of dialogue, contradictory as it sounds, as the strongest voicing strategy. Voicelessness, contrary to the outspokenness that I have experienced in the U.S., serves to tell a compelling story of gay men’s life in India.

Menstruation Alqumit Alhamad
Menstruation by Alqumit Alhamad

Similarly, at the ‘Queer’ Asia Art Exhibition this year, Syrian artist Alqumit Alhamad introduces paintings that are powerfully imaginative. Menstruation, for instance, shows a luna moth resting on a pomegranate branch, on the top of which are a blooming flower and a plump fruit, its side unfolding as labia with ruby-red pulps bursting from within. The surreal juxtaposition of elements in his works viscerally transposes viewers to an eerie spatio-temporal dimension of marginalization as a gay refugee

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Image of Alqumit’s art at the Bodies X Borders Art Exhibition
Menstruation, for instance, shows a luna moth resting on a pomegranate branch, on the top of which are a blooming flower and a plump fruit, its side unfolding as labia with ruby-red pulps bursting from within.

However, the artist, along with several other panelists, couldn’t be present at the venue because his application for a visa entering the U.K. was denied. This highlights the political implication of national borders as a social construct that segregates people. Whereas the paintings aim to obscure the divisions of reality to represent the experience of disorientation and displacement, Alquimit’s absence from the exhibition carves a line that accentuates the separation of different social contexts. The action operates on a parallel level of voicelessness in protest of exclusion.

Alqumit's Petition Image

Part of ‘Queer’ Asia’s petition protesting the denial of visas despite full support from the university donors supporting ‘Queer’ Asia. Read more here.

Like the rhythmic rumbling of the night train on which the two Indian men silently ache to break the social boundary, voicelessness as a statement reverberates around the theme this year: body as a site of contestation that brings the very concept of borders into question. While one social context isn’t necessarily more oppressive than another, the imposing borders definitely are. For the third year, artists, scholars, and filmmakers alike gathered at ‘Queer’ Asia, the event continuing to provide a platform for generating ideas that dare us to reflect on, if not imagining the disruption of, the categorical borders through political actions, academic discussions, and artistic expressions.

Works Cited

Rust, Paula C. “‘Coming out’ in the Age of Social Constructionism: Sexual Identity Formation among Lesbian and Bisexual Women.” Gender and Society, vol. 7, no. 1, 1993, pp. 50–77. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/190024.

Ping-Hsuan Wang received his M.A. in Language and Communication (MLC), Linguistics, from Georgetown University. His research interests include gay immigrants’ coming-out narratives, framing in family food talk, epistemic positioning in therapeutic discourse, and stance-taking in computer-mediated communication. He tweets @hoganindc2015.

Read More:

Alqumit Alhamad Interview as part of the ‘Queer’ Asia Bodies X Borders blog series

 

Collaging Narratives: Interview with Jay Cabalu

QA Blog Series: QA18 Bodies X Borders Art Exhibition: Artist Interviews

Posted on 02/08/2018
Ryudai Takano participated in the ‘Queer’ Asia 2018 Bodies X Borders Art Exhibition, 26-28 June 2018, at SOAS, University of London. See more here

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Reconciliation, 2018. Collage on Panel. 40″ x 24″

What experience or education led to your artistic practice? Could you briefly explain your trajectory?

Growing up in an immigrant family in British Columbia, Canada has had a significant impact on my art practice. We didn’t have much in the way of entertainment at home—no cable TV, no video games—so my sister and I would spend a lot of time in a bookstore at the mall where I would pore over Archie and Marvel comics and magazines like Entertainment Weekly, GQ, and Vanity Fair. Over time I started collecting these comics and magazines, many of which I use in my work. I was also aware of my cultural displacement from a young age. As someone Filipino, Canadian, and gay, I grew up juggling three identities, which was very isolating. Popular culture became a refuge from this feeling, but even in the magazines I flipped through, I saw little of myself. There were no representations of Asian men that were reflective of my sexuality. When I started pulling from my personal collection to create collaged portraits, my first inclination was to depict celebrities and models. However, as I grew older this was eclipsed by a desire to represent my adult self as the person I was looking for in the material I browsed as a child.

As someone Filipino, Canadian, and gay, I grew up juggling three identities, which was very isolating.

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Godfrey, 2015. Collage on Canvas.18″ x 24″

Could you describe your work for the Bodies x Borders exhibition?

The four pieces I have in Bodies x Borders reflect the evolution of my approach to collage over the past few years. The earliest work, Godfrey, is a portrait of Taiwanese-Canadian model Godfrey Gao and was the first piece I completed using entirely collaged materials rather than a mix of acrylic paint and collage. A Tension is a literal take on tokenization. The people of colour in this work are used as a device to add dimension to the white figure, who is the focus. Vortex was a milestone for me as my first self-portrait done entirely in collage. I ripped and cut material to present the medium, and myself, as inherently fragile.

