Queer Diaspora

Anne-Marie Fortier. Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Editor: Diane Richardson & Steven Seidman. 2002. Sage Publication.

Recent developments in ‘queer’ and ‘diaspora’ theories have attended to the complexities of ‘postmodern’ and post-colonial forms of belonging through their interventions on issues of time, space, identity, and embodiment. More specifically, queer and diaspora are used to host a decisive change of orientation away from primordial identities established alternatively by either nature or culture. By embracing queer and/or diaspora, theories of identity turn instead toward contingency, indeterminacy, power, and conflict.

This chapter examines the intersections of theoretical discourses of diaspora with those of queer, in what has been termed ‘queer diasporas’ (see also Mort, 1994; Watney, 1995; Gopinath, 1996; Cant, 1997; Eng, 1997; Patton and Sánchez-Eppler, 2000; Sinfield, 2000). A central aim is to examine the implications of presuming a diasporic queer subject. What does it mean to project queer sexualities within a diasporic framework?

Diaspora has been taken up by gay, lesbian and queer theorists in two ways. The first usage refers to the creation of queer spaces within ethnically defined diasporas (Mason-John and Khambatta, 1993; Ratti, 1994; Gopinath, 1996; Leong, 1996; Takagi, 1996; Tamburri, 1996; Eng, 1997; Eng and Hom, 1998). In the narrowest sense, ‘queering the diaspora’ (Puar, 1998), in this collection of work, forces a reconsideration of the heterosexist norms supporting definitions of ethnic diasporas. In the broadest sense, it argues for a critical methodology for evaluating ethnic-diasporic formations across multiple axes of difference and in their numerous local and global manifestation (Eng, 1997: 39). The term queer is expanded, in this latter case, to define itself ‘against the normal rather than [merely] the heterosexual’ (Warner, in Eng, 1997: 50, n35).

Although I will briefly discuss, below, the implications of defining queer against normality, or as strange, the main focus of this chapter is on the second usage of ‘queer diaspora’ that has surfaced in the context of the transnationalization of gay and lesbian identity politics: ‘diasporizing the queer’ (Puar, 1998). In this context, ‘queer diaspora’ refers to the transnational and multicultural network of connections of queer cultures and ‘communities.’ What interests me here is the way in which diaspora is put to work, the way it is mobilized in the definition of a transnational queer culture and ‘community.’ What is it about ‘diaspora’ that appeals to queer theorists? What kinds of imaginings does ‘queer diaspora’ foster? What kinds of spatio-temporal horizons does diaspora sustain when conjugated with ‘queer’?

I begin with a short definition of ‘diaspora’ in critical cultural theory, followed by a close reading of selected texts that suggest a ‘diasporic turn’ in queer theory. A central aim of this chapter is to examine the sort of claims being made in support of the conjugation of queerness and diaspora. In other words, I critically assess how ‘diaspora’ has been taken up and put to work together with ‘queer’ in the formation of an imagined diasporic queer community and culture. In sum, this chapter is an inquisitive rather than a summative piece: I invite readers to reflect upon the claims made in the name of a ‘queer diaspora,’ and to identify issues and questions that are raised by these claims.

The Renewed Currency of Diaspora

Theoretical discourses about diaspora have noticeably proliferated in recent years, namely, within anti-absolutist critiques of identity formation that attempt to account for the complexities of culture in a transnational, postmodern, postcolonial world (Hall, 1988, 1990; Gilroy, 1993a, 2000; Clifford, 1994; Dhaliwal, 1994; Brah, 1996; Radhakrishnan, 1996; Fortier, 2000). Once used to describe exiled and forced dispersal of Jews or Armenians, ‘diaspora’ is now widely used to describe transnational networks of immigrants, refugees, guest-workers, and so on. Deployed from a transnational and intercultural perspective in opposition to ethnically absolute approaches to migration, the term converses with other terms such as border, transculturation, travel, creolization, mestizaje, hybridity (Clifford, 1994; Gilroy, 1994).

When thinking of diaspora, we must bear in mind that the present circulation of the term in cultural theory derives from the historically specific experience of the ‘black Atlantic’ (Gilroy, 1993a) and of anti-Zionist critiques of the return to Israel (Marienstras, 1975, 1989; Boyarin and Boyarin, 1993). In the work of Paul Gilroy on black responses to modernity, the themes of suffering, tradition, spatiality, temporality and the social organization of memory have a special significance resulting from their association with ideas of dispersal, exile and slavery (Gilroy, 1993a: 205; Gilroy, 2000).

Diaspora is not about travel or nomadism. Central to its definition are ‘push factors,’ that is, forced migration or displacement (Clifford, 1994; Gilroy, 1994: 207). Slavery, pogroms, genocide, famine, political persecutions and wars may be sources of the dispersal of populations. Paired with the emphasis on push factors is the stress on conditions of settlement within countries of immigration, which involve the rearticulation of multiple locations, temporalities and identifications in the effort to create new terrains of belonging within the place of migration. As James Clifford writes: ‘the term diaspora is a signifier, not simply of transnationality and movement, but of political struggles to define the local, as distinctive of community, in historical contexts of displacement’ (1994: 306; italics in original).

