What We Talked About At ISA: Researching Sexuality in ‘Difficult’ Contexts

In September 2009, Ugandan Parliamentarian David Bahati introduced a draft ‘Anti Homosexuality Bill’ that proposed enhancing existing punishments for homosexual conduct in the Ugandan Penal Code, introducing new ‘related offences’ including ‘aiding and abetting’ homosexuality, ‘conspiracy to engage’ in homosexuality, the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, or ‘failure to disclose the offence’ of homosexuality to authorities within 24 hours, and mandating the death penalty for a select class of offences categorized as ‘aggravated homosexuality’. The bill remained bottled up in parliamentary committees for the duration of the 8th Parliament, thanks in large part to a sophisticated local campaign that sought to bring international pressure to bear on the government of President Yoweri Museveni, but has since been reintroduced in the current 9th Parliament and therefore remains a live concern. In August 2010, I travelled to Uganda to interview a range of actors associated with ongoing debates over sexuality in the country. Rather than commenting on the urgent and pressing substantive concerns at issue in these debates, at an ISA panel entitled ‘Researching sexuality in difficult contexts’, I chose to reflect on some of the methodological dilemmas I encountered in the field, for which my training in international relations had left me unprepared. Emboldened by recent ISA panels on storytelling and auto-ethnography (and utterly bored by what passes for mainstream IR), these reflections take the form of excerpts from my diary (italicized), interspersed with the more censorious, academic voice that I trotted out at ISA. (I make no apology for not writing about the more ‘serious’ issues at stake—on this occasion—because it occurs to me that where sexuality is concerned, the pursuit of fun can raise deadly serious questions, making distinctions between the trivial and the serious difficult to sustain.)

Uganda, August 2010: I am here to do interviews and I spend most of my day setting them up, preparing for them, travelling to or from them, or conducting them. The rest of the time I hang out, people watch, trying to piece together a picture of how life outside heteronormativity survives in a climate that seems—on the surface at least—as inhospitable as Uganda is supposed to be. On Friday, Al (name changed, and this account provided with permission) invited me to a strip-tease. This was going to be a straight strip-tease, but one that some of the gay men went to so that they could watch the straight men getting off on watching the women strip. It sounded convoluted, but unmissable. Plus, I’d never been to a straight strip-tease, so it seemed important to plug this gaping orifice in my sexual history. We entered a dimly lit hall and took seats at the back in a group near the bar. I think I was the only brown man there. There was also one white man in the whole place, in our group. He had evidently been to the place before, and because he came with the same motivations as Al, he had been traumatized on a previous occasion by the way the women flocked to him (money?). So Al was instructed to tell the emcee (a short guy dressed in a white track suit) to make sure that the women didn’t come to our corner. The real attraction, from the point of view of the gay guys, was that the women sometimes got the straight guys to get on stage and strip. Al told the emcee to do his best to encourage this possibility. Call it Straight Guy for the Queer Eye. I was impressed by the brazenness with which Al communicated all this to the emcee. As for the show, let’s just say it took the ‘tease’ out of strip-tease. The first woman (girl? all the performers looked like they were in their 30s, but they could have been younger and prematurely aged by their work) danced to some vaguely familiar Western pop number. She was followed by another woman with bigger hips. Somebody in the group, setting himself up as my informant, tells me that she is ‘a real African woman’. She danced to Shania Twain’s ‘From this Moment On’ (a song I played to my last (and final, I think) girlfriend on the first day I met her, after a year-long correspondence). Just when Shania reached the second verse, the woman dropped her panties. None of the performers took off their bras. ‘African men aren’t interested in breasts’, my self-appointed informant intones. The next half-hour is a blur of female anatomy. So here I am, in a country that people have been calling ‘conservative’ and that American evangelist Rick Warren has decided is ripe for transformation into the world’s first ‘purpose driven’ nation, looking at more naked women in ten minutes than I have seen in ten years, to the soundtrack of my failed romantic history.

In an article entitled ‘On Representational Paralysis, Or, Why I don’t Want to Write About Temporary Marriage’, Lara Deeb reflects on her reluctance to write about the phenomenon of temporary marriage among the Shia community in Lebanon—a practice that allows for (often) undocumented marriages between a man and a woman for a specified time period. While Deeb understands the phenomenon as an attempt by a new generation of young people to find ways to live moral lives while also dating, she laments the proliferation of literature on the subject that purports to explain it in more sensationalist terms as a form of religiously legitimated sex-work and, even more cynically in a transparent attempt to discredit Hizbullah, as a device by which militant Islamists recruit soldiers to their cause. While insisting that there are good reasons to write about temporary marriage in Beirut—its potential to deconstruct received ideas about sexuality, its illustration of contemporary youth-driven social change, its usefulness in undermining the ‘otherness’ of Lebanese youth in the eyes of US undergraduate students who come to see the former as wanting to date ‘just like us’, etc.—Deeb’s reluctance to contribute to the burgeoning literature that sensationalizes Islam and Shi’i Islam in particular eventually wins out, perpetuating the representational paralysis of which she writes so eloquently.

