by Matthew Waites *
The Queer Asia conference has emerged as one of the most fresh and ground breaking conference events in global queer studies. The event is held at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, yet the organising team nevertheless managed to bring together presentations from people 25 countries, surely making this at least one of the most important academic and activist forums of queer people from Asia. Queer Asia 2017 was highly stimulating, and a pleasure to be a part of. Queer Asia describes itself as: ‘a network of queer identifying scholars, academics, activists, artists and performers. It is a platform for inter-Asia collaboration, dialogue and research on issues affecting people who self-identify as LGBTQ+ or belong to other non-normative sexualities and gender identities in Asia, or Asian diasporas and beyond’.
So the network is not reducible to its conferences; yet the conference events have been at the heart of the network’s activity. The Queer Asia conference was first held in 2016, and it is a huge credit to the organising team that they have repeated their energetic and sustained work to reproduce and develop the event. Key figures in transnational activism appeared, and critical academic voices. The programme for the first two days offered some cutting-edge critical intellectual and activist debates over transnational strategies for change, mixed with a very substantial range of panels in two parallel streams. Speakers from a range of societies contributed – many drawing on ground breaking postgraduate research.
The critical community of Sexuality Policy Watch will no doubt wish to hear first about the main interventions, especially the state of debates over relations between transnational and national or sub-national activisms, and the implications for legal, policy and political strategies. This was a central theme from the outset, with a very helpful opening panel ‘Decolonising Queer Theory’ chaired by Rahul Rao, Senior Lecturer in Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies— certainly now established as one of the most original and well-informed critical analysts of international LGBTI activism. Panel members included Dr Nour Abu Assab, Co-founder of the Center for Transnational Development and Collaboration, and Professor Nikita Dhawan, Professor of Political Science (Political Theory and Gender Studies) at University of Innsbruck (speaking from abroad).
Nour Abu Assab succeeded in quickly distinguishing queer from LGBT, noting its anti-categorical history in queer theory, yet also noting how the label queer can marginalise groups in Asia including MSM (Men-Who-Have-Sex-With-Men); hence Queer Asia from the outset understood queer as a contextual and temporary category, with implications needing unpicking in specific spaces. Affirming this, Rahul Rao also highlighted the essential theme of decolonisation, while problematizing ubiquitous calls to decolonise everything which may leave the implications of decolonisation unspecified. Nikita Dhawan then made incisive remarks against prevailing strands of US radical queer theory and politics associated with Jasbir Puar’s critique of homonationalism. Dhawan’s target was what she took to be a demonization of the (western) state in anti-nationalist, anti-statist work. While welcoming this as an opening of debate, I felt this tended to homogenise US queer studies, particularly lacking attention to work of Lisa Duggan and colleagues on ‘The New Queer Agenda’ proposed in a special issue of The Scholar & Feminist Online in 2012, which is informed by materialism, sociology and a concern to sustain welfare policies—more politically mature than some current anarchist strands.
Rahul Rao then raised crucial debates over relations between academics and LGBT or queer activists, mentioning both Joseph Massad’s disagreements with Helem in Lebanon, and Jasbir Puar’s debates with the alQaws organisation in Palestine. Nour Abu Assab problematized Massad’s ‘detachment from reality’ and commented that while she rejected LGBT identities herself, she still finds it appropriate to organise in coalition with these on the ground in local contexts—while simultaneously pursuing new forms of queer anti-categorical politics, such as alliances with heterosexual women who have sex outside marriage. Dhawan suggested that both Massad and Puar tend to look for uncontaminated political positions, rather than accepting the need for contextual strategies. However a question from the floor challenged Dhawan’s slightly simplistic implication that subalterns can always benefit from state protection, when often these are subject to state violences. Dhawan duly rowed back by proposing a critique of the state without (what Foucault called) ‘state-phobia’. As usual, time elapsed before differentiations could sufficiently emerge, such as between colonial and postcolonial states.
The opening panel on the second day was equally stimulating, focusing on ‘Decriminalisation and Activism’. Panel members included impressive human rights lawyer Yasmin Purba emphasising novel threats of criminalisation in Indonesia, and leading Indian activist/lawyer/scholar Arvind Narrain, associated with Voices Against 377 but now working for ARC-International in Geneva. There was a short video message from Vitit Muntarbhorn, the very respectable new UN special rapporteur for sexual orientation and gender identity issues.
Also present was Paul Dillane, one to watch for Sexuality Policy Watch as the new Executive Director of The Kaleidoscope Trust. Kaleidoscope is the UK’s leading LGBT NGO working international for political change, and now particularly focused on the Commonwealth. Dillane’s talk was therefore of particular interest in light of my recently published analysis of The Kaleidoscope Trust and The Commonwealth Equality Network, which Kaleidoscope has participated in creating—in an article, ‘LGBTI organisations navigating imperial contexts: the Kaleidoscope Trust, the Commonwealth and the need for a decolonizing, intersectional politics’ (open access).
Paul Dillane is a highly skilled and effective individual who is likely to be a defining figure in shaping UK-based transnational LGBTI-activism (including in the new UK Alliance for Global Equality, that will be launched on 5 July to coordinate between leading NGOs). Formerly Executive Director at the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG) from 2014, Dillane is notable for having experience of working directly with asylum seekers, and involvement in campaigns against their detention; hence in his talk he was quick to challenge Conservative British government claims that the UK is a ‘leader’ in LGBT rights. Trained in law he has an excellent precise eye for technical detail. Yet he is also extremely warm and personable—everybody likes him. His energetic, engaged and diplomatic activism for UKLGIG raised that organisation’s profile and won him supporters among most of the leading figures among the elites of UK LGBT activism, across the spectrum from Stonewall to Jonathan Cooper (formerly Human Dignity Trust) to Peter Tatchell – thus winning invitations to join the London LGBT circuit of presentations and award ceremonies. He is also active on social media and takes a mean selfie, with fresh cut hair and penetrating eyes likely to win fans among the gay men. All this of course spells the danger that Dillane is being drawn into warm embrace of the tentacles of the advantageously positioned and growing octopus that is ‘the new London-based transnational politics of LGBT human rights’ (see the aforementioned article). The centring of the Commonwealth as a political opportunity structure was apparent as Dillane outlined a strategy for engaging the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), in London during April 2018.
Fortunately it is clear that Dillane is already alive and reflexive in relation to these concerns. He emphasises that transnational activism needs an ‘intersectional’ perspective which is ‘attuned to pinkwashing’; and rightly notes that academic and activist work should give more attention to criminalisation of lesbians and bisexual women, and trans people (limitations of my own previous work). He emphasises that The Commonwealth Equality Network is formally constituted with membership and leadership from numerous states, while Kaleidoscope’s power should not be exaggerated as it remains ‘two people in a room in Dalston’. A particularly wise observation about putting SOGI rights on the CHOGM agenda was that ‘the risks are high’; Dillane rightly understands that there is no strategy without risk or danger, and is right to indicate that politics and leadership may require taking some risks; we cannot always predetermine outcomes. He drew attention to private meetings with former presidents of African states including Mozambique to illustrate some work to build southern partnerships.
However, notably Dillane also suggested that The Commonwealth Equality Network will seek to address its funding gap by seeking funds from the UK government’s Department for International Development (DFID). If pursued, this would certainly raise again questions posed about whether formal equalities within TCEN disguise disproportionate British influence, and how this can be interpreted internationally. Meanwhile Arvind Narrain, who has worked closely with Dillane, used the panel to propose that Kaleidoscope press the UK government to offer an apology at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, for the criminalisation of same-sex behaviour across the British Empire—as a central strategy. In questions I suggested that UK-based transnational LGBTQ activism needed to broaden its understanding of decolonisation, from a focus on decolonisation of law to a consistent grasp of how the structures and inequalities of the global economic system embody an ongoing legacy of colonialism—continuing to affect who can participate in movement activity. I also suggested that while an apology is a decolonising strategy, it would risk re-centring British moral discourses, unless delivered by a UK politician alongside allied southern leaders also speaking, as part of a wider strategy of South/North alliance. Narrain acknowledged the politics of an apology needed more thought in a context where the UK government has refused to address reparations for slavery, raised for example by Jamaica.
Panels throughout the first two days enabled exploration of a wide range of national and local contexts, ranging for example from Lebanon and Saudi Arabia to Bangladesh, China (including Hong Kong), Japan, Taiwan, Singapore the Philippines and London’s Club Kali in the UK. Diverse themes ranged from online experiences with dating apps to movement analysis and Indian classical music. Many papers were by postgraduates and the quality was very variable, especially in relation to methodological and developed analysis. Yet nevertheless originality was abundant.
Particularly useful to note here was a contribution by Ahmad Ibrahim of Centre for Bangladesh Studies in Dhaka, who is beginning to develop the ‘Queer Archives Bangladesh’ project, and seeks crowdfunding online to support this. Meanwhile regarding intersex, senior advocate Gita Luthra provided a useful briefing from India on the Faizan Siddiqi case of exclusion from the military. This talk also covered the more well known 2014 Supreme Court judgement recognising a ‘third gender’—though emphasising lack of implementation that has followed.
Yu-Hing Hu, Assistant Professor in the Graduate Institute of Gender Studies at Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan, deployed the concept ‘legal opportunity structure’ from Ellen Anderson’s work in the US to consider Taiwanese same-sex marriage debates. They discerned an oppositional movement drawing together transnational Christian discourses and Confucian traditionalist notions of ‘Chinese tradition’, showing an interplay of international and local values. This argument was echoed in another presentation on Taiwan by Ying-Chao Kao (Sociology, Rutgers University, USA) whose paper was titled ‘Transnational Circulation of Moral Conservatism: How the US and Taiwanese Christian pro-family movements conspire to produce sexual inequalities with de-colonial discourses’. The talk highlighted transnational circulation of ‘discursive waste’ or ‘D-waste’ from US Christian conservatism.
From 2016 to 2017 the event had expanded from two to three days, to include an entire day of films from the Asian continent. There were also many other arts-based contributions including poetry, drag performances—such as from South Korean artist Heezy Yang (Hurricane Kimchi)—and discussion of photography by Sunil Gupta. These film and arts elements lent the event energy and feelings which maintained participants’ engagement and touched us in different ways.
The multi-dimensional character of the event including film and other arts reflected the interdisciplinary interests and enthusiasm of the organising team. At Queer Asia 2016 Co-Founder Daniel Luther who works in film studies and literature had emerged in a beautiful butterfly shirt, flitting effortlessly between panels, disciplines and debates; in 2017 it was clear they had further spread their wings to help develop the extensive programme of film-focussed dialogues. Meanwhile Co-Founder Aapurv Jain did a great job of chairing day 2’s quite formidable opening panel on Decriminalisation and Activism to ensure diverse voices were heard; while Jenny Ung Loh brings an incisive and acutely perceptive quality in comments which is welcome; and Shantanu Singh brings a calm and reassuring presence no doubt partly responsible for the event running smoothly. With the other organizing committee members—Allan C. Simpson, How Wee Ng, Tessa Qiu, Imrane Lawrence Trocme and U Bava dharani— they seem a very happy and highly motivated collective, a cloud of busy butterflies transmitting love and politics through transnational cross-pollination.
The sustained work of the organising team was apparent a number of respects. In particular there had been use of social media beforehand to seek crowdfunding, to cover costs for speakers from Asia, particularly flights. This prior work demonstrated a profound commitment to achieving representation from a variety of Asian states. The well-developed website and tweeting throughout the event also contributed to transnational engagement. There is a question as to why so many sexuality and gender studies academics in the UK decided not to attend, as if the event were only relevant to those from Asia rather than global political concerns. However I was particularly glad to hear that there is the intention to develop a co-edited volume with Zed Books, an excellent critical publisher well-chosen as a partner for the event. This should bring the work of Queer Asia to the much wider international audiences it deserves. Let us hope the event can continue every year.
* Matthew Waites is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Glasgow, UK. He is also co-editor of the Global Queer Politics book series for Palgrave Macmillan, with Jordi Diez, Sonia Corrêa and David Paternotte.