Diaspora constitutes a rich heuristic device to think about questions of belonging, continuity, and solidarity in the context of dispersal and transnational networks of connection. Defined as decidedly anti-nationalist within critical cultural theory, it has been widely argued that the presence and experiences of diasporic subjects puts any normative notion of culture, identity, and citizenship in question by their very location outside of the time-space of the nation. As Paul Gilroy writes, diaspora is a distinctly ‘outer-national term which contributes to the analysis of intercultural and transcultural processes and forms. It identifies a relational network characteristically produced through forced dispersal and reluctant scattering’ (2000: 123).

More broadly, diaspora has become an emblem of multi-locality, ‘post-nationality,’ and non-linearity of both movement and time. Questions of what it means to speak of home, community, identity, tradition and belonging have been reassessed in the context of the ‘age of migration,’ that is, the global circulation of culture, capital, and people. Notions of diaspora, transnationalism, bordercultures, migrancy, nomadism and homelessness push against the limits of established definitions of nation, community, and tradition. In this context, the renewed currency of theoretical discourses of ‘diaspora,’ with their focus on displacement and transnational networks of connections, inserts itself within a wider shift of focus within contemporary Euro-American social sciences, where the spatial takes precedence over the temporal in understanding social change. In sum, diaspora now signifies a site where ‘new geographies of identity’ (Lavie and Swedenburg, 1996) are negotiated across multiple terrains of belonging, producing what Avtar Brah (1996: 209) calls a ‘diaspora space,’ located between ‘the global’ and ‘the local.’

In the pages that follow, I examine the terms in which a common ground is established between queer and diaspora. Two themes emerge and are discussed in the first two sections, respectively: scattering and diversity, on the one hand, and exile and home, on the other. Running through this thematic structure is a concern about the tendency to ontologize diasporic subjects as emblems of dispersal and fragmentation. In other words, I am primarily interested in the way diaspora is construed as the basis of new cultural forms and identity formation that are conceived as inevitable outcomes of dispersal. Reading Frank Mort’s words about a ‘well-established homosexual diaspora’ (1994: 202), and Alan Sinfield’s response ‘we know what he means’ (2000: 103), I am intrigued by the kind of imaginary mapping conjured up by ‘diaspora.’ Without denying that there exists a ‘productive exchange of information and enthusiasms’ between British, American and Canadian activists and intellectuals (Mort, 1994: 202), I am interested in the shift away from viewing this as a transnational network of ‘a specific group of actors’ (ibid.; emphasis added) to seeing this as a symptom of a ‘well-established diaspora.’ As I state earlier, what interests me here is the emergence of a diasporic imagination in queer studies.

Diasporizing the Queer I: Scattering and Diversity

Scattering, diversity and relational networks of multi-local connections are largely what inspired some queer theorists and activists to find in diaspora a useful alternative to earlier considerations of gay/lesbian community and identity politics based on the ethnicity model. Inviting their readers to consider the diasporic character of gay and lesbian communities dispersed world-wide, they seek to reveal the limits of cultural nationalisms, while finding, in diaspora, a useful heuristic device to think about the transnational character of gay/lesbian politics and culture (Walker, 1995; Watney, 1995; Gopinath, 1996), illuminate the ‘complex nature of queerness in the postmodern world’ (Patton and Sánchez-Eppler, 2000), or (re)think the problematic of home (Eng, 1997: 31). Overall, texts on queer diasporas move into a new spatialization of queer belongings, one which claims to recognize and problematize difference within unity (Gopinath, 1996; Puar, 1998).

In an article on the international implications of gay and lesbian politics in Europe and the USA, UK activist and writer Simon Watney finds the metaphor of diaspora:

seductively convenient to contemporary queer politics. Unlike the tendency of seventies and eighties lesbian and gay theory to develop overly monolithic notions of identity and cultural politics, the concept of diaspora is suggestive of diversification, of scattering, fracturing, separate developments, and also, perhaps, of a certain glamor. It also suggests something of a sense of collective interest, however difficult this may be to pin down. It implies a complex divided constituency, with varying degrees of power and powerlessness. (1995: 59)

A recurring tension surfaces in reflections on queer diaspora, between the political imperative for transnational solidarity in the face of the violences experienced by queers world-wide, and the need to recognize that ‘same-sex eroticism exists and signifies very differently in different … contexts’ (Gopinath, 1996: 123). Local struggles are also determined by locally specific forms of legal, political, religious and moral discursive formations. Moreover, ‘queer’ subjects themselves are multiple and diverse in all contexts, by virtue of their gender, class, ethnic, generational positions.

For example, Watney’s main concern is for the political imperative to recognize the specificity of national struggles and issues in gay and lesbian politics, while identifying the transnational relational network that connects the dispersed queer political ‘communities’ within an ‘imaginary unification’ (1995: 60). Likewise, Frank Mort speaks of a ‘well-established homosexual diaspora, crossing nation states and linking individuals and social constituencies, especially in the Western metropolitan centres,’ while he insists on recognizing the influence and significance of locally specific struggles and identity practices within the transnational network (1994: 202-3).