I feel an analogous paralysis in writing about sexualities in Uganda. Like Deeb, I think there are good reasons to want to represent Ugandan sexualities in all their variety, complexity and possibility. Contemporary Western representations of sexuality in Uganda portray a scene of utter abjection out of a purported solidarity with queer Ugandan subjects. Exhibit 1: the BBC3 ‘documentary’ made by British DJ Scott Mills, describing Uganda as the ‘World’s Worst Place to be Gay’—a claim that is fairly typical of this genre of reportage which presents the country as a sort of gay heart of darkness (it helps that Uganda is geographically contiguous with that original heart of darkness). Given this representational landscape, it seems important to say that subaltern sexualities exist and thrive despite the odds, to recognize the agency of queer subjects who have created a ‘scene’ for themselves—albeit one that might be utterly unrecognizable to a foreign visitor—out of the scraps offered them by an otherwise heterosexist landscape. Indeed the genius of their strategy is that the production of this scene does not rely on the creation of segregated queer-identified space (although that too has been done, with mixed results).

Yet a host of countervailing considerations militate against the representation of subaltern sexualities, inviting the very paralysis of which Deeb writes so insightfully. First, what are the consequences of representation? Subaltern studies scholars have yet to confront adequately an ethical dilemma that sits at the heart of their enterprise. If subaltern agency and transgression relies for its success on quietness, what does the scholar’s explication of these modes of agency do to their very conditions of possibility? Might not writing about spaces of (hidden) pleasure bring them to the attention of hostile authorities who would then be able to shut them down? One can be scrupulous about how one does this (no names, no places, full consent) and still generate unintentional consequences. Nor are ‘hostile authorities’ limited to those in Uganda. Were a UK asylum judge to read this account, might s/he conclude that since spaces of sexual entertainment—however circumscribed and dangerous—exist in Uganda, applicants for asylum from persecution on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity could reasonably be returned to the country notwithstanding claims about the difficulties of living there as an ‘out’ queer person. Demands for ‘expert’ evidence about countries of origin in asylum claims themselves pose tremendous representational difficulties: discharging one’s duty to the court by representing the country honestly in all its variegated complexity, risks legitimating the perpetuation of receiving countries’ refusal of asylum in the vast majority of cases.

Second, who is being represented and, more specifically, being represented as ‘subaltern’? To represent a sex show as a space of play and a space of emancipatory play at that is troublingly incomplete, seeing as the pleasure of some is clearly premised on the labour of others. (This is not to preclude the possibility that sex work can be emancipatory for those engaged in it, but one would need to know a great deal more about the conditions and terms of work to conclude this). For a brief instant, it seemed to me that the gay men in the room—however vulnerable in so many dimensions of their lives—were participants in, and co-producers of, a male gaze, in which the women on stage were a means to the end of their sexual gratification (no subaltern alliances here). Watching Ugandan women taking their clothes off for an audience of (mostly) straight men infiltrated by a few intrepid gay men, it occurred to me that scholars of subaltern studies ought to cease using the term ‘subaltern’ in its stable noun form. There are no subalterns. There is only the condition of subalternity – a contextual and relational condition that must always prompt the question ‘subaltern in relation to whom or what?’

Third, and possibly most troubling for me, who is doing the representing and why? Doing fieldwork brought on a certain degree of what I can only describe as identity confusion. For one thing, the superficial familiarity of my surroundings (despite this being my first trip to Uganda) seemed to interpellate my Indianness—the same Corbusier-inspired government buildings, the same way of painting curb stones, the same sorts of motorbikes, the same trees planted in road dividers (gulmohars—but also acacias, jacarandas, bougainvillea, casuarina), the same businesses (Bata! Bank of Baroda!), the same vocabulary (‘load shedding’—scheduled electricity power cuts, for those of you with minds in the sewer). When talking to activists, it made more sense to me to present myself as an activist from India, able to share experiences of a queer movement in another British colony that was also struggling to overthrow laws criminalizing homosexuality that were a legacy of colonial rule. (On what it might mean to be both queer and Indian in Uganda, 40 years after Idi Amin’s expulsion of Ugandan Asians, I cannot pretend to have any idea: I met no one who could speak to this.) Yet however I presented myself in the field, I was clearly received as a researcher based in a First World institution—which indeed I am. In the space between these two positionalities, multiple anxieties.

