Thinking Through Queerness in a Pluriversal Global South



Drawing from his book Out of Time: The Queer Politics of Postcoloniality (2020), we ask Rahul Rao about the delicate ways through which we can pluriversally think of queerness, without attributing circumscribed Western-forged identities to it. Moving beyond the recurrent questions that ask whether it is homosexuality or homophobia that is Western, he helps us to think through queer counter-narratives in the South from the Indian subcontinent to Uganda.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: There’s been important works in the past two decades that have allowed to decenter a U.S., and beyond this, a Western perspective on queerness. I’m thinking for instance of Jasbir Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (2007) or Joseph Massad’s Desiring Arabs (2007). Yet, a simplistic reading of these works have been leading some people in the anti-colonial and anti-racist movements to state that “homosexuality is a Western concept” as a way to legitimize their queerphobia or, at the very least, to give priority to the fight against violent processes of racialization. How do we find the right balance between the necessary decentering of Western epistemology and its noxious efforts towards universalization, and the solidarity work with queer movements (whether we call them “queer” or not) around the world?

RAHUL RAO: I think you have several questions in there, so I might just try and unpack some of that. This headline phrase, “homosexuality is a western concept” is something I’ve encountered a lot while doing my research for Out of Time. In fact, I structure the book around an opposition between two statements: “homosexuality is Western” and “homophobia is Western.” We hear these statements articulated often in opposition to each other, particularly in Global South contexts between, on one side, queer activists saying that homophobia is Western and cultural conservatives, on the other side, saying that it’s homosexuality that is Western. One of the arguments I’m making in the book is that both these statements are in a sense, true, but evasive.

If we think first about the phrase “homosexuality is Western.” At one level, this is what Michel Foucault says in History of Sexuality (1976): he tells us that homosexuality, as an aspect of personal identity, is something that only begins in a certain place and time, in Europe in the 19th century. Through discourses of psychiatry and law and literature, you begin to see the homosexual spoken off as what he calls a species, as a particular kind of individual with a particular sense of self. In contrast, previously, the homosexual was not a type of person. Rather, every person was capable of homosexual acts, which were considered aberrant, but that did not make the practitioner of the homosexual act into a particular type of person. So if we think of homosexuality as personal identity, then yes, it is a Western notion. And we can talk about the various processes by which that notion becomes universalized from the mid-19th century onwards. But I think that when cultural conservatives say homosexuality is Western, they’re not particularly interested in this. They’re not focusing solely on homosexuality as an aspect of personal identity. They’re usefully ambiguous about whether they’re referring to same sex acts, or same sex identities. In fact, many of the laws that criminalize same sex sexuality don’t talk about identity at all: they name a series of acts and say, “these acts are against the order of nature.” So there’s a kind of ambiguity in cultural conservative discourse, about what exactly they mean, what exactly somebody like Ahmadinejad means when he says “There are no homosexuals in Iran,” for example. Clearly, he’s coming from a very different place than Foucault’s! But the statements appear to look the same when they’re placed next to each other. I think it’s really important to unpack how different their meanings are.

You also brought up the issue of people within anti-colonial movements articulating this idea that homosexuality is Western, or that struggles around sexuality have to, in a sense, take second place to the struggle against racism. And that is a differently troubling kind of conversation. It’s one that I’ve thought about quite a lot, and many queer and feminist thinkers have been deeply preoccupied with this question.

This is very vexing because it often produces situations in which those expected to be allies turn out to be not particularly so around questions of gender and sexuality.

There’s a long genealogy of this kind of troubling discourse. We can even see it in a figure like Frantz Fanon, who, in various throwaway comments in some of his work, tends to associate homosexuality with whiteness, and tends to read homosexuality as a function of white exploitation. Now Fanon is really responding to a colonial sexual political economy, in which Black bodies are treated as sexual objects. They are either seen as objects that can be used by white men for sexual pleasure, or hyper sexualized as Black men often are, and seen as violent and oversexed rapists, which in turn is used to justify the perpetration of white supremacist violence on Black people, and particularly enslaved people. So Fanon is describing that colonial sexual political economy and responding to it.