Encoding transnational queer culture and politics as diasporic may be read as a gesture that further emphasizes the new spatio-temporal horizon of queer consciousness in the postmodern ‘global’ world. One which is located between the constraining ‘local’/ national, and the immodest pretensions of the ‘global,’ but where both are reconfigured within an entangled web of connections. The question that arises is, how are ‘the global’ and ‘the local’ reconfigured? How are differences (local, cultural, national specificity) marked and recirculated into a new collectivity, a new ‘we’ cast within a diasporic unity?

Gayatri Gopinath alerts us to the ‘dangers involved in framing queer sexuality diasporically’ (1996: 123). Dangers that result from neo-colonial relations between ‘the West’ and ‘the Rest’ within the ‘queer diaspora.’ This may take on different forms, such as assumptions of the relative passivity of the non-Euro-American ‘other,’ whose encounters with queer culture and politics are ‘read solely as mimicry’ (ibid.: 124). A number of authors have critically assessed the cultural imperialist thesis of globalization in relation to queer culture and politics. If the influence of Euro-American discourses of gay/lesbian or queer cultures is powerful, they argue, local national responses to the globalization of queer culture are far from passive and are utterly diverse and creative (Altman, 1996, 1997, and in this volume; Morris, 1997; Manalansan, 1993, 1995).

This relates to the question: ‘Whose queerness?,’ which Gopinath asks in view of highlighting the Euro-American centricity in definitions of what queer sexuality and queer culture consist of. One of the two examples of the diasporization of queer culture that Watney identifies, for instance, is the circulation of ‘our queer cultural divinities’—including ‘Divine, John Waters, Derek Jarman, Pasolini, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Townshend Warner, Morrisey, Frank O’Hare, k.d. lang’ (1995: 65)—leading him to proclaim ‘We have our own queer canon, and it is nothing if not diasporic’ (ibid.). This proclamation immediately confines and defines the queer canon within Euro-American culture, whilst its diasporic character is founded on the multi-local ‘origins’ of its key protagonists.

A corollary question thus surfaces: whose diaspora? If diaspora signifies dispersal – hence movement and displacement—and diversity—founded on ideas of difference – who, then, are the moving and diverse subjects? A close reading of Watney’s text is telling in this respect.

Watney’s idea that diaspora evokes a ‘certain glamor’ is indicative of the tendency to use it merely as a voguish synonym of wandering and travel. The second, and seemingly closest, example he finds to a queer diasporic experience is:

our direct experience of overseas travel, as well as of queer culture and its constitutive role in our personal lives. Few heterosexuals can imagine the sense of relief and safety which a gay man or lesbian finds in a gay bar or a dyke bar in a strange city in a foreign country. Even if one cannot speak the local language, we feel a sense of identification. Besides, we generally like meeting one another, learning about what is happening to people ‘like us’ from other parts of the world. (Watney, 1995: 61)

Watney’s statement suggests that overseas travel is shared by ‘us’ universally. Obscuring racial, ethnic, class, and gender-based power relations that exist within the unifying ‘us,’ Watney deploys diaspora as an emblem of undifferentiated mobility, not only presumed accessible to all, but presumed experienced by all. The experience of travel Watney is alluding to is most often than not founded on privilege and, for white Euro-American males, freedom of movement. Watney’s traveling subject is disembodied: this body is invisible, unmarked, unquestioned, unchallenged. Yet as Jasbir Puar eloquently argues in her account of her travels, not all bodies move freely through borders. Her traveling body was also a body that was ‘traveled upon’: marked and read as threatening, inferior, undesirable other, ‘some bodies must always negotiate the discursive structures that render [them] Other’ (1994: 93).

The notion of bodies being traveled upon also suggests the ways in which the movement of some takes place through the fixing of others (Ahmed, 2002). Watney’s travels towards other men ‘like him’ suggests that they must stay in place if their difference is to be apprehended and recirculated within the new diasporic horizon to create ‘further diasporic diversity’ (1995: 64). His own notion of diaspora is premised upon a pleasureseeking idea of traveling and cross-cultural encounter that hides the power relations constitutive of the very conditions surrounding his movements: the ‘exploitative nature of, sexual exchange behind, and economic motivations of interactions between those who travel and those who are traveled upon’ (Puar, 1994: 91). His narrative involves ‘modes of encounter that suggest the proximity of [gay men and lesbians] in different spaces within a globalized economy of difference. But being “in it” clearly does not mean we are “in it” in the same way.’(Ahmed, 2000: 171; emphasis added).

My point here is not to probe the motivations and practices of Watney-the-traveler himself, but it is to question the effects of exemplifying a queer diaspora through travel. Who travels and who stays put? What is the relationship between them? How are those who stay put included into the folds of diasporic unity? To put it simply, what is the status of these subjects within the wider diasporic picture?