A Tension is a literal take on tokenization. The people of colour in this work are used as a device to add dimension to the white figure, who is the focus.

Reconciliation, my most recent work, was born out of the anxiety surrounding body and race. As a gay Asian man, I have experienced extensive invalidation in and out of the gay community. In this piece, I drew upon influences from pop culture, classical and baroque art (particularly Caravaggio’s Medusa), as well as fashion (Versace) and social media. The visual references highlight the ideas of narcissism and self-recognition. In Caravaggio’s piece, he depicts Medusa, who was formerly a beautiful mortal, at the critical moment when she sees her reflection in Perseus’ shield and is horrified by what she has become.

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A Tension, 2016. Collage on Panel. 48″ x 24″

Could you elaborate on your general artistic process? What was the process for creating the specific work in the exhibition?

For my self-portraits, I take a video of myself on my phone to serve as a reference image. The video format allows for more opportunity to perform my state of mind and capture a fleeting moment. As I start the collaging process, most of what gets included in the work comes from an instinctual reaction I have while going through materials. In this sense, it’s a mood board that reflects my personal cultural fixations. I also choose clippings from varied sources that draw on themes related to the bigger picture.

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The Count of Monte Cristo, 2018. Collage on Panel. 48″ x 36″

How do you think your work relates to the theme of Bodies x Borders?

My immigrant background allowed me to question my surroundings with an outsider perspective. As I was consuming films and television as a kid, I was keen to notice the restrictions surrounding Asian identities in the media. There were only certain personas that Asian people could to embody. For example, it was acceptable to have an Asian man be subservient to a white protagonist, usually as a doctor or scientist, but the sexually empowered roles were reserved for white actors. While I noticed this problem, popular culture was exciting and uplifting to me during a time where I was closeted and experiencing the most turmoil. In Reconciliation, I use my own body to cast myself in a light that was not typically meant for someone who looked like me. It’s a fun way to celebrate pop culture tropes, while shining a light on their oppressive tendencies.

There were only certain personas that Asian people could to embody. For example, it was acceptable to have an Asian man be subservient to a white protagonist, usually as a doctor or scientist, but the sexually empowered roles were reserved for white actors.

Do you have any expectations for how audiences will respond to your work? Are there any messages you wish visitors would take away after seeing your work?

I have my reasons for what images I include in my collages, but sometimes the reasons are too personal to be obvious. My work contains a lot of information and the audience can interpret the work in any way that satisfies them. I have a lot of fun hiding Easter eggs in plain sight, inviting the viewer to take a closer look and draw connections between the larger picture and the fragments that compose it. This type of art making forces me to look at small, isolated images and see them as something else to create a larger picture. I often remind myself of this concept in my every day life and I hope others do as well.

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Jay Cabalu Installation Image, ‘Queer’ Asia 2018.

Jay Cabalu is a Filipino-born, Vancouver-based collage artist with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Kwantlen University. His practice includes a growing list of private commissions and, more recently, self-portraiture. At the age of four, his family moved from Brunei to Canada where he became hyper-aware of his cultural displacement, as well has his queer identity. Popular culture became a refuge from such anxieties, but over time the lack of queer-Asian representation in popular media caused new tensions to arise. As well, Jay is interested in how social media and popular culture have informed our identities and perceptions of the world. The collages he creates are personal and obsessively detailed, created with magazines and comics he has collected from a very young age. Jay has exhibited in numerous spaces in Vancouver, such as the Federation Gallery, the Roundhouse, Hot Art Wet City and Ayden Gallery. In the Fall of 2015, he appeared on season one of CBC’s competition-reality series, Crash Gallery. In May of 2018, Jay was featured in his first international exhibition, “On/Off Grid,” for the Foundation of Asian American Independent Media in Chicago.

Queer art from Korea (Seoul): A List of My Own, 2017

Written by Yeonsook LEE / 리타 (Rita) for QA Blog Series “What is ‘Queer’ in South Korea? Explorations of art, identity, and ‘queerness’” curated by QA2018 Committee Member Amy Kahng

Rita 창녀CD민망복장막장극초개변태좆씹돼지년
Copyright 2017. 창녀CD민망복장막장극초개변태좆씹돼지년 All rights reserved.

With the increase in a “queer” self-identified population, finding “queer art” in Seoul is not as difficult as it was in the past. Any artwork from artists who define themself as “queer” could be labelled as queer art. Despite the ‘old-fashioned’ nature of this category, it still offers an effective criterion. But defining “queer art” needs more diverse and political criteria. Several queer theorists have attempted to define queerness as an attitude to embraces failure as a tool for a better present (Halberstam), as the anti-social and negative ways to subvert heteronormativity (Bersani), and as an vivid utopia that has not yet arrived but is actively trying to be redeemed (Muñoz). Of course, it is not necessary to internalize all these discourses, because people can decide for themself how to define “queerness.”