The problem, I think, is that some resistive responses to that colonial sexual political economy, took the form of hyper masculine Black nationalist politics, where the the most appropriate response was thought to be one of hyper masculinity, in an attempt to recuperate this humiliated Black masculinity. And that was done in part through the perpetration of violence against differently gendered Black subjects. We can see some of these dynamics at work in some national liberation movements, for example, which many people have written about. What is important, I think, is that there has been a very long running and strong Black feminist critique of this, within anti colonial movements. I think of bell hooks for instance, and her critique of Fanon, where she says that he envisages the colonial encounter as one between Black men and white men. She critiques how he thinks that all would be well, when equality is restored between Black men and white men. Black women somehow disappear in that picture. Except, of course, when he’s thinking about the sexual relationships between white men and Black women, and Black men and white women. So there is, I think, this Black feminist critique, which we’ve known for a long time. It is the best way in which to address this very vexatious discourse within anti-colonial movements, claiming that homosexuality is a Western concept, and that it must be effaced in order to recuperate this humiliated Black masculinity.

This is not in any way unique to Black movements, by the way. In the South Asian context, also, we can see how the sexual and gender stereotypes imposed by colonialism are different, but they’re still analogous. Bengali men are described as effeminate in British colonial discourse, and one of the responses to the humiliation created by those stereotypes was for an an early generation of anti-colonial South Asian nationalists to say, “we need a kind of hyper masculine martial, Hindu anti-colonialism in order to dismantle these damaging stereotypes.” This produces an anti-colonial moment in which the feminine, the androgynous, has to be effaced, has to be gotten rid off, in order to craft and wield this strong anti-colonial resistance. So it’s a dynamic that I think we see in many different places, and it’s in part a response to the humiliation of colonialism.

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Cover of Out of Time: The Queer Politics of Postcoloniality (Oxford University Press, 2020), Rahul Rao’s second book. Artwork by Sane (Eria Nsubuga).

LL: As a pendant to my first question and hinting at what you already said, there is a growing understanding that a large part of the structural queerphobia that we are either witnessing or experiencing in some countries of the Global South are built on the foundations of European colonialism and its imposition of a dogmatic Christian morality with regards to sexuality. So in this case, it’s no longer homosexuality that is Western, it is homophobia. Although it’s difficult to fully contest this vision, how do you think we can reconcile this accurate yet incomplete reading of history while not making colonialism, and through it, the West, the alpha and omega of everything?

RR: Yes, so here, we think about the statement that’s made in opposition to “homosexuality is Western,” which is the counterclaim, that homophobia is Western; that it really begins with European colonialism and, as you say, the imposition of this dogmatic Christian morality. And again, at one level, that’s true, if by homophobia, we mean, homophobia in the law. What British colonialism does in many places—I think it’s slightly different in the context of other European colonialisms—is to impose these penal codes in many of its colonies. And one major element of those penal codes is the regulation of gender and sexual morality, particularly the criminalization of homosexuality, so of course, we can say that the institutionalization of homophobia in law begins with European colonialism.

But I think, again, that this is an evasive statement.

If we are trying to displace responsibility for homophobia entirely onto European colonialism, this effectively neglects or refuses to ask questions about the ways in which normative gender and sexuality were constructed before the European colonists even arrived.

And of course, every society had a normative order of gender and sexuality. Part of what it means to have a normative order is that non-normative practices tend to be in some way circumscribed, or penalized, or punished. That may not have happened through the institution of the law, but it nonetheless existed in the South Asian context. For example, we can think of the caste system, which is thousands of years old. In many ways, it was institutionalized by Hinduism, as the regulation of gender and sexuality, the caste system was nothing but a very rigid system that maintained practices of endogamy. And that meant it regulated who could form legitimate sexual liaisons with whom. So this is a form of regulation that predates the advent of colonialism by centuries, and also postdates it as the caste system continues to be a system of regulation in operation in South Asia today. And even moving outside of South Asia, we have to remind ourselves that these colonial penal provisions that European colonists instituted were then kept on the statute books by post-colonial states for several decades, and were often infused with new content and new meaning. The post-colonial state has breathed new life into these colonial laws. So I don’t think we can rest comfortably on the argument that homophobia is solely attributable to the intervention of European colonialism. Colonialism introduced important shifts in the way gender and sexuality were regulated, but to claim that that is the moment of origin of proscription is, I think, very problematic.

LL: Your book was partially built in the context of criminalizing new laws passed relatively recently by the Ugandan state, and the Western hypocrisy—actually I hate the concept of hypocrisy in political analysis so I don’t know why I use it here—in reaction to it. This offers us a specific example: could you talk about it?