In Watney’s text, the cultural complexity of a global gay culture is marked by local specificities located in the ‘Orient,’ and which are then recast in an exercise of diasporic diversification:

Moreover, local responses to the injustices surrounding most aspects of the [AIDS] epidemic are already bringing into being new, articulate groupings of men in countries such as India and the Philippines, where homosexual acts were not related to notions of identity before the epidemic. This will lead to still further diasporic diversity. For example, it is clear that there is no single answer to such questions as how one thinks of oneself if one is Indian, British, and gay. One man will identify as a black man, another as a gay Asian, and a third may reject the validity of the category gay altogether. There can be no easy resolution to such issues, nor is resolution required. On the contrary, it is the conflict between a gay political imperative to think of its constituency as unified and homogeneous, and the actual constantly changing complexity of gay culture as it is lived, that stimulates most of our greatest challenges today. (1995: 64)

In an interesting connection of global and local spheres, the gay diasporic constituency is signified by marking and locating ‘diversity’ and ‘complexity’ in the non-Western world and on non-white bodies. In addition, the use of the figure of the Indian British gay man as an emblem of the potential tensions and impossible resolutions that such diversification may ensue represents the challenges facing ‘us’ today. In contrast to the disembodied, unmarked traveling diasporic queer, diasporic diversity is marked on the Asian (British) male body, who becomes at once the origin of difference and a potential threat to unity.

Watney’s encounters with ‘people “like us” from other parts of the world’ involve both differentiation and homogenization in the very production of the signifier ‘queer diaspora.’ He speaks of a universal diasporic ‘we’ by translating how ‘they’ live and struggle within communities, families, nations, and so on, into a ‘we’ that speaks (Ahmed, 2000: 173). Hence the formation of queers as diasporic agents ‘involves a universalism predicated on a prior act of differentiation’ (ibid).

The idea of a queer diaspora speaks of the fantasy of getting closer to the Other, but this is a fantasy that also elicits some tensions about the difficulties of imagining a ‘unified and homogeneous’ constituency without addressing the power structures that invariably operate within the ‘community.’ ‘Queer diaspora’ is put to work here as an image that is possible by concealing the relations of inequality and power that are an inherent part of it. Watney’s ‘our’ reinstates the distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’ within his diasporic imagination, where differences remain fixed into place and simply add on to each other within the gradual diversification of diaspora. The constituency here is far from homogeneous; and perhaps the problem lies in this very conception of community as being based on commonality wrapped in the veneer of equality. While I support the political project of unifying against sexual oppression of all forms, the conceptual underpinnings of this project need to be interrogated since they impact on the politics of ‘community’ itself. I shall return to this point in the concluding section.

Diasporizing the Queer II: Exile and Home

Although traumatic displacement is a distinctive feature of diasporic dispersal, reducing diaspora to forced dispersal holds the potential problem of assuming the primacy of an original placement. In other words, by establishing the defining moment of diaspora solely in its inception—the traumatic uprooting from geographically located origins—it is easy to reduce diaspora to its connection with a clearly bounded timespace: the ‘homeland.’ Indeed, relations with the homeland are, for many social theorists, crucial in ascertaining diasporas and diasporic subjects (Conner, 1986; Safran, 1991; Tölölyan, 1996; Cohen, 1997). Consequently, such accounts risk engulfing diasporic populations into culturally unified groupings by virtue of their presumed ‘common origin’ and shared commitment to the homeland. These texts follow ‘the familiar unidirectional idea of diaspora as a form of catastrophic but simple dispersal that enjoys an identifiable and reversible originary moment—the site of trauma’ (Gilroy, 2000: 128).

Several queer theorists, seemingly aware of the limitations of such a reductionist view, dissociate ‘origins’ with the idea of a single, unitary cultural-geographical space in their version of ‘queer diaspora.’ Although some, like Michael Warner, dismiss the idea of a queer diaspora precisely because there is ‘no locale from which to wander’ (1993: xvii)—thus sustaining the foundational status of the homeland—others establish a connection between queer, diaspora, and exile, secured through the shared experience of forced movement away from an original home that does not occupy the same definitional status. For some, ‘queer diaspora’ rests on claims about the condition of exile and estrangement experienced by queer subjects, which locates them outside of the confines of ‘home’: the heterosexual family, the nation, the homeland. In this section, I explore the connection between moving out and coming out within the narrative of migration-as-emancipation that characterizes much of the discourse on queer migrations.

Described as a ‘traumatic displacement from the lost heterosexual “origin”’ by David Eng (1997: 32), queer migrations are conceived, by others, as a movement towards another site to be called ‘home.’ Thus Alan Sinfield writes:

Indeed, while ethnicity is transmitted usually through family and lineage, most of us are born and/or socialized into (presumably) heterosexual families. We have to move away from them, at least to some degree; and into, if we are lucky, the culture of a minority community. ‘Home is the place you get to, not the place you came from,’ it says at the end of Paul Monette’s novel, Half-Way Home. In fact, for lesbians and gay men the diasporic sense of separation and loss, so far from affording a principle of coherence for our subcultures, may actually attach to aspects of the (heterosexual) culture of our childhood, where we are no longer ‘at home.’ Instead of dispersing, we assemble. (2000: 103; italics in original)

