To (Homo)Sex the Family/What’s Queer about Kinship?

Part of the ‘Queer’ Asia 2020: Rethinking Radical Now Blog Series

By Themal Ellawala

Abstract: I contend that the radical potential of queer-as-analytic is in apprehending the messy excesses of life that escape the narrow confines of cultural orthodoxies, ephemera that contest the very ontology of structural conditions. To buttress this grandiose claim, I turn to kinship in Sri Lanka. Discourses on queerness turn on an idiom of exile from home, especially the Third World home, rendering the family as incapable of sustaining queer intimacy. Continuing Gayatri Gopinath’s labors, I seek to resist the phobic myths of the West and the South Asian state by locating queer erotics resolutely within the domestic space, problematics and all.


Content warning: This article discusses sexual experiences that occur during childhood and within the context of family. Unfortunately, conversations on childhood and intra-familial sexual experiences are never far from those of sexual abuse. Given the structural conditions we inhabit, these conversations are difficult, challenging, vexing, and in certain instances (re)traumatizing. Please feel free to engage with this text as is comfortable and necessary.


Hom: Latin, from Greek, from homos, meaning “same”

Hom: Middle English meaning “dwelling, building, one’s native town or land”


To chase and apprehend queer erotics in Sri Lanka is to risk dis/uncovering it in the most unlikely hiding places. This was the realization that slowly dawned on me as I waded, scurried, and tumbled through an ethnography on queer desire on the island in 2016. Contradictions abounded in the confessions and obfuscations my interlocutors offered. Queerness was a metaphysic that seemed to survive and thrive within a field of oppositional meanings that stymie dominant logics. For instance, there was the specter of the home. Across gender, class, ethnic, and geographic divisions, many of my interlocutors attested to a shared reality: their first “queer” [1] sexual experience was with a family member, particularly a cousin. The ethnographic confessional was transformed into an interstitial space in which my memories merged with theirs. The ubiquity, nay inescapability of this reality forced me to suspend my own (structured) assumptions about the family, and to wonder what it means to treat the home as sexual, erotic, queer.

My initial reaction was to categorize such experiences as abuse and instinctively offer support and care to my interlocutors. The challenge to such thinking was issued by these very interlocutors. Some unequivocally condemned these events as abuse. Others cherished them as tender, joyous, formative encounters. Many refused such rigid categorizations altogether, refusing to efface nuance by subscribing to valuations of “good” and “bad.” They challenged me to consider what my role is in narrating such a range of experiences and reactions, and if I was to mimic the epistemic violence that animates the state and law by unilaterally adjudicating what abuse is and is not, with scant regard for the interpretations of those positioned as survivors in such narratives. It is not my intent to produce abuse apologia, or to glorify coercion, nor is it to reify the tired equivalence drawn between queerness and pedophilia that is weaponized against difference. Rather than sanitize violence and exploitation, I strive to explore the nuanced, varied, and complex nature of sexual encounters, and trace the multiple vectors of power that structure such sites (Fischel 2019). In this regard, I am influenced by a Foucauldian understanding of the imbricated nature of sex and power (Foucault 1990), which troubles the often-implicit notion that there exists “good”/licit/normative sex that is unmarked by power asymmetries. I strive to explicate the nuances and complexities of their experiences, and illustrate the aporias that make a simultaneity of power asymmetries and pleasure, exploitation and sexual exploration possible.


I was eleven, he was nine. We were playing, he chased me up the stairs. I ran into a bedroom, we collapsed onto the bed. He reached for the drawstring off my shorts, I playfully swatted his hand away. We giggled, that was all.


My thinking about the home as an erotic and queer site turns on a number of provocations, which I offer below in teasing glimpses:

One: Are categories of family and incest universal? Or can we think about how the nuclear family and desexualizing kin relations were/are colonial projects, which elide, though not fully, deep histories of cross-cousin marriage and the coevality of kin and erotics in Sri Lanka (de Zoysa 1995)? If all colonial projects were partial and uneven in their effects, what is the afterlife of pre-colonial ideologies of erotic kinship?

Two: If homosocial kin relations are central to the family and form the bedrock of all social relations (Yalman 1967), and the homosocial is always, already queer (Gopinath 2005; Sedgwick 1992), then are there queer valences to normative kinship? Does this not compel us to consider kinship as an originary site of queerness?                                                     

Three: Kinship studies in Sri Lanka has traced the complex social negotiations of kin-making that turn on notions of sameness. To avoid violating caste and social obligations is to seek sameness in lineage, which explains in part the ubiquity of cross-cousin marriage. If sameness is privileged over difference, does this not raise the specter of the homo in homosexual? If normative (read: hetero) sexuality is premised on difference, does not the desire for sameness in kinship read as queer?