RR: Sure. The Uganda Anti Homosexuality Act was central to the book. This was a law that was introduced in the Ugandan Parliament in 2009. Uganda already criminalized same-sex sexuality in the Penal Code, which was in part, a remnant of British colonialism. It was ultimately passed into law in 2014. What this Act did was to ramp up some of these penalties, and it added new offenses onto the statute books. One interesting dynamic around this act was that it was encouraged by U.S.-based Christian evangelical activists, who had for a long time been organizing transnationally. This is a story that Kapya Kaoma documents very well. These activists had begun losing the battle against LGBT rights in the U.S. and in Western Europe, and they began to work with cultural conservatives in what they think are the more conservative parts of the world in the Global South. The agenda here is to prevent progressive moves towards the acceptance of same-sex sexuality within their respective Christian denominations by creating these global conservative alliances. That’s certainly part of what was going on in Uganda in the 2009 to 2014 period, and it continues to this day. What I think is important when we analyze these situations is to think about the agency of the Global South actors in these processes. I think it would be a mistake to read both the Ugandan Penal Code and the 2014 Act as purely the result of external imposition. Because the Ugandan partners and interlocutors in these situations (the priests, the politicians, etc.), who are working with the U.S. conservatives are equally important to the story. And so part of what my book tries to narrate is these transnational interactions between cultural conservatives in different parts of the world that result in the production of a particular law or a particular arrangement around sexuality and gender.

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One of of the 23 stained glass windows picturing the Uganda Martyrs in a Catholic Shrine in Namugongo. / Photo by Rahul Rao (2012).

LL: Your book focuses particularly on time and on dismantling what you call “heterotemporality.” You offer possibilities to write queer histories, in particular, queer histories of the South, through other codes of writing history than the hegemonic Western ones, in particular he U.S. codes. Could you tell us about these queer temporalities you are describing and/or helping to build?

RR: One of the things I noticed in the arguments around sexuality was that history and time were being mobilized by actors on all sides, through exactly the discourses we’ve been talking about.

To say that homosexuality is Western or that homophobia is Western is to try and tell a story about how particular forms of desire began: they are origin myths.

These myths circulate endlessly in these arguments and conversations, and because of this, I became interested in what possible counter-stories might be told, that might expand the space for gender and sexual non-normativity. In the Ugandan context, I became really interested in the story of the last pre-colonial ruler of the kingdom of Buganda, which is the largest of the pre-colonial kingdoms that were merged to form the present day state of Uganda. As the story goes—it is recorded by Western missionaries, so the sources have their own biases and investments—this man, Kabaka (King) Mwanga, used to have sex with men in his court. This was until the Christian missionaries arrived, converted these men to Christianity, taught them that this was a sin, at which point they began to refuse the King’s sexual advances. In a rage, he ordered them to be put to death, and they were executed in this very public way in 1886. The story is very well remembered because the Catholic Church then began a campaign to have these men canonized. It was a long process that ultimately bore fruit in the 1960s, when the then Pope declared 23 of the murdered Catholics, martyrs. They are called the Uganda martyrs and, as with many Catholic saints, there is today a cult of veneration around these Uganda martyrs.

What intrigued me in this story is that you have here a very well known story about a supposed same-sex desiring figure: the ruler of the kingdom himself. And this is an instance of same-sex desire that is thwarted by the advent of Western colonialism and Western Christianity. But at the same time, contemporary Ugandan seem to think or argue (especially cultural conservatives) that homosexuality is something that comes from outside. So how can these two accounts circulate? This was what I was most curious about. And so I became interested in how ordinary Ugandans narrated the story of Mwanga. This led me to think about memory as one way in which we might find these counter-narratives. I’m not so much interested in history, if by history, we understand an authoritative story about what actually happened in 1886. What I’m more interested in is memory, which is how to present what Ugandans think happened in this time and place, and how might that influence their attitudes about non-normative or normative gender and sexuality? And so what I end up finding is a range of different stories that circulate around this moment and my job—at least the way I see my job—is not to adjudicate between these different narratives, to say this is right and that is wrong. I’m in the position of a curator who is collecting these different and contradictory stories and trying to historicize them and trying to make sense of the ways in which differently positioned subjects in Uganda have different kinds of investments in telling the story in different ways. Some of those stories are, I think, pretty clear in their rendering of an ancestor or a king, who did have same-sex desires, which suggests that such desires were known, and were accepted in another place and time, but in a way that has perhaps been forgotten or effaced.

LL: As a conclusion, do you think that one way to decenter the U.S. political ‘software’ (as we propose in this issue) with regards to queerness would not consist in questioning the way queer political identities are often formed around one letter that joins, in an inclusive paradigm, the LGBT trunk, leading more to the juxtaposition of these identities (LGBTQI2s+)—independently from the many other immanent political identities at work here—than to a cohesive political movement? In other words and to the risk of being caricatural, does a Dalit Tamil trans woman living in North India (i.e. in a potentially inhospitable environment) really share enough an identity with a white French bourgeois gay man living in Le Marais for them to be political associated?