The heterosexual family is posited as the originary site of trauma. This is evocatively expressed by Sinfield, who draws attention to how the ‘diasporic sense of separation and loss’ experienced by gay men and lesbians results from being cut off from the heterosexual culture of their childhood, which becomes the site of impossible return, the site of impossible memories. ‘Everybody else had a childhood,’ writes Paul Monette about the imposed silence on young lesbians and gay men’s growing-up stories (in Cant, 1997: 6). But the interesting twist to the narrative of the exile is that queers constitute a different diaspora because the originary site of trauma is not the basis of coherence. In a noteworthy reversal, ‘home,’ here, is not an origin, but rather a destination; there is no return, only arrival. And it is an arrival that is always deferred. The queer diasporic journey is one of ‘envisioning ourselves beyond the framework of normative heterosexism,’ but gay men and lesbians are ‘stuck at the moment of emergence. For coming out is not once-and-for-all’ (Sinfield, 2000: 103). Sinfield’s suggestion of home as always in the making, endlessly deferred, hints at a radical discomfiture of the idea of ‘home’ as a space of coherence and continuity, also found in utopian visions of diaspora as radically anti-nationalist (Gilroy, 2000).

To be sure, both queer and diaspora compel us to re-think the problematic of home. ‘[S]uspended between an ‘in’ and an ‘out’ …—between origin and destination, and between private and public—queer [and diasporic] entitlements to home and a nation-state remain doubtful’ (Eng, 1997: 32). The notion of ‘diaspora’ opens up ‘a historical and experiential rift between the locations of residence and the locations of belonging’ (Gilroy, 2000: 124). This ‘in-betweenness’ is conceived as a constitutive feature of diaspora identity (Clifford, 1994; Brah, 1996). However, exclusively defined in spatial terms, diasporic in-betweenness comes to a halt when it comes to gender and sexual identities. In this respect, ‘queer’ expands the idea of in-betweenness to include sexualities located between the polarized heterosexual/homosexual.

Hence the conjugation of queer with diaspora potentially produces a wedge between fixed gender roles and sexualities and brings to the fore the question of the reproductive moment of diaspora. When conjugated with ‘queer,’ the anti-nationalist proclivities of diaspora are amplified through the narrative of migration as homecoming rather than as homeleaving, where ‘home’ is not (reproduced in the heterosexual family. Indeed, many diasporic cultural forms repeat nationalist biopolitics that posit the heterosexual, patriarchal family as the preferred institution capable of reproducing traditions and an original culture. In such cases, the indeterminacy of a dispersed and fragmented identity is solved by gendered encodings of culture, where definitions of authenticity are defined by ideas about family, fixed gender roles, and generational responsibility: women as reproducers of absolute cultural difference, men as protectors of cultural integrity and allegiance, and generations as bearers of cultural continuity and change (Gilroy, 1993b; Gopinath, 1995; Fortier, 2000; Gilroy, 2000). Queer diasporas, for their part, decidedly ‘propagate’ outside of the nation-building narrative where the heterosexual family is the essential building-block in the construction and elevation of the nation. In short, the invocation of queer diaspora potentially denaturalizes ‘any claims on the nation-state and home as inevitable functions of the heterosexual’ (Eng, 1997: 35).

Which is not to say that queer or diaspora could be simply read as emphatic refusals of the home(land). Queer and diasporic narratives of belonging often deploy ‘homing desires’ (Brah, 1996: 180): the desire to feel at home achieved by physically or symbolically (re)constituting spaces which provide some kind of ontological security in the context of migration. As David Eng states, ‘despite frequent and trenchant queer dismissals of home and its discontents, it would be a mistake to underestimate enduring queer affiliations to this concept’ (1997: 32). For example, the widespread narrative of migration as homecoming, within queer culture, establishes an equation between leaving and becoming, and creates a distinctively queer migrant subject: one who is forced to get out in order to come out. Books such as Paul Monette’s Halfway Home, where ‘home’ is a destination, or John Preston’s Hometowns: Gay Men Write about Where they Belong, where home is ‘where we come from’ and conjures up stories of ‘exile, abandonment, redemption, salvation, reconciliation’ (1991: 14), reproduce a model of home as familiarity, where strangeness is cancelled out. In their refusal of home, queer migrant subjects reclaim a space to be called ‘home.’

The very pervasiveness of the trope of home in narratives of queer migrations should alert us to the ways in which it is re-inscribed as a desired site of familiarity, comfort and belonging. What remains under-theorized here, however, is the very model of home as familiarity. In this respect, Sinfield’s narrative inserts itself within the logic of pathological ideas of diaspora according to which it will only be ‘treated’ by a movement toward ‘home.’ By conflating diaspora (or queer) and exile, he transforms ‘diaspora yearning and ambivalence … into a simple and unambiguous exile once the possibility of easy reconciliation with either place of sojourn or the place of origin exists’ (Gilroy, 2000: 124; emphasis added). Sinfield is uncomfortable with the indeterminacy of lesbian’s and gay’s ‘home’; his reversed narrative maintains a linear trajectory that posits homecoming as a desirable destination. For Sinfield, people move away from ‘home’ and ‘into, if we are lucky’ (second emphasis added), a gay or lesbian subculture. This is highly reminiscent of the prototypical immigration narrative, where immigrants are perceived to move from one culture into another, thus assuming ‘cultures’ to be neatly bounded and separately located within distinct territories. Sinfield’s ‘subculture’ constitutes a timespace that is distinct and separate from the ‘(heterosexual) culture of our childhood,’ and puts an end to the sense of loss; it brings an end to migration. ‘Home’ is the antidote to dispersal. Yet not all queer migrants leave home in order to come out, nor do they all entertain the desire to move (in)to what Lawrence Schimel labels queer ‘cultural homelands’ (1997).