For a whole host of reasons, many of which can be grouped under the sign of ’empire’, it is difficult to study the global South from other locations in the global South. Notwithstanding talk of shifting, emerging and rising power, the means of production of knowledge about the global South continue to remain located disproportionately in the North. To sketch the problem in very crude brush strokes, libraries, funding, flight paths continue to reflect a colonial political economy, the structures of which left colonies more integrated with, dependent upon, and interested in, the metropoli than each other. Recent developments in regional integration have only just begun to alleviate some of these problems. These structural factors—alongside more frankly self-interested motivations—underpin the migration of scholars from the global South to the North, even if they remain interested in studying the South. Edward Said called this ‘the voyage in’ and celebrated the contrapuntal double vision that a migrant, exilic perspective could afford. Homi Bhabha has written about the productive potentials of hybrid third spaces in which new cultural production takes place. But what if the liminal space is a dangerous one—from the point of view of producing progressive scholarship—threatening both the loss of Third World positionality as a result of immersion in the protocols of First World Knowledge, and the acquisition of First World imperial baggage by the migrant scholar of colour? Could I write about what I was finding without reproducing the prurient, imperial gaze of a Richard Burton describing the ‘sotadic zone’? What distinguishes—and what connects—my description of a sex show in Uganda in 2010 to the display of Saarrtje Baartman‘s genitalia in London in 1810? Why do people based in the First World continue to be interested in Third World sexualities? (It does not help that I work for an institution called the School of Oriental & African Studies that takes for its motto the aphorism ‘knowledge is power’—think Lord Curzon (to rule them you have to know them) rather than Foucault.) Surely the colour of my skin (or my passport) cannot rescue me from these complicities; indeed, there is something especially disturbing about the internalization of the colonial ethnographic gaze by the person of colour.

Many analysts view the infamous Anti Homosexuality Bill as the product of a growing nexus between US evangelicals and African clergy. Miranda Hassett has shown how, as conservatives in the US increasingly feel that they are losing the ‘culture wars’ on their home turf, they have begun to forge alliances with what they perceive to be the more conservative national branches of their denominations (in countries like Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Nigeria) with a view to forging global conservative alliances that can block progressive initiatives such as demands for the ordination of women as bishops or the blessing of same-sex unions. The Zambian priest Kapya Kaoma has shown in almost forensic detail how these relationships culminated in the Bahati Bill.

I wanted to attend church services to get a sense of different liturgical and worship styles as a way into thinking about tensions between high church and evangelical strands of Christianity that show up quite clearly in discussions about sexuality. I wandered around the great brick edifice of the Anglican Cathedral at Namirembe, perched high up on a hill with an expansive view of the city around it. The cathedral is beautiful and very simple: plain brick (a small historical display near the entrance tells the story of previous structures made of mud and thatch that were destroyed by wind, termites and fire), high vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows depicting the coming of Christianity to Africa and the translation of the Bible into Luganda. There are a bunch of SUVs—even a police car—parked near the entrance. The Primates of the African provinces of the Anglican Communion are meeting in nearby Entebbe. Rowan Williams has flown in to meet with them and, if the news reports are anything to go by, is being told in no uncertain terms that his liberal views on sexuality are anathema to the African churches. As I walked past one of the many smaller structures surrounding the cathedral, I heard a gospel choir rehearse an arrangement of ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’ that I had never heard before: familiar and utterly unfamiliar at the same time. It occurred to me that the Communion could be a beautiful thing, if only it could get its act together: a model for the secular world of unity in diversity, even if that unity was itself originally forged in imperial embrace. A flashback: to my childhood in a school in Bangalore run by the Church of South India, a postcolonial successor to the C of E in India. Dressed in cassock and surplice, six years as an agnostic Hindu choirboy have steeped me in the liturgy of this strange institution that is not quite mine. I remember the tensions, snarky comments and sometimes open warfare between the conductor, organist and pianist over what we would sing: high church baroque versus the more pop music-influenced tunes that guitar-wielding American-accented ‘Bible uncles’ were being trucked in to play for us during school hours. As a ten year old growing up in not-yet-booming Bangalore, I had already been exposed to the rifts that now threaten to tear the Anglican Communion apart. This is why when I ran into Grace (an old lady, not the Holy Spirit) who asked me sternly ‘Are you an Anglican?’, I mumbled hastily ‘I went to an Anglican school.’ ‘Come to the church this weekend and we can baptise you.’ Erm…here’s to chucking the observation out of participant-observation?


2 thoughts on “What We Talked About At ISA: Researching Sexuality in ‘Difficult’ Contexts

  1. Pingback: SOAS Politics | What We Talked About At ISA: Researching Sexuality in ‘Difficult’ Contexts

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