From Peter Drucker ed., Different Rainbows: Same-Sex Sexualities and Popular Movements in the Third World (London: Millivres/GMP, 2000)



Reinventing liberation: Strategic questions for lesbian/gay movements

Peter Drucker




Dialectics of identity


Along with autonomy from institutions and autonomy from other movements, there is the issue of autonomy from the families and communities that LGBT people are themselves born into. This kind of autonomy means the development of distinctive LGBT identies and subcultures. The obstacles to this in the Third World are particularly great. Many LGBT people even doubt the practicality or desirability of this kind of separate cultural identity, at least if it reaches the point of ghettoization.


Gloria Wekker has argued that 'the notion of a sexual identity in itself carries deep strands of permanency, stability, fixity, and near-impermeability to change'.[1] The identification of sexuality with core selfhood that she describes, drawing on Michel Foucault's work, has come to be deeply rooted in European cultures. But it is not unique to Europe. Transgendered kathoeys in traditional Thai culture were also perceived as having natural, unchanging identities, to the point that changing kathoeys to men or men to kathoeys was forbidden in Buddhist scriptures as a form of witchcraft. There are thousands of transgendered people on every continent who have little choice about developing a separate identity, since a separate identity is thrust upon them from a very young age.


On the other hand, where lesbian and gay communities do emerge, membership in them does not necessarily imply a one-sided, unchanging sexual orientation. Many people who consider themselves bisexual live partly in and partly out of lesbian/gay communities. Others continue to identify as lesbian or gay and take part in lesbian/gay communities even while having long-term—even primary—heterosexual relationships, a choice accepted by some and viewed suspiciously by others in their communities.


One could imagine Third World lesbian/gay communities and movements continuing to emerge and thrive, even while sharing much of the Afro-Caribbean conception of selfhood that Wekker describes: 'multiple, malleable, dynamic, and possessing male and female elements'.[2] LGBT communities could be defined by identities that are allowed to be fluid rather than required to be fixed. Lesbian/gay movements could be defined as embracing everyone who wants to fight for greater sexual freedom, rather than as proclaiming and defending ghettos. Existing same-sex identities could be treated neither by repudiating them—as queer theorists sometimes seem to do—or fetishizing them, but by respecting them and building on them, as stepping stones towards liberation.


This dialectical approach to identity would have different dynamics in the Third World than in the First, and different dynamics in different parts of the Third World. The dynamics would be different where transgender identities are deeply rooted from where lesbian and gay identities have gained ground, and different again in cultures where same-sex eroticism is more or less tolerated without necessarily implying distinctive identities. But the key to the dialectics of identity everywhere would be accepting that change and variability are inevitable and legitimate.


The possibilty of communities that are not ghettos and liberation that does not imply segregation come up in several articles in this book. It often goes together with the idea of a lesbian/gay community that discards much of the economic and cultural baggage of consumer capitalism which often accompanies lesbian/gay life in advanced capitalist countries. Gevisser speaks of 'the tantalizing possibility that South Africa, with its fusion of individualist Western rights-politics and African communal consciousness, might show the world a far smoother way of integrating gay people into society, even if this is at the cost of the kind of robust gay subculture that dominates cities like New York and San Francisco'. In Margaret Randall's interview, Ana V., a Costa Rican living in Nicaragua, contrasts the society that Nicaraguan LGBTs want with the kind of gay ghetto they see emerging in Costa Rica: 'we've wanted to push society, so it will make a place for us, not carve a place out which is only for lesbians and gay men'. Also in this book, John Mburu speaks of an 'agenda including though not exclusively focused on gay rights'.


A vision of liberation without ghettoization can go together with different choices in people's personal lives. It is not always clear to LGBTs in the Third World that 'coming out' as lesbian or gay is a key moment in winning their liberation, as many people in the US seem to believe. In some cases they have never been 'in the closet': the Afro-Surinamese women in sexual relationships with women whom Wekker describes 'are not singled out or stigmatized in a working-class environment nor do they feel the necessity to fight for their liberation or to "come out"'.[3] In other cases LGBTs feel that discretion is a reasonable way of sustaining a way of life in which same-sex relationships are only one part, and not necessarily the most important part. The Chinese woman Ning interviewed by Chou Wah-shan says, 'It would give me a lot of trouble if I came out as a "lesbian", a Westernized category that challenges the basic family-kinship structure and my cultural identity as a Chinese. What benefits could coming out in public bring me?' In either case people can be understandably skeptical of the notion that coming out in itself decreases prejudice. After all, women, blacks and Jews have almost always been 'out', and it is questionable whether this has limited prejudice against them.


In the Netherlands, interestingly, LGBT immigrants from the Islamic world have spoken of a 'powerful double life', a life in which they can be open about and celebrate their sexualities at some times and places while remaining discrete in their original families and ethnic communities so as to preserve those important ties.[4] This idea of a double life may make it possible to respect the tactical decisions people make without glossing over the oppression that often contributes to their choices. The Afro-Surinamese women Wekker describes may not be stigmatized as women loving women, for example, but their choice to continue to have sex with men, who are sometimes abusive, seems in some cases to be largely determined by their poverty and economic dependency as women. Ning says that being open about her sexuality would make her 'a devil in people's minds' and be seen as 'failing in my obligation and responsibility as a wife, daughter and mother', suggesting that the 'harmonious family order' she seeks to preserve is based in part on her own sacrifices.


Altman even says that the tradition of married men's having 'discrete homosexual liaisons on the side seems as oppressive to the young [Asian] radicals of ProGay or Pink Triangle as it did to French or Canadian gay liberationists of the 1970s'. None of this means that the choice to announce or emphasize different identities in different spheres of life is wrong, just that this choice is the product of circumstances that are sometimes oppressive and always subject to change.


In general in the Third World, where there are fewer possibilities for living entirely apart from existing family structures, LGBTs are challenged more to find ways to cope with them and change them without surrendering their own needs and identities. In the absence of welfare states, family is more important in the Third World for simple survival. Marriage and children are the only form of old-age or health insurance in many poor countries. This has meant that even when extramarital sexuality is tacitly tolerated it is important that it not be mentioned, so as not to put parenthood and family order in question.[5]


Sometimes refraining from blurting out awkward facts can help make surprisingly flexible solutions possible. Chou gives the example of Chinese parents who have invited their son's male lover to eat with the family and eventually even move in. I have run across similar stories of lovers moving in with the family in South African black townships and Brazilian favelas. Arguably arrangements like these can do more to change the society's sexual culture than moving away to some other city with a lover would, even if that were an option. There may well be tensions and constraints in such a situation. As Indonesian gay leader Dédé Oetomo has said, it may be necessary for LGBT people to have 'a safe space for people to gather' so as to make up for 'what is lacking in the heterosexist family'.[6] Openly naming what is happening and discussing it with the family and the whole neighbourhood would be still another step towards liberation. But where is it laid down that the naming has to happen first?


Perhaps the disproportionate influence of US gay culture on the rest of the world has helped foster a model of coming out that in some ways is quite US-specific. The idea of picking up and moving on to another town is after all a commonplace of US culture. So is coming home to the folks years later, visibly changed by experiences on the frontier. Not all of this imagery is easily transferable even to Western Europe. In a smaller European country like the Netherlands, a lesbian or gay child who comes out will have a hard time moving very far from the parental home, since no place in the country is more than three or four hours away. This seems to imply, at least for Dutch lesbian/gay people whose parents do not belong to the fundamentalist Christian minority, that a gay lifestyle involving great emotional distance from existing families is less common, and forms of integration into existing families more common, than in the US. Perhaps most LGBT people in the world live somewhere in the middle of a continuum between the man who comes out and moves to a big city far away, on the one hand, and the woman who lives with her husband and children and his parents and has a secret female lover, on the other.


As Altman says, 'we are speaking here of gradations, not absolute differences, and the growing affluence of many "developing" countries means possibilities for more people to live away from their families'. But the economic crisis since 1997 puts a limit on these possibilities for the great majority in Asia, as Altman himself acknowledges at the end of his article. The levels of prosperity in East and Southeast Asia until 1997 were exceptional by Third World standards anyway. The objective difficulties of separating from family and community will thus probably continue to make it necessary for most LGBT people in the Third World to develop identities that are multiple and nuanced rather than categorical and all-embracing.




[1] Gloria Wekker, '"What's identity got to do with it?": rethinking identity in light of the mati work in Suriname', in Evelyn Blackwood & Saskia E. Wieringa eds., Female Desires: Same-Sex Relations and Transgender Practices across Cultures, New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1999, p. 132.

[2] Wekker, '"What's identity got to do with it?"', p. 132.

[3] Wekker, '"What's identity got to do with it?"', p. 131.

[4] 'Een krachtig dubbelleven', Grenzeloos (Amsterdam) no. 18 (16 June 1994).

[5] Marc Epprecht, 'Outing the gay debate', Southern Africa Report (July 1996), p. 15.

[6] Dédé Oetomo (interviewed by Jill Hickson), 'The struggle for lesbian and gay rights', Green Left Weekly no. 351 (3 Mar. 1999).