Personally, I tend to consider all works that are disturbing and difficult to approach as ‘queer art’. A good example is the twitter account of the notorious cross-dresser “창녀CD민망복장막장극초개변태좆씹돼지년” (hookerCDshamegutspervertcockcuntcowbitch), whose account has since been locked. His various tacky and frivolous hand-made objects, all made to decorate his anus, have a truly queer aesthetic. While the artist clearly finds pleasure in fetishizing himself, through the artist’s artisan spirit and meticulous craftsmanship, the work proves to go beyond mere exhibitionism.

Video works from Kwon Yongman (계정주 of ‘시네마지옥” [cinemahell]) are further examples. His works such as 몬도 코리아 (Mondo Corea), 갓건배에 대한 모든 것(All about Godgunbae) are absurdly funny, but are still too disturbing to directly laugh at since they intimately expose the ugly side of contemporary Korean culture. The work, 갓건배에 대한 모든 것 (All about Godgunbae), also in part becomes about endurance since it has an unnecessarily long running time. In total, these elements come together to beg the question, why would somebody produce a work like this anyway? The work does not seem like it is meant to be productive nor helpful. This fanatically apolitical and pessimistic aesthetic characterizes Kwon’s work [1].

IMAGE 2 - mondo
Copyright 2017. 권용만 All rights reserved.
IMAGE 3 - god
Copyright 2017. 권용만 All rights reserved.

Additionally, I would also like to introduce a drag-show that I have recently experienced. A team of five performers, 여성, 괴물 (The monstrous-feminine) [2], apparently named after a quote by Barbara Kruger, recently presented its fourth event. While all the performances at this event were compelling, the performance by drag-king 아장맨 (Aajangman) was particularly striking since drag kings are still quite rare in Korea. While Seoul does have active drag communities, such as  “서울드랙” (Seouldrag) [3], it is important to have an organization that leads discussions about discrimination towards women and transgender people as well as about the merits of drag.

IMAGE 4 - ajangmane
Copyright 2017. 아장맨 All rights reserved.

Since much of the work that discussed could be, but also may not necessarily be, categorized as “queer art,” then one may ask, is there artwork that could be unequivocally labeled as “queer art” in Seoul? I would answer of course there is. The exhibition Read My Lips (리드마이립스) [4], which revolved around the concept of drag in the context of queer politics, gathered an amalgam of works that could be described as weird and queer. The exhibition had the underlying ambition of introducing ‘queerness’ as a concept in a broader context. Made up of a hybrid of different media-painting, installation, performance, and live-broadcast (공개방송), the exhibition was intended to be somewhat confusing and ambiguous. The artist, “이반지하”(ibanjiha), wore handmade costumes with obvious sexual symbols and sang some of her famous original songs such as ‘나는 이반 그녀는 일반’ (I am Gay, She is Straight) [5], ‘레즈바에 온 작은 헤테로’ (‘Lil hetero in a Lesbian Bar), and ‘오염’ (Contamination). If one senses a desperate sense of urgency in her repetitive chorus, it comes from the idea that we all eventually need to go home after the song finishes. To not break the promise of this temporality, we will all endlessly be wanting to collect, encounter, and to be around its “queerness.”

IMAGE 5 - Ibanjiha
Ibanjiha at at Read My Lips, Hapjungjigu, 2017

Yeonsook LEE / 리타 (Rita); Host of the podcast channel 퀴어방송 (Queercast). Queer, feminist, and art writer. Exhibition planner and curator. Graduate from Seoul National University, Department of Aesthetics. Personal blog and twitter at http://blog.naver.com/hotleve

(Translation : Mire LEE)

[1] <2017 MONDO COREA Trailer> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWAP7HNZfpg <갓건배에 대한 모든 것 All About Godgunbae> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8URM7ZthvGU

[2] <여성,괴물> https://twitter.com/monstrousfem

[3] <서울드랙> https://twitter.com/dragnerd_seoul

[4] <리드마이립스> https://www.facebook.com/events/629055017302493/

[5] In the Korean language, ‘이반Eban’ means homosexual and ‘일반Ilban’ means heterosexual

About the blog series What is ‘Queer’ in South Korea? Explorations of art, identity, and ‘queerness’ :

Drawing from the diverse perspectives of a curator, artist, and podcast host, this blog series investigates the categorization and perception of queer art in South Korea. It is being curated by Amy Kahng, an emerging curator and art historian. Her research interests include contemporary art of Asia, Korean video and performance art from the 1960s-90s, and the intersections of queer theory and art history. She is based in Los Angeles and Seoul. She can be reached at askahng@gmail.com

Other blogs in the series: 

Performing Art in South Korea

Written by Cynthia Sungjae Lee for QA Blog Series “What is ‘Queer’ in South Korea? Explorations of art, identity, and ‘queerness’” curated by QA2018 Committee Member Amy Kahng

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Sungjae Lee (with performer Nix), ‘Fringe’, performance documentation at Read My Lips, Hapjungjigu, 2017

As an artist, I expose the presence of subjects in the fringes of society by revealing the limitations of the privileged “center” through my artworks. From a socio-political perspective, this center is a construct created by norms, and it exercises an overshadowing influence on the fringe because of its implicit acceptance by the social majority. Despite the dominance of the center, it is the fringe that catches my eye. Meaning is produced when we are aware of our surroundings, and I endeavor to reduce the authority of the center to allow people to recognize the existence of the fringe, and thus enrich our society with the value of diversity.

