From Peter Drucker ed., Different Rainbows:
Same-Sex Sexualities and Popular Movements in the Third World (London:
Reinventing liberation: Strategic questions for
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'. 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'. 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"'. 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. 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
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.
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'. 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
 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.
 Wekker, '"What's identity got to do with it?"', p. 132.
 Wekker, '"What's identity got to do with it?"', p. 131.
 'Een krachtig dubbelleven', Grenzeloos (Amsterdam) no. 18 (16 June 1994).
 Marc Epprecht, 'Outing the gay debate', Southern Africa Report (July 1996), p. 15.
 Dédé Oetomo (interviewed by Jill Hickson), 'The struggle for lesbian and gay rights', Green Left Weekly no. 351 (3 Mar. 1999).