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.