“The influence of labeling is so strong for an artist’s career; it standardizes characteristics of an artist’s work and thus limits their potential to expand into new creative territories.”

Despite my interest in shedding light on the fringe, it has been difficult for me to create and exhibit queer-themed pieces in South Korea due to its conservative belief perceived by the majority. Because artworks are representative of the artist when exhibited in galleries, I often worry about revealing my sexual identity during public exhibition. I cannot proudly present my work because I have learned through my life in Korea that outing myself often does more harm than good. Furthermore, there is the risk of being labeled as a “queer artist” and, consequently, all of my works being interpreted as “queer artworks,” even if I may choose to create a piece that is unrelated to queer issues. The influence of labeling is so strong for an artist’s career; it standardizes characteristics of an artist’s work and thus limits their potential to expand into new creative territories.

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Cynthia, ‘Men I Have Ever Met’, SEMA, 2016

It is in this context that I submitted my text work “Men I Have Ever Met” which I signed with the name of my alter-ego, “Cynthia,” at SEMA in 2016. To illustrate how gay relationships have changed through the emergence of technology, such as smartphones and social media, I wrote various stories that I have had with guys since 2008, when I came out to gay society. Since the work contains not only bittersweet love stories but also one-night stand stories, I chose not to reveal my private history with identity, even though my work intended to examine the power that could be generated by displaying one’s personal narratives in public. Therefore, I created my alter-ego and chose text as a medium in order to avoid the risks that could come with outing myself.

However, in 2017 the approach to presenting my work contrasted with my previous exhibiting experience. I was less fearful when I presented my performance piece “Fringe” at the art space, Hapjungjigu. Because the exhibition’s main theme was “drag,” I still hesitated to participate, because it could potentially reveal my sexual identity and restrict my work to be labelled as ‘queer’ art. Nevertheless, I was able to present the work with my real name and summoned the confidence to be myself because I was collaborating with Nix, a Brazilian drag artist. The collaboration with this courageous drag artist led me to rethink not only the importance of genuine presence as the essence of performance art, but also the political power of artwork produced by openly queer artists. I experienced that I was actively engaging in my artistic concentration or duty—adding diversity to a society—by communicating with audiences and conveying my message to them directly.

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Performer Nix with Sungjae Lee, ‘Fringe’, performance documentation at Read My Lips, Hapjungjigu, 2017

I am now pursuing my master’s degree in the US, where there is greater awareness of sexual diversity and queer rights than in Korea. By studying in a culturally enriched environment, I hope to further include queerness into my work and to continue to boldly exhibit these works.

SUNGJAE Cynthia LEE is a Korean artist working in immaterial media such as performance, installation, and video. He received M.F.A. and B.F.A in Sculpture from Seoul National University. He has presented his works at Seoul Museum of Art, Hapjungjigu, XPO Cheongyang, Art Sonje Center (South Korea), Galleri CC, and KHM gallery (Sweden). He was also video and stage producer of the theater group Bjung(丙) Society and presented several pieces at play festivals. He is currently living in Chicago, IL and pursuing his M.F.A. at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

About the blog series What is ‘Queer’ in South Korea? Explorations of art, identity, and ‘queerness’ :

Drawing from the diverse perspectives of a curator, artist, and podcast host, this blog series investigates the categorization and perception of queer art in South Korea. It is being curated by Amy Kahng, an emerging curator and art historian. Her research interests include contemporary art of Asia, Korean video and performance art from the 1960s-90s, and the intersections of queer theory and art history. She is based in Los Angeles and Seoul. She can be reached at askahng@gmail.com

Other blogs in the series: 

Reflections on an Exhibition of Queer Art in Korea*

Written by Camille Sung for QA Blog Series “What is ‘Queer’ in South Korea? Explorations of art, identity, and ‘queerness'” curated by QA2018 Committee Member Amy Kahng

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Yongseok Oh, The Silence of Siren, 130x161cm, oil on canvas, 2017

