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.

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Dalston: A Worm’s Eye View

(…cheers…) Please welcome, in your traditional way, the latest in the expanding list of Disorder-ed contributors. Rahul Rao, currently Lecturer in International Security at SOAS, author most recently of the fascinating Third World Protest: Between Home and the World, as well as a number of articles on cosmopolitanism, world order and empire. He is currently working on projects aimed at provincialising Westphalia and introducing queer theory to IR.


There is a great deal that I don’t understand about the world, but I do know a little about that part of it where the Kingsland Road becomes Stoke Newington Road (London N16/E8, if that’s how you work). As the dust clears from what BBC Panorama recently called The August Riots – as if to distinguish them from those to come in September, October, November and December – it is difficult to walk around without wondering whether everyone is judging everyone else on the basis of age, race, class and sartorial preference. Multiculturalism in Dalston can sometimes feel like a polite version of separate-but-equal with the hipsters (mostly white, but equal opportunity for those with the right facial hair, skinny jeans, loafers with no socks, university education, fixie bikes and Apple accoutrements) patronising hipster cafés, the Turks hanging out in members-only social clubs, the Caribbeans in venues such as Open the Gate. Everyone goes to the Turkish restaurants, but gastronomy has always been the least challenging site for racial mixing. As gentrification has proceeded apace – a phenomenon driven by middle class professionals like myself – I cannot help but notice that Dalston Superstore is always full and the Caribbean restaurant in Centerprise (East London’s oldest and most famous black bookshop) often empty. (Oddly, the spell check on this blog thinks that the word ‘gentrifying’ does not exist and suggests replacing it with ‘petrifying’. There might be something to that.)

On August 8 when the riots reached Hackney, Dalston hit the headlines as the place where the riots caused little damage, its Turkish and Kurdish business owners much feted for their role in beating back the rioters. I have to confess to an immediate reaction (always a betrayal of one’s class identification) of gratitude to a local community of people who trusted and knew each other well enough to work together at a moment’s notice – a community to which I do not belong, but on whose efforts I was able to free-ride (like Zoe Williams, I watched these events on a live feed, it never having occurred to me that I could have gone on to my high street to defend anything). In the cold light of dawn, second thoughts: when the facade of the Leviathan had cracked, security had become a function of ethnic solidarity. Welcome to Sarajevo.

The reaction of the local business owners in Dalston poses two questions. Continue reading