Schimel takes a more critical view in his text about ‘cultural homelands’ within US gay and lesbian culture (such as San Francisco’s Castro, New York City’s Greenwich Village, Key West, or Northampton). Drawing on the distinctly anti-nationalist inclinations of diaspora as it has been used by anti-Zionists (Marienstras, 1975, 1989) and post-colonial critics (Hall, 1990; Gilroy, 1993a, 2000; Clifford, 1994), Schimel likens queer ‘cultural homelands’ to ‘mini-Zions’ by virtue of their quasi-mythical status: ‘our visits feel like a return home, even if we’ve never set foot there before’ (1997: 167). His use of the Jewish imagery is meant as a caution against nationalist projects that seek to negate diaspora. A self-identified post-Zionist Jew, Schimel is critical of the Zionist project whereby the nation-state appears as the institutional means to terminate diaspora dispersal (1997: 172): much like Sinfield’s subculture, the ‘return to the homeland,’ brings diaspora to a halt. Schimel’s political project, in contrast, aims at rehabilitating diaspora by defining it as a fruitful and original mode of existence that thrives through dispersal. He thus views with a glimpse of hope the emergence of a queer diaspora where it has become possible to connect with queer culture without having to live within queer ‘mini-Zions.’

Gays are beginning to embrace our diaspora as well, choosing to stay home and come out wherever we are rather than moving to our mini-Zions of gay culture. And many of us in these Zions are choosing to leave, to form smaller enclaves outside of these arenas, to live queer lives in suburbia or rural sectors … now it is possible not to be the only openly-gay man in Small Town USA, and it is more and more possible to interact with gay culture through mass media—magazines, films, the internet—from anywhere in the world. (ibid).

Embracing diaspora, for Schimel, means being able to be out and to stay ‘at home,’ wherever that may be. For him, the project of queer diaspora will be fully achieved when gays and lesbians no longer have to get out in order to be out. His intervention is interesting for it raises important issues with regards to the ways in which queer theory has tended to constitute queer subjects and queer spaces.

Schimel not only questions the assumption that queers live in urban areas, but that they should. ‘Sure, it’s fun to visit these cities,’ he writes, ‘but they’re no longer as essential to being gay as they once were’ (ibid). Schimel hence proposes a redefinition of the sexual geography of queer theory, whose urban-rural binary has only recently been brought to light (Halberstam, 2000). Conceived as a space that nurtures a variety of sexual cultures, the ‘urban’ is accepted as the location par excellence for queer subjects to inhabit. In contrast, small town and rural areas are conceived as sexually homogeneous, where ‘dissident sexuality is rarer and more closely monitored’ (Rubin, 1993: 23). Consequently, queer subjects are constructed as urban subjects, thus making the rural queer an outsider, one whose choice of residence—which is sometimes also the choice to ‘stay put’—seems somewhat out of place within queer studies. As Judith Halberstam (2000) suggests, the rural is the closet of the urban.

Within queer studies, the focus on urban centres as queer spaces of inhabitance, and the ensuing neglect of small town and rural areas are brought into question at a time when queer culture is more easily accessible. Schimel suggests that the emergence of a diasporic consciousness is facilitated by the proliferation of queer sites of connection in popular culture: magazines, films and the Internet. In the trails of Benedict Anderson, Schimel asserts the impact of the mass media and new technologies in the construction of a sense of shared belonging between individuals who are geographically dispersed. Yet a number of considerations need to be addressed. First, the political and economic conditions surrounding the production of, and access to, these sites. Just like moving to the city is not accessible to all as it entails considerable costs (Rubin, 1993), the cost of the mass media and, especially, the new technologies required to connect to the ‘diaspora,’ could exclude a number of individuals from participating in such sites. Second, one should be cautious about assuming that sites of connection are homogeneous or conflict-free zones. They may be ‘entered’ from an array of subject positions and ‘read’ in a range of ways, thus producing a multiplication of queer identities and subjectivities. As Nina Wakeford (1997) has noted in relation to ‘cyberqueer,’ and Alexander Doty (1993) with respect to the mass media (see also Doty and Gove, 1997), users of these sites of connection have a range of definitions of what being gay or lesbian or queer means. In addition, the scrutiny of ‘sites of connection,’ such as Internet sites, would reveal how various encounters are produced through intersecting relations of dialogue and conflict.

This being said, queer spaces, whether virtual or physical, can also constitute important spaces of refuge, either from the straightworld(s), or even ‘from other lesbian, gay, transgender, queer worlds’ (Wakeford, 1997: 31; italics in original). The ‘sense of relief and safety’ Watney finds in gay bars when he travels abroad is telling of how vulnerable one might feel, as a ‘queer’ subject, walking in the streets of an unknown city. Similarly, the gay and lesbian ‘subculture,’ for Sinfield, offers the ontological security of being ‘at home’ in a cultural, social, or physical space, thus not having to defer ‘being out.’ For Watney and for Sinfield, these sites of connection are also sites of emergence as they constitute desirable destinations of safety and comfort against the dangers of the streets and the often traumatic separation from heterosexual families. In addition, going to the gay bar, or moving within a lesbian subculture solves, even if momentarily, the ontological problem about belonging to the ‘lesbian and gay’ culture in a heterosexist, homophobic world. Likewise, the proliferation of ethnic-based lesbian and gay groups over the last decades in many Euro-American cities is partly a result of the sense of exclusion and, in some cases, the violence of a racist lesbian and gay ‘community.’ Hence if the idea of ‘home’ deployed in notions of ‘queer diaspora’ remains sentimentalized as a space of comfort where one seamlessly ‘fits in’ and belongs, it is also embedded in the struggles to create and maintain spaces of belonging and comfort in the face of adversity within or without the ‘lesbian and gay community.’

The relationship between violence, sexuality, and space thus needs to be addressed more extensively than I have suggested here. For a large number of lesbians and gays, space may be used to claim and perform a recognizable sexual identity that has been marginalized. So if, as I suggest, the theoretical emphasis on diaspora as the new basis of identity formation must attend to the violent processes of fixing some bodies into ‘difference’ or into place, it must also attend to the relationship between violence, safety, and ‘home,’ whose boundaries may be maintained and enforced as a survival strategy and a quest for safety and comfort (Moran, forthcoming).


In their respective theoretical formations, both diaspora and queer subjects have been positioned as outside modern narratives of the nation, offering alternative perspectives on the ‘historical and cultural mechanics of belonging’ (Gilroy, 2000: 123): ‘diaspora’ by making ‘the spatialization of identity problematic and interrupt[ing] the onto-logization of place’ (ibid.: 122), and ‘queer’ by problematizing heteronormative discourses and denaturalizing gendered nationalisms. In this chapter, I examined what happens when diaspora and queer are brought together. More specifically: what does it mean to diasporize queer culture and politics? Extending from the conclusions that can be drawn from the above discussion, I would like to point out some of the questions and directions for future research that the above discussion might suggest.

First, ‘queer diasporas’ are part of the increased currency of what I call diasporic horizons, that is, the projection of, in this case, queer belongings and culture, within a spatio-temporal horizon defined in terms of multi-locality, cultural diversity, dispersal, and conflict. More to the point, the exploration of the ways in which diaspora is put to work in narratives of collective identity and culture, indicates the significance of considering diaspora not as an accomplished fact, but, rather, as a process, as a concept that is mobilized to produce imagined remains of belonging. I begin to examine this process in this chapter, by asking what kinds of spatio-temporal horizons diaspora fosters in the narratives of queer theorists. As I argue elsewhere (Fortier, 2001), it is worth considering the extent to which collective identities in the postmodern, postnational, global world, are lived and represented in terms of diaspora, and to illuminate how a diasporic consciousness manifests itself and converses with other forms of consciousness (for example, national consciousness; immigrant consciousness; ethnic consciousness, and so forth). In doing so, definitions of identity, namely, of transnational networks of connections, are understood as the outcome of a number of mediations that weave together multiple locations and histories.

This relates to the relationship between diaspora and globalization. On the one hand, discourses about the diasporization of queer culture and politics emerge in the context of increased connectivity, largely facilitated by the development and availability—albeit still limited—of new information technologies. One the other hand, and more importantly, the very use of diaspora rather than that of ‘global’ to talk about transnational queer culture and politics is telling of the resistance to the cultural imperialist tendencies often associated with globalization. It is also suggestive of a kind of sexual geography that diaspora conjures up: a ‘diaspora space,’ as Avtar Brah puts it (1996: 209). Composed of genealogies of displacement and genealogies of ‘staying put,’ diaspora space inserts itself between localism and globalism and proposes a conception of identity as a positionality that ‘is not a process of absolute othering, but rather of entangled tensions’ (Clifford, 1994: 307). The space of diaspora weaves new webs of belonging that trouble spatial fields of ‘nation,’ ‘home,’ territory, ‘community.’