In May 2017, Jinsil Lee and I organized an exhibition titled Read My Lips at the art space, Hapjungjigu, in Seoul, South Korea. Themed around “drag” as a concept, an important term in queer politics, the exhibition gathered and exhibited queer artworks. Drag often refers to the play and practice by sexual minorities of putting on the costume and exaggerating the gestures of the opposite gender. However, the exhibition explored drag in a broader sense, following Renate Lorenz’s theory which stated that “drag may refer to the productive connections of natural and artificial, animate and inanimate, to clothes, radios, hair, legs, all that which tends more to produce connections to others and other things than to represent them. What becomes visible in this drag is…an ‘undoing.’” [1] From this perspective, the artworks in the exhibition were read as figurative attempts to transcend and transform in-between male and female, things and human, everyday life and art, and the white cube and subculture. They included paintings by Yongseok Oh and Eunsae Lee, drawings by Bob Kim, sculptures by Mire Lee, an archive by Dong-jin Seo, performance bu Ibanjiha and Sungjae Lee, and internet radio broadcasting by Rita, as well as and extensive exhibition catalogue.

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Ibanjiha (also working as Soyoon Kim), performance documentation, 2017

“For the queer is a lack in the coherent and it makes others look at the very lack by excavating something queer.”

After the exhibition opened, we received various comments and reactions, including interest, excitement, and doubt. The exhibition was based on meticulous observation and minute conceptualization of drag and queerness, which was originally formulated in the West. One could say that such subtle theorizations might be too early for Korean society. The slogan of Korea Queer Cultural Festival in Seoul (Seoul Pride) in 2016 was “Queer I Am,” which called for the recognition of queer people in Korean society. The slogan paradoxically proves the absence of queer presence in Korea and thus the urgency of this issue. To borrow Elizabeth Freeman and Lorenz’s theory on the queer space and the queer time, the queer practice and theory in Korea is at the level of discussing only the queer space. In other words, Korean society does not see the queer because it does not know it. This also holds true to queer art: the Korean art scene does not make queer art because it does not know it. In this circumstance, even if one acutely appropriates Lorenz’s concepts of the radical drag, the trans-temporal drag, and the abstract drag, they are comprehended only as abstruse and ambiguous notions without materiality and substantiality. Discourse on the queer and queer art has no anchoring point in Korea. This becomes a reference as well as an obstacle to curators and viewers, and this might be the source of the discomfort one might feel in front of the queer works of Read My Lips.

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Sungjae Lee (with the performer Nix), Fringe – Korean version, performance documentation, 2017

The discomfort is also related to the fact that queer aesthetics can be misidentified with contemporary art. As Freeman points out, “[q]ueer theory… pays attention to gaps and losses that are both structural and visceral… Queer theory also describes how specific forms of knowing, being, belonging, and embodying are prevented from emerging in the first place, often by techniques that intimately involve the body.” [2] Contemporary art also focuses on gaps and losses that have been neglected in the grand discourses and everyday life. Both queer theory and contemporary art are attracted by the unreachable Real and imbued with the pursuit of the Real. Thus, if one does not equip with keen eyes, the subversive power of queer art can be merely read as the revolutionary and resistant nature of contemporary art. And such an affinity often lets the viewer to misrecognize the discomfort from a queer artwork as the uncanny from a contemporary artwork. Nonetheless, the awkward, uncomfortable feeling you might have in front of an inscrutable image is something truly queer. For the queer is a lack in the coherent and it makes others look at the very lack by excavating something queer. Therefore, the idea that one cannot easily comprehend the queer exhibition, but rather only has an uncomfortable and awkward internal response to the exhibition, serves as an index for the absence of discourse on the queer in Korea.

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Installation view of the exhibition READ MY LIPS (outside perspective), Hapjungjigu, Seoul, Korea, 2017

The otherness of the queer would lose its subversive character when admitted into the comprehensible, coherent system of recognition and perception. It is because the others become different types of subjects. It might be the fate of all others. Even so, Read My Lips wanted to pull out a discussion on the ‘queer’ in Korea. We hope that the exhibition has spurred various queer practices and discussions.

Camille (Ji Eun) Sung is a PhD student in Art History, Visual Art & Theory at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Her current research explores experimental and performative art, particularly in postwar Korea and Japan. As a former queer feminist activist drawing from her background in aesthetics, Camille also has worked on the materiality of art and movement. She can be reached at camille.j.sung@gmail.com

*The essay is an excerpt of my essay “D-r-a-g the Drag,” published in the exhibition catalogue.

[1] Renate Lorenz, Queer Art: A Freak Theory (Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2012), 21.

[2] Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham [NC]: Duke University Press, 2010), 11.