RR: Here again, there’s a lot going on in your question, and I want to unpack it a little bit. At one level, your question is about identity. Identity politics have been really important in winning particular victories, in carving out space for resistance. But identity can also be limiting because identity is a normative project that draws boundaries between those who belong to the identity and those who do not. And those boundary drawing practices, even if they might be necessary in the course of resistance, can also harden into coercive, exclusionary and oppressive formations. We know this from the history of nationalism, but we also know this from the history of other kinds of identity politics movements that can begin as emancipatory projects, but become something else. What is interesting about queer politics or queer theory is that it began as a critique of the limitations of identitarian politics, particularly sexual identitarian politics organized around sexual identities, like gay, lesbian, etc.

The problem is not just that these identities have a particular geographical provenance—they come from a certain place and a certain time—but also that as identity politics, they become invested in these boundary drawing practices and end up being exclusionary in all sorts of ways.

But the irony is that queer critique, or queer politics, itself becomes co opted as a kind of identity. So now, we sometimes see the very placement of the letter Q in that string of letters that you named, which is an irony because Q has sort of been domesticated as an identity: it has become one identity among many—sometimes it’s used as an overarching identity, but still an identity.

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The Uganda Martyrs’ Museum in Namugongo (periphery of Kampala). The painting depicts the climax of the Mwanga story, namely the execution of the courtiers who supposedly refused to have sex with him. / Photo by Rahul Rao (2016).

Now, I feel a bit awkward about criticizing that, because it would imply that “queer” has a particular meaning that it is now departing from. That too would be, I think, a very unqueer thing to do: to try and fix its meaning and to insist that everyone hold on to that original meaning. I think that meanings change, concepts become re-signified. We have to be attentive to that, and there has to be space for that. So I suppose broadly, I’m trying to say that the proliferation of identity categories does not necessarily address the problems that these movements are trying to grapple with. There is a certain value to recognizing more and more identity categories. But that does not address the fundamental problems with identity, that queer critique was trying to gesture at in its originary moment. Maybe we need to think about ways in which identity politics does not always express the truth of non-normative desire. A really interesting book that I would recommend here is akshay khanna’s Sexualness (2016). khanna is an anthropologist, and the book is based on work with same-sex desiring (mostly masculine) folks in India, and one of the arguments khanna makes is that for many people, sexual desire is not experienced as an aspect of identity—to go back Foucault’s understanding of sexuality. It does not answer the question of who I am as a person, it’s just something I do. Sexual desire flows through the body, without necessarily constituting the self as a particular type. This is something that khanna names “sexualness,” rather than sexuality.

So what I’m trying to suggest, by referring to khanna’s book, is that the very notion of sexuality is a provincial one, it does not express the ways in which people all over the world experience desire. And so we cannot decolonize our conversations around sexuality purely by adding more identity categories to the alphabet soup, or even just by holding on to some original meaning of queer, as crafted in the radical West. We need to think about the range of ways in which sexual desire that is experienced by people all over the world is described, is talked about, is performed, is lived, and there is an infinite array of conceptual devices that people are offering in scholarship, but also in the politics of activism that we need to be attentive to.

As for the last point of your question about whether people in this range of life worlds can find community, can identify with each other, it’s ironic that you framed the sentence in that way, because I recently read Mark Gevisser’s book, The Pink Line (2020). It is a huge book that does a sort of global survey of LGBT politics, all over the world, and some parts of the book engage very deeply with the politics of trans and kothi communities in South India. Now, Mark is a white, gay South African man who lives in Cape Town. The book ends with his engagement with kothi communities in Tamil Nadu, and he quotes one of the kothis as identifying him as a kothi, making this transnational cultural connection. I have no reason to doubt that this identification was genuine. I don’t know the story behind it, really, but I think that it suggests that sometimes, despite these vast gulfs of caste and class, and identity, people do find common connection across those gaps. The politics of solidarity however is not an easy one. Solidarity has to be forged across these huge gulfs of power, and that often raises very uncomfortable questions.

I think it’s always important to ask who is expressing solidarity with whom and whether the solidarity is solicited? Is it reciprocated? Is it wanted? Or can solidarity sometimes be a problem, an imposition, an exercise in power?

Those questions are never going to go away, but the fact that there are problems and power differentials cannot mean the end to a conversation about solidarity, because otherwise I think we would be locked in our respective identity silos, separated, and very much the weaker for it. ■