This leads onto the second point I want to consider: how the shift to diaspora away from ethnicity or nation marks a turning point in relation to thinking about ideas of community that are not defined in terms of commonality, but, rather, configured in terms of difference, dispersal, (disconnection, diversity, and multilocality. Much recent theorizing on community still assume an equation between community and commonality. Yet there is little discussion about the enduring appeal of ‘community,’ and how the ‘we’ is produced or performed in a variety of ways. Do communities necessarily entail the suppression of difference? Can communities come together without presumptions of ‘being in common’? One of the tensions that surfaces in queer considerations of diaspora is precisely the tension between dispersal and diversity—which calls for a recognition of difference not as foundational, but as historically specific – and the political imperative for solidarity and connectivity or, in Simon Watney’s terms, the ‘political imperative to think of its constituency as unified and homogeneous’ (1995: 64). While he pointedly suggests that such a tension is productive rather than destructive, he nonetheless returns to a conception of community as homogeneous. The point I am trying to make is that the turn to diaspora signals a shift away from such a conception of community founded on ‘being-in-common’ or ‘having-in-common.’ Researching how communities come to be imagined as well as how they come to be inhabited in the everyday world may reveal the complexities of the lived experience of ‘community,’ while providing further insights into its enduring appeal. Are they guarantors of safety? As stated earlier, are they necessarily conflict-free zones (see note 11)? Can communities exist in virtual worlds, where members never ‘face’ each other? (see Wakeford in this volume).

The enduring appeal of community as ‘being in common’ needs to be scrutined as well. More specifically, how are communities brought together? What are the social processes involved in imagining and constructing a queer diasporic community? How does diasporizing the queer produce a ‘community’ that involves the movement of some bodies though the fixing of others (Ahmed, 2000)? How does diasporizing the queer affect the inclusion/exclusion of diasporic subjects who have relationships to multiple nations (Gopinath, 1996; Puar, 1998)? On what terms does the diversification of the transnational queer network operate?

Third, suggesting that diaspora is a project that is put to work might imply that there is an actor, as well as intent, behind the project. One of the aims of this chapter is precisely to inquire into how queerness is projected within a diasporic horizon, and in the name of whom. Yet the question of who are the ‘actors’ of this diaspora remains open. Frank Mort points to it by specifying that the diasporic network is largely the doing of North American and European activists and intellectuals. Hence a more general investigation of the political movements themselves, with a focus on the actors—their aims, projects, desires, conflicts, but also their actual lived experience of ‘diaspora’: their movements, access to resources, local struggles, and so on, would provide important insights into the material conditions surrounding the formation of diaspora as an imagined space of belonging (Adam et al., 1999).

Likewise, the relationship between the transnationalization of queer culture, and the commodification of queerness is another area of inquiry that could be further developed. The circulation of ‘queer’ culture within the transnational network of commodity capitalism is undoubtedly a contributor to the ‘diasporization’ of queer culture. More research into the conditions of production, circulation and consumption of these ‘commodities’ and ‘sites of connection’ would also contribute to further grasp of the material conditions surrounding the formation of a queer diaspora space (Binnie, 1995; Bell and Binnie, 2001).

Fourth, an important area of research that I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, but did not focus on, is the queering of diasporas. Indeed, there is an increasing body of work that seeks to force a reconsideration of the heterosexist norms supporting definitions of diasporas. Such research largely focus on ethnically defined diasporas, but they offer important inroads into broader considerations about the conditions and effects of diasporizing queer sexualities. For instance, the effects of theorizing difference within unity, in terms of the kinds of identities and differences this produces and maintains.

Also, queering diaspora challenges naturalist assumptions about the heterosexist foundations of both the nation and ideas of ‘home,’ which is not to say that queer is a refusal of home and ideas of family that are often associated with it. Closer scrutiny into multiple evocations of home/land within narratives of queer diasporas would offer a more complex, and less uniform view of ideas of home and nation (see note 9).

Finally, a noteworthy contribution of queering the diaspora is to raise important questions about queer activism for full citizenship. For Gayatri Gopinath, there are uninterrogated assumptions that ‘queers, for the most part, have unproblematic access to the state and to “queer citizenship”’ (1996: 120). Members of the South Asian diaspora, she argues, cannot take citizenship for granted. Hence diasporic queerness is constructed at the interstices of various strategic negotiations of state regulatory practices and multiple national spaces (ibid.: 121). More research of this type would be called for if we are to continue to interrogate the heterosexist and Western assumptions of identity politics. In addition, this research would provide deeper insights into the sites of diversity and connections between different experiences of queer diasporic subjects in different parts of the world.

More generally, a closer scrutiny of how gays, lesbians, transgender, transsexuals, and other queer subjects inhabit new transnational spaces of belonging, could lead into more detailed considerations of multiple ways in which individuals move between, and within, these spaces. In turn, these could bring to light the ways in which new forms of solidarity, attachment and reterritorialization come about in a world largely defined in terms of flows, scapes and mobilities. For one of the fascinating aspects about diasporic identities and cultures, is how they are shaped through both movement and attachment, how they are at once deterritorialized and reterritorialized, in what might be aptly called, following Paul Gilroy (1993a: 190), the social dynamics of rootings and routings (Fortier, 2000: 17).


A draft version of this paper was presented in the ‘Queer Theory’ seminar series at the Institute for Women’s Studies, Lancaster University, October 2000. I am grateful for the useful comments and discussion that followed my presentation. I would also like to thank the following colleagues from the Faculty of Social Sciences Women’s Writing Group (Lancaster University) for their comments on an even earlier draft: Sara Ahmed, Anne Cronin, Vicki Singleton, Mimi Sheller, Imogen Tyler. And thanks to Diane Richardson for her patience and efficiency in this project.