About the blog series What is ‘Queer’ in South Korea? Explorations of art, identity, and ‘queerness’ :

Drawing from the diverse perspectives of a curator, artist, and podcast host, this blog series investigates the categorization and perception of queer art in South Korea. It is being curated by Amy Kahng, an emerging curator and art historian. Her research interests include contemporary art of Asia, Korean video and performance art from the 1960s-90s, and the intersections of queer theory and art history. She is based in Los Angeles and Seoul. She can be reached at askahng@gmail.com

Other blogs in the series: 

Being Queer in North Korea

Queer Asia | Essay Prize, Winner
In this winning piece, Shyun Jeong Ahn questions how we might study the Queer in North Korea

Imagine studying queerness in North Korea, where queers are absent in its political discourse. Imagine studying queers in a country where homosexuals are charged not with sodomy but with “falling into capitalism”, where cuddling and groping a same-sex soldier in the cold is not same-sex intimacy but “revolutionary comradeship”. How should we study queerness when it’s invisible, especially using the very invisibility that makes it hard to be studied? Fortunately, the work of queer scholars in the last couple of decades have opened up the possibility of discussing subjects that aren’t conclusively present or visible. In fact, North Korea’s effort to erase queerness from politics may paradoxically assist us in seeing the position of queers in its society, as queers are, in Lee Edelman’s words, “a structural position determined by the imperative of figuration”.

For example, think about the telos of Juche ideology and how it displaces queers from society. In order to decolonize the nation from Japanese imperialism and US capitalism, On the Juche Idea, the main text of Juche ideology, tries to construct a new narrative of “history” where the oppressed masses become juche – the main agent. With “history” consistently progressing towards the liberated world of the future, “history” in the text is not a mere “chronology of past events”, but a chronology of the past, the present, and the future. In other words, through Juche ideology, North Korea strives to conceive a new set of temporality that is heterogeneous from the one narrated by the imperialists and capitalists. Because the fantasized future stops and provides meaning to a endless deferral of meaning, individual and social realities that are predicated on meaning would be shattered if the certainty of the Future is negated. Queers, therefore, as the “futricides” who do not conform to the biological fact of cis-heterosexual reproduction, threaten the fantasized Future and the sense of individual and social realities of North Korea.

The North Korean government then associates being queer with “falling into capitalism”; just like capitalism and other exploiters, queerness poses an existential threat to North Korean society.

Take a closer look at how the temporality of the exploiters is replaced by the new temporality. Juche ideology foremost turns the existing temporality into what resembles a “queer kind of history”, which, according to Carla Freccero, “involves an openness to the possibility of being haunted, even inhabited by ghosts”. Under this possibility, specters of the dead who have been smashed and dissipated by the exploiters may return and disturb their temporality and hence their Future.

But knowing and fearing this disruptive power of specters, Juche ideology stabilizes their identities by categorizing them as “the masses”. In so doing, other aspects of their identities – the identities of the dead who did not support communism and socialism, those who prioritized themselves over the collective struggles, who did not reproduce “the military of sons and daughters” to ensure “the ultimate victory of the revolution” – are erased. And instead of recognizing the past as bits and pieces of imperfect images that appear and disappear, Juche ideology further shelters the new temporality by filling the past with data and cultural relics of the masses, the newly identified victor. With indisputable progress of the new temporality toward the Future, this complete image of the past is supposed to preclude any possibility of the temporality being haunted or disturbed by unwanted specters. In this respect, Juche ideology’s construction of the new temporality can be understood in a different light; the new temporality is more than an attempt to create new individual and social realities, which, in turn, need to be protected from the “futricides”. The structure of the new temporality itself is rather, by definition, a rejection of the undesirable specters of “futuricides”.

Capitalism, imperialism, and queerness, as a result, are not rejected only out of necessity but by virtue of the ideology’s existence as it is.

These examples demonstrate how studying queers in North Korea may contribute towards queer theory, North Korean studies, and the study of human society in general. It manifests that queers, even when they are erased from society, can be studied by the means of their erasure. It also confirms the possibility of using queer theory to explore subjects that are otherwise invisible in society. Lastly, as Edelman tells us, “the efficacy of queerness, its real strategic value, lies in its resistance to a Symbolic reality that only ever invests us as subjects insofar as we invest ourselves in it, clinging to its governing fictions, its persistent sublimations, as reality itself”.

Studying queerness in North Korea may suggest a way to fight the totalitarian regime that has been trampling on human rights and dignity: exposing and resisting the governing fictions of reality through undoing its temporality. Perhaps it’s time for us, as individuals interested in queer issues in Asia, to give more attention to queer studies in North Korea.

 ‘Queer’ Asia ran a blog contest in partnership with Zed Books on the theme of our 2017 Conference ‘Desire, Decolonisation and Decriminalisation.’ This essay is our winner piece. It was first published on the Zed Books website.

Other blogs in this series: 

 

Waiting for the Worst

Queer Asia | Essay Prize, Runner-up
Diego García Rodríguez looks at LGBT discrimination in Indonesia

Just a day after I arrived in Jakarta in the middle of June 2017, still jet-lagged and unused to the hot and humid weather, I attended the Arryman Symposium. The event was held to present the research conducted by a group of Indonesian students who were awarded a scholarship in 2016 to study at Northwestern University in Chicago, and to announce the winners of the 2017 Arryman fellowship. I was especially interested in speaking with one of the students with whom I share similar research interests, since we both work on Islam, gender, and sexuality. After everyone presented, took pictures, and applauded, I sat next to one of my friends, a well-known writer in Indonesia, and we shared the table with a middle-aged woman who initially seemed very friendly. She’d lived in several countries as the daughter of a diplomat, enjoying very different education systems.