Incest: Middle English, from Latin incestus meaning “sexual impurity”

We might say that the polluted homosexual was invented in the 1950s and 1960s in order to maintain the purity of particular patterns of heterosexuality”-   Steven Seidman, “From Identity to Queer Politics: Shifts in Normative Heterosexuality and the Meaning of Citizenship”


In her seminal text Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures, Gayatri Gopinath theorizes how “many lesbian and gay texts imagine ‘home’ as a place to be left behind, to be escaped in order to emerge in another, more liberatory space” (2005, 14). While this idiom of displacement is true for Western gay and lesbian literary traditions and imaginaries, it is considered particularly relevant to the fate of the Third World queer. Gopinath suggests that such a belief emerges from both nationalist discourses of Third World nations that position queerness as existing outside of the “privatized, bourgeois domestic space of home as a site of sanitized heterosexuality”, as well as in the neo-colonial imaginary that subscribes to phobic myths of the Third World “as a site of sexual oppression that must be left behind in order to realize a liberated gay subjectivity” (176).

Much like Gopinath, I attempt to think through how the home in Sri Lanka may enable, accommodate, and sustain queer desires and intimacies in ways that contradict the formal cultural discourse of the heterosexual, patriarchal home.[2] To obviate the queer potentialities, however slight and fleeting, that exist at the crevices of hetero-patriarchal domestic ideologies is to render the latter as absolute and to capitulate to their totalizing impetus, which queerness allows me to refuse. This, to me, is the workings of the analytic of “queer” at its most potent. This perverse capacity to insert itself where it is most undesired, to read itself into an elision, and to secretly flower at the heart of the very structures that seek to deny and destroy it attests to the mysterious, formidable, and wondrous potentialities of queerness.


Notes

[1] My use of the term queer to refer to both subjects and desires is motivated by the need to contest totalizing sexual discourses in South Asia (e.g., LGBT, MSM, kothi/panthi). As Judith Butler argues, the term queer can be considered “a site of collective contestation” (1993, p. 228). It is in the very nebulous and undetermined character of the term that a resistance to positivist orthodoxies can be imagined. Relatedly, “queer” gestures to a non-normative, oppositional, fugitive politic that forever seeks to exist outside of, and in contradiction to, dominant discourses. Yet, this is not to suggest that the term is devoid of the ethnocentric problematics that other sexual grammars, such as ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’ may imply, as Ara Wilson (2006) reminds us.

[2] This entry offers a glimpse to my project, which responds to the near-dogmatic nature of discourses around kinship and incest in Sri Lanka (as always, already structured by the nuclear family and its extended familial relations) and queerness in Sri Lanka (which presupposes the impossibility of queer possibility in the family, in line with Western orthodoxy). My intellectual instincts coalesce around challenging totalizing narratives and discovering Spivakian silences of the archive, particularly that of apprehending queer traces that may inhere or materialize in the uncanny and unlikely. This project aims to do the following: 1) Read the early kinship literature on Sri Lanka against the grain, to excavate the queer valences and ephemera that can be teased out of these texts, or conduct queer readings of these texts; 2) To suggest that the familial has always carried erotic and sexual connotations in various Sri Lanka contexts; and 3) To suggest that the erotics of the familial converge with the queerness of the homosocial to render the home a crucial dimension of queer desire, intimacy, and affect in Sri Lanka contexts. While sensitive to the indeterminate and often fraught relationship between queerness and the home, I suggest that to maintain an openness to possible co-constitutive nature of kin and queer is to resist the imperialist thrust of totalizing narratives of kinship and queerness, and attend to the complex, contested, and unforeseen nature of queerness in the Third World. 


Works Cited

Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. Oxon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

de Zoysa, Darshini. 1995. “Transformation of Customary Marriage and Inheritance Laws of the Sinhalese Under British Colonialism.” Dialectical Anthropology 20 (2): 111-132.

Fischel, Joseph. 2019. Screw Consent: A Better Politics of Sexual Justice. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality, vol. 1. New York: Vintage.

Gopinath, Gayatri. 2005. Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1992. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press.

Seidman, Steven. 2010. “From Identity to Queer Politics: Shifts in Normative Heterosexuality and the Meaning of Citizenship.” Citizenship Studies 5 (3): 321-328.

Wilson, Ara. 2006. “Queering Asia.” Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context 14.

Yalman, Nur. 1967. Under the Bo Tree . Berkeley: University of California Press.


Bio: Themal Ellawala is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he studies gender-sexual ontic and discursive formations in Sri Lanka through the optics of queer theory and postcolonial studies. He is specifically preoccupied with explicating negative space (e.g. absence, silence, inaction, ambiguity) and exploring how the gender-sexual subaltern figure encounters the state and neoliberalism in myriad ways at such sites (contact: tellaw2@uic.edu).

Back to ‘QA2020 Rethinking Radical Now’ full series