Minutes after joining the table, my friend the writer started speaking about LGBT rights in Indonesia and the well-travelled, well-educated and lucky-to-have-many-opportunities woman, overhearing the conversation, exclaimed, “do you support LGBT rights?!” She didn’t only sound surprised but also scared. “Yes, I do, why wouldn’t I, we are all the same”, my friend replied. Her answer triggered a sudden feeling of disgust at the thought of sharing any similarity with them lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and trans.

I tried to speak, and religion was raised as the reason for discriminating against these individuals. The possibility of reconciling Islam and non-normative sexualities was inconceivable to the woman, who believed that being LGBT is both a personal decision and the result of receiving a bad education. She stated that would she have a gay son, she would give him the right education to take him back to “normal”.

This incident is just one of the many experiences I’ve had since coming to Indonesia for the first time in 2014, exploring the lives of LGBT Muslims in the country, and it was during my first research trip that I heard a group of women describing sexual minorities as paedophiles. They shared with the lady from that symposium the fact that they had never met LGBT people in person. Maybe she changed her mind (I don’t know), after finding out that both myself and the guy sitting next to her were gay, the same way those women ended up engaging in a reconciliatory conversation with a group of LGBT activists. The problem in Indonesia with LGBT issues today is not only a problem of ignorance, but also of political interests and religious misinterpretations.

In 2006, the Yogyakarta Principles were developed with the goal of applying international human rights law to gender identity and sexual orientation. Eleven years later, it feels ironic that it was in Indonesia where these ideas were presented – they’ve had zero consequences for the country.

Today, LGBT rights in Indonesia are being violated by the state, associations, and individuals.

In early 2016, the Minister of Higher Education stressed his desire to ban LGBT student groups from universities, this was followed by the Minister of Defence’s comparison of the LGBT community with “a bomb”, saying that the LBGT community was not only “dangerous” but also “a threat.” Add to this the banning of LGBT apps such as Grindr, and the classification of same-sex sexual orientation and transgenderism as mental disorders by the Indonesian Psychiatrists Association (PDSKJI) almost thirty years after the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of psychiatric disorders.

What has been called an “anti-LGBT crisis” has already been explored in detail, but it’s important to reflect on the influence that these statements can have in society. While in February 2016 the Tangerang mayor Arief R Wismansyah publicly highlighted the role of parents in “guiding their children away from [acts of a] violating nature”, in June 2017 I found the same conviction in the lady mentioned above. How are LGBT individuals supposed to be protected by the government when members of the administration itself are attacking these communities? At the end of April 2017, almost a year and a half since the wave of anti-LGBT bigotry started, 14 gay men were arrested and tested for HIV by force, with the results and their names being made public.

In May 2017, 141 men were arrested at a gay party taking place in Jakarta and accused of violating Indonesia’s Anti-Pornography law, some of them facing sentences of up to 15 years in prison.

In the same month, two men accused of having sex with each other were publicly caned in Aceh, the only region in Indonesia that has formally implemented Sharia law.

Even though Indonesia doesn’t currently criminalise homosexuality, these recent events evidence an increasing hostility towards the LGBT community in the country, which could outlaw homosexual acts following the steps taken by the organisation Aliansi Cinta Keluarga (Family Love Alliance) to amend the constitution. “We are waiting for the worst”, mentioned one of the activists from the LGBT-rights organisation Arus Pelangi during a meeting in June 2017 in Jakarta.

Let me stress that this isn’t about religion, despite many using Islam as the basis to discriminate against LGBT people, but oftentimes about populism and political interests. What today is presented by some as transgressive, an imposition of “the West” or a phenomenon outside of local culture might not have been understood in the same way looking back at Indonesian history, which shows examples of gender and sexual diversity. For instance, there are five genders recognised in Bugis society. Other examples can be found from the indang dance in West Sumatra to the Eastern Javanese traditions of the ludruk, the reog in Ponorogo and the gandrung dance in Banyuwangi, where waria (a word vaguely translated as transgender women) and men dressed in traditionally women’s clothes have been important figures. It needs to be noted, however, that the presence of non-normative genders and sexualities in rituals and traditions hasn’t always meant their prevalent acceptance in society. In conversations with several LGBT people in the country today, Javanese culture has been mentioned as an example of pluralism, acceptance and accommodation of different practices and ideologies, which could be used to support their rights in the current situation. As scholars such as Wieringa (2010) have explained, after the arrival of Islam in Indonesia, religion was accommodated to the ancient Javanese transgendered practices.

Of course, that well-educated, well-travelled and still homophobic lady I met that night in Jakarta might not have read about the plural history of her country or, perhaps, never had the chance to dialogue with LGBT people. Only by educating its people in gender and sexual diversity and showing respect to its citizens will Indonesia do justice to its motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (“Unity in Diversity”).

‘Queer’ Asia ran a blog contest in partnership with Zed Books on the theme of our 2017 Conference ‘Desire, Decolonisation and Decriminalisation.’ This essay is our runner up piece. It was first published on the Zed Books website.

Other blogs in this series: 

Dishes and Desire in DC

Dishes and Desire in DC

Queer Asia | Essay Prize, Runner-up

Ping H. Wang looks at how, since moving from Taiwan to Washington, DC, he has found his desires being categorised

I was sitting down in a corner of a club with a man I’d met just fifteen minutes earlier when, in the dimly lit room with deafening music in the background, I vaguely heard a voice traveling from the other side of the table: “I see you’re a rice queen.” The man next to me accepted the title bestowed upon him with alacrity. All of a sudden, in that dark and loud space, my ethnicity was in the spotlight. Everyone became perfectly conscious of the presence of an Asian man in a popular gay club in London on a Saturday night.

Before leaving Washington, DC for London, I thought for a week I’d be leaving behind all the categorizations of desires in the gay community, where my physical and emotional attraction for other men could be untangled from my racial traits. I was proven wrong upon the dawning realization that this meticulous, perhaps somewhat pejorative, attention to one’s preference for gay men of a certain race actually existed across the Atlantic Ocean in the wider Western societies. I found in that encounter an eerie sense of familiarity.

My appearance, as a result of being situated in this specific context, is then closely associated with this particular food that’s meant to characterize the desire for Asian men. It’s funny, in fact, how I have come to facetious terms with it to the extent where I can no longer tell whether my obsessive craving for rice comes from this labelling or the other way around. I still wonder, however, how this categorization of our desires contributes, if any, to building relationships with one another within the community. Do most people pleasantly assume the role of a rice queen the same way as that man with whom I rendezvoused in the club?

At least, personally, I rejected the notion of being thought of as a potato queen when I first arrived in the US.

Coming from Taiwan, where Asian men date other Asian men, I knew nothing about the different categories of desires; the dating scene is rather homogenous by contrast. When my profile picture first showed up on dating apps in the DC area back in 2015, I first ventured into the racialized field of desires and rediscovered who I was in the eyes of other gay men. I remember in lurid detail the encounter in which I first acquired the term “potato queen” when I was, again, in a gay club in DC. After some intense and rapturous kissing with a Spanish man, this title was likewise given to me. With all candidness, I was uncomfortable with the idea of having my desires put into categories.

Maybe I was unused to it. Maybe I simply didn’t want to admit my fixation on White men.

The whole concept, by now, has been interpolated into the way I see myself in different relationships with other gay men as well as the way I look at the food I eat. The process of integrating or assimilating into the gay community in DC entails this subtle alchemy of adapting to associations with a certain type (of food). Never were dishes and desires so interconnected in a fascinating way.

I have learned to see myself against a larger cultural backdrop where we are defined by our desires as much as by the food that we consume. But tracing the discomfort I felt when I was first introduced to this categorizing mechanism and a brand new way of describing my social location based on the desired racial intermingling, I have never stopped challenging, while entertaining, such an idea. That visceral reaction has been a constant reminder of my resistance to being put into categories with which I don’t entirely identify.

Like I was saying, maybe it was part of the culture shock that I was experiencing having come from a country where race is rarely the focus of a relationship. Maybe I contested the categorization of desires when I could explore them free of the restraints from this heightened awareness of one’s race. On that note, I go back to the question, what does it contribute to the community?

How do we benefit from our categorization of desires? The tendency for gay men I’ve met to adopt this system seems to speak to the issue.

Living in a multiracial society, we’ve become accustomed to the fact that desires are inseparable from who we are and how we look. What caused my discomfort turns out to actually bring some comfort to gay men growing up in this environment, as evidenced by the manner of that British man in London who claimed to be a rice queen. It was also seen in the occasions where some of my friends were surprised upon learning that I, a potato queen in their understanding, had dated other Asian men. It is, at the end of the day, a way for many gay men to navigate their desires as well as others’ and it cannot be more natural. With me, it’s a different story; it involves negotiation with how I deal with an intricate and delicate intersection of being a gay man and an Asian man in DC or in London.

We are, nevertheless, left with copious food metaphors that amuse us from time to time. Bearing in mind that our desires are protean and ever evolving, I would like to end with this remark: we are more than what we eat.

‘Queer’ Asia ran a blog contest in partnership with Zed Books on the theme of our 2017 Conference ‘Desire, Decolonisation and Decriminalisation.’ This essay is our runner up piece. It was first published on the Zed Books website.

Other blogs in this series: