Unraveling Questions of Nationalism and Transnationalism in Lesbian / Gay Studies

Jyoti Puri. Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Editor: Diane Richardson & Steven Seidman. 2002. Sage Publication.

The title of this chapter has already staked out a position on the question of whether nationalism has anything to do with lesbian and gay politics. But, why consider the connections between nationalisms and lesbian and gay politics? If there indeed exists such a link, then what are its characteristics and ramifications? These are the questions that form the basis of this chapter. Although, I would argue that considering the issues and limitations of nationalisms is crucial for any text on lesbian/gay studies, it is not an issue that is typically included. The most obvious reason, of course, to consider the connections between nationalisms and sexualities is that along with gender, race, and ethnicity, national and sexual identities are crucial markers of our selves. Not only do these aspects of our identities influence whether you or I belong to certain communities—let us suppose (North) ‘American’ or ‘Asian American lesbian’—but these identities also help establish who is socially privileged or marginalized. I would hazard that the failure to address issues of nationalism in mainstream lesbian/gay studies within the USA, with some exceptions, is a reflection of two issues: that scholarly concerns against ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ and homophobia are expressed in other areas of social life; the complacency that comes with carrying a North American passport.

In contrast, I suggest that it is crucial to examine the links between national and lesbian and gay sexual identities for two reasons. First, as I will argue below, such an exploration will help us understand how nationalism privileges heterosexuality and how it excludes certain sexualities. For example, popular descriptives associated with the US nation—superpower, protector, family values—promote masculinity and heterosexuality at the cost of suppressing what are seen as deviant characteristics, such as homosexuality. In order to understand these links between national and sexual identities, I will attempt to bring together insights from feminist and lesbian/gay scholarship; but, given the relative dearth of scholarship on nationalisms in lesbian/gay studies, I will focus on the links between nationalisms and lesbian and gay sexualities. To that extent, then, this discussion is partly an overview of the issues and insights that have emerged in this area of study. But, beyond mapping the issues, I am also concerned with where discussions of nationalisms are present within mainstream lesbian/gay studies. To this aim, I will draw upon the scholarship in Asian American lesbian/gay/queer studies that addresses questions of nationalisms.

Second, I explore the links between nationalism and lesbian and gay sexualities to indicate the limits of nationalism. If, indeed, nationalism attempts to exclude and marginalize lesbian and gay identities, then we need to consider the possibilities of including these identities within nationalism. Could lesbian/gay and marginalized racial identities be seen as so innate a part of French nationalism, for example, so that a lesbian/Algerian/citizen belongs fully and unequivocally? Given the breadth of the question, I will address it from the vantage point of Asian American queers to argue that the nation is a limited political and social construct to mount a movement for inclusion. On the contrary, I will identify the importance of examining emergent sexual identities with a transnational, globalizing cultural framework. Hardly a matter of unrestrained celebration, I will argue that it is necessary to carefully investigate this transnational context that both enables and restricts possibilities of sexual identities. Here, I will also suggest that disciplines such as sociology and anthropology bear particular responsibility to shed light on the social and cultural conditions under which we see the proliferation of sexual identities in disparate social contexts.

While nationalism seems to connote popular images of parades, flags, celebrations of independence in the ex-colonies, and fights between soccer fans from competing countries, these are but a few of its complex and contradictory manifestations. A rich body of scholarship on nationalisms has demonstrated that the concept of nation may appear to symbolize unity between a group of people who imagine themselves with a shared past and a shared future, but it is, in fact invented, exclusionary and hierarchical. In what has by now become the most well-cited book on nationalism, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson (1983) cautions us that ‘official nationalisms’ are not unreal; instead, they are invented in the sense that although the concept of nation seems to have emerged in the nineteenth century amidst colonial encounters, it is characterized by claims of a deep historical past and of common cultural traditions. For example, although India as a nation came into existence only in the nineteenth century under British colonialism, nationalists claimed that ‘India’ had existed since antiquity and there were ‘ancient Indian traditions.’ Nations have also to be invented in the sense that people have to imagine a shared identity with an extended and otherwise impersonal community, according to Anderson. Consider the contemporary Indian nation of approximately one billion people who are marked by an almost unimaginable range of differences in language, ethnicity, color, region, religion, sexualities, genders, opinions, beliefs, and traditions who would have to, or be forced to, buy into the idea of a shared national identity and a sense of belonging to the community of nation. This shared national identity would have to be invented and constantly reinforced in order to seem natural.

Furthermore, the fact that nations are characterized by sharp inequalities of gender, class, race, sexuality, ethnicity, to name a few, belies the claim that all citizens are equal. Some citizens are more equal than others and others are denied claims to citizenship despite shared experiences (permanent, undocumented workers in various parts of the world). And as Anne McClintock (1995) reminds us, no nation gives women and men equal access to the rights and resources of the nation-state. But, if nations are characterized by a fundamental contradiction between the ideology of (equal) citizenship and the reality of profound inequality along vectors of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality, then each nation attempts to contain and manage the contradictions through implicit and explicit violence. Clearly, the institutionalization of racism, sexism, and homophobia in the USA through the legal system simultaneously violates the rights of citizens who are of color, women, and lesbian or gay.

Like other dimensions of identity, the meaning of nationalism is possible only within a framework of difference and opposition. Representations of the aggressive and sometimes loud (North) American are contrasted with those of the proper, restrained Englishman. Which American? Which Englishmen? Hardly innate characteristics, these representations come to have meaning only within a framework in which one national identity can be specified only in opposition to another. National identity can be specified within a framework that both recognizes nations as an indisputable reality and permits the endless elaboration of what makes one nation different from another, particularly since there are no inherent qualities of nations. And, if there are no inherent, objective characteristics that identify one nation from another, then it is necessary to call into question the relations of power that produce these differences. The stereotype of the hard-working German is an arbitrary representation of historical relations of power and can only exist in relation to the characterizations of the more laid-back French or the unabashedly racist representations of the lazy but sunny Jamaican. At the same time, without the endless rehashing of representations, however contradictory, of national identity both from within and outside the nation, the inventiveness of nationalism would, indeed, be laid bare.

More specifically, the question of why it is important to theorize issues of nationalisms, sexualities, and genders was first addressed by feminist scholarship on Third World and settler societies. That contrary to putative understandings, issues of gender and sexuality are inextricable from, not irrelevant to, representations of nationalism, was effectively argued by scholars working at the margins of white, Western mainstream feminisms. However, for political reasons, the early feminist scholarship limited its focus to women. This scholarship demonstrated how women’s bodies, sexualities, and gender correlates are the mainstays of national identity or what is constituted as national cultural tradition and necessary to identify one kind of nationalism from another. Typically, women of the so-called respectable classes embodied what characterized a nation (such as ideals of womanhood and sexuality helped constitute what is Britishness, Americanness or Indianness) and other groups of women were excluded, marginalized, or used as a foil for oppositional, desirable representations of nationalism. However, these feminist insights are also limited in that the concept of womanhood is assumed and prescribed within the framework of patriarchy and sexuality is seen as synonymous with heterosexuality.

In contrast, another strand of feminist literature problematized notions of womanhood and did not assume heterosexuality, but without fully exploring issues of lesbian and gay sexualities. Moving beyond a narrow focus on womanhood, this feminist scholarship helped clarify how nationalisms are not simply predicated on the bodies and heterosexualities of women; instead, nationalisms thought of in gendered and sexualized terms. Speaking of the profoundly gendered nature of nationalisms, Cynthia Enloe (1989) instructively argues that only rarely have nationalist movements taken women’s experiences as the starting point for understanding the self, but, in fact, nationalism has typically sprung from masculinized memory, masculinized humiliation, and masculinized hope. These assertions of masculinity are also rooted in sexism, forms of racism, and homophobia. For example, according to Enloe, that nationalists have frequently assumed that an assault on ethnic Albanian women by Serbian soldiers was a war crime is not widely disputed. At the same time, the sexual assault can be seen as a crime of war insofar as Serbian soldiers raped Albanian women as a way to violate the honor and integrity of the community, and ethnic Albanians and the wider international community also recognize it as such.

What is undoubtedly useful about the above feminist scholarship is that not only does it identify the ways in which gender and sexual identities of women, in particular, are used to define nationalisms, but it also emphasizes the importance of not separating understandings of nationalism from issues of gender and sexuality. Furthermore, this literature effectively emphasizes the role of women in reproducing and resisting the dominant ideologies of nationalism. This literature has mapped the ways in which women are not simply passive recipients of nationalist ideologies, but active participants in reinforcing and challenging such ideologies. However, if the scholarly contribution of this literature lies in its attention to challenging the seemingly gender-neutral conceptualizations of nationalism and emphasizing the centrality of women and women’s sexualities thereof, then this also marks its limitations. This literature elaborates the importance of gender and sexuality through an emphasis on women and their sexuality as a corollary of gender. In effect, in some cases feminist literature explicitly reinforces a heterosexual model by assuming a heterosexual model of womanhood and, in other cases, it fails to take on questions of lesbian and gay sexualities more directly. In either case, heterosexuality is not adequately challenged.

Lesbian and Gay Politics and Nationalisms

In light of feminist considerations of nationalism, gender, and heterosexuality, the limited amount of scholarship within lesbian/ gay studies on matters of nationalism is especially puzzling. Aside from the gaps in scholarship, as Gayatri Gopinath (1997) suggests in her essay on lesbian and gay South Asian sexualities, such omissions simply leave intact dominant constructions of the nation as essentially heterosexual. Calling attention to the work on domestic violence within Indian immigrant communities and the patriarchal immigrant perception of women as repositories of ‘Indianness’ and ‘home,’ Gopinath argues that within this framework, a non-heterosexual Indian woman is a contradiction in terms; not only is she excluded from home/nation, but she is, quite literally, unimaginable.

This omission in lesbian/gay studies, then also leaves unchallenged the ways in which nationalisms and their ‘imagined communities’ are less likely to include lesbian and gay sexualities. Making this point in the collection, Nationalisms and Sexualities, an early and ground-breaking intervention in this area, Parker et al. (1992) suggest that certain sexual identities and practice are less represented and less representable in nationalism. For example, the exclusion of avowed lesbian, bisexual, and gays from the US military is objectionable for several reasons, the least of which is that these women and men are denied the ability to represent the nation and its ‘Americanness.’ This attempt to erase certain identities and sexual practices from representations of nationalism is yet again reflected in the words of Dr K. Abhayambika, a professor of medicine and state AIDS programme officer in Kerala, India:

Even at the end of the twentieth century, the Eastern culture is untinged in its tradition of high morality, monogamous marriage system and safe sex behavior. Our younger generation and youth still practice virginity till their nuptial day. The religious customs and God-fearing living habits are a shield of protection against social evils. It will be difficult for the HIV to penetrate this shield except in certain metropolitan populations.

Therefore, these considerations indicate that the challenge is not to merely add to the few studies on lesbian and gay politics and issues of nationalism; rather, it is also important to confront the ways in which nationalisms may privilege heterosexuality while marginalizing other sexualities. Available studies on lesbian and gay politics and issues of nationalism, attempt to address both of these concerns. Based on these studies, there are four major insights that are detailed below.

Strategies for Equal Rights for Marginalized Sexualities and Genders

One of the important concerns within the literature that deals with nationalisms and lesbian and gay sexualities is the way in which sexual minorities are excluded from full participation in social life and the way in which these exclusions can be challenged. In his article on the issue of exclusion of gays and lesbians from participation in the affairs of the nation and the ways in which social identities can enable the exercise of civil rights, Richard K. Herrell (1996) argues that three areas of social life are crucial to the discourse of ‘good citizens.’ Herrell identifies religious association, family life, and local politics as the crucial spaces where homosexuality is marginalized. He argues that models of lesbian and gay communities and politics since the 1960s, such as banding together to bring change in the public policy on HIV/AIDS, represent changes in self-representation about being gay and lesbian and about claiming the right to be citizens of the nation.

Yet, where this discourse of individual rights comes into conflict with a discourse of collective or communal rights, a rights-based strategy may only be partly effective. This is especially salient for lesbian and gay politics in non-Western cultural contexts that do not unapologetically promote individual rights. Showing how the more individual rights-based language of lesbian and gay identities can be only partly effective, in her discussion on homosexuality in Zimbabwe, Margrete Aarmo (1999) details the unashamed public expression of homophobia by President Mugabe in 1995. Mugabe expressed common perceptions that homosexuality does not exist in African cultures, that it is deeply offensive to the moral cultural fiber, that it is something imposed by foreign cultures, that it is about the inversion of sex roles, and that no rights could be accorded to people avowing such identities. In effect, Aarmo suggests that organizations such as Gay and Lesbians in Zimbabwe (GALZ) and social practices and activities, such as drag shows, are important in enabling gays and lesbian to counter their exclusion from national life, church, and family. However, this self-representation as gays or lesbians appears to signify individualism, Western modernity, and the dissolution of ‘traditional’ values in the context of Zimbabwe, thereby creating the backlash against them, according to Aarmo.

Echoing these tensions of modernity, nationalisms and more fully addressing the limitations of a politics that foregrounds the rights of sexual and gender minorities, Tan beng hui (1999) raises concerns about the surveillance of female sexuality, and, in particular, deviant female sexuality, as part of the larger project of nation-building in contemporary Malaysia. Beng hui cites the highly publicized case of a 21-year-old Malay woman impersonating a man in order to marry another women to argue that her impersonation represents an available strategy of resistance against the dominant discourse on deviant female sexuality articulated in the nation. In the absence of a politics of individual rights that is the basis of lesbian and gay identities, beng hui shows how a Malay woman would use strategies that might be more effective under the circumstances. Insofar as Western- or US-centered lesbian/gay studies scholarship and politics promote this rights-based politics across social settings, without being attentive to the attendant tensions and limitations, it can only be arbitrarily effective.

Unraveling Dualities of Homo/Hetero in Representations of Nationalism

In contrast to this rights-based focus and its strengths and limitations in multiple contexts, another strand of scholarship is more closely focused on questions of nationalisms and sexualities that are seen in dual terms—homo/hetero sexualities. This strand of scholarship is more attentive to how a binary model of sexuality is actively produced and, contrary to intuitive wisdom, how the privileging of heterosexuality in nationalism is inextricable from the marginalization of homosexuality. In others words, representations of nationalism can explicitly or implicitly promote heterosexuality only insofar as they acknowledge the possibility of non-heterosexuality—in this case, homosexuality. In the case of the Bahamas, Jacqui Alexander (1997) argues that ‘good citizenship’ is not only linked to heterosexuality, but it also is predicated on the creation of a subordinate class—of lesbians, gay men, prostitutes, those who are HIV-infected, and an oversexed band of citizens. Alexander specifies the three attendant strategies as making violent heterosexuality appear normal in relation to same-sex desire, the organization of a contradictory quasi-scientific discourse that rationalizes homophobia, and the reconstruction of an idyllic past in which the Bahamas were free from signs of Western decadence and lesbians and gay men.

The collection that perhaps best attempted to unravel how dualities such as homo/hetero and masculine/feminine are actively produced through and, in turn, enable characterizations of nation and national identity in multiple contexts was Nationalisms and Sexualities (Parker et al., 1992). Not assuming a heterosexual model, this collection brought feminist concerns with nationalism together with Benedict Anderson’s theory on nationalism and Foucault’s theorizing on sexuality. What this means is looking at how sexualities and nationalisms are the effects of power relations that rely on the proliferation of categories and identities—sexual and national—in order to regulate and control. For example, this approach raises the concern that the two hierarchical categories of hetero/homosexuality might not only be a way to privilege one kind of sexuality over another, but it might be also a way to regulate sexuality by specifying what it means to be heterosexual and homosexual while erasing other kinds of sexualities.

Seen in this way, the proliferation of sexual and national identities requires careful and critical analysis instead of a celebration of the proliferation of sexual difference. Rather than being suppressed, issues of homosexualities might be kept under control while bolstering claims that heterosexuality is natural and normal. In her article, ‘To Die For,’ Cindy Patton (1997) examines how, counterintuitively, queerness was incorporated in the national project of redefining citizenship in the post-World War II era that was empathically based and predicated on understanding the notion of minority ‘experience.’ Through an analysis of the film and book versions of Gentlemen s Agreement, Patton argues that this new citizenship was directed at accommodating issues of racism and homophobia without disrupting the boundaries between the privileged self and minoritized other. What is especially compelling about this exploration of citizenship and queerness in the post-World War II era is that it offers a radically different way of constructing a genealogy of sexual minority politics. Indeed, Patton argues that rather than reading the persecutions of homosexuals by the House Committee on Un-American Activities as the marker of their evolving status as a political group, it might be more useful to examine how changing definitions of citizenship aided in limiting sexuality to dual sexual identities.

Such analyses, then, call for both, recognition of the interdependent and hierarchical relation of sexual identities such as homo/ heterosexuality, but also counterstrategies that would radically challenge the incessant reproduction of these dualities in configurations of citizenship and nations. Seen in this way, this strand of lesbian/gay studies implicitly calls into question the limitations of a right-based discourse that may be important in bringing about necessary social change, but cannot avoid the pitfalls of assimilation or reproducing the dual categories of hetero/homosexuality. In other words by reinforcing dual categories of sexual identity, rights-based sexual politics may in effect neutralize the challenge posed by this strand of scholarship. As Patton crystallizes the concern, a politics, which is based on identifying as gay or homosexual, could be successful only when there is no longer any need for it.

Radical Nationalisms

If indeed nationalisms help reproduce and regulate categories of sexual difference, then the question is whether it is possible to imagine counterhegemonic nationalisms that, at worst, do not rely on the politics of inclusion and exclusion, or, at best, can imagine nationalisms from a lesbian/gay perspective. Whether there can be an ‘imagined community’ of citizens that does not privilege homosexuality or reproduce the problems of dual categories of sexual difference is the question. Queer Nation, founded at an ACT UP meeting in New York in 1990, is the clearest example of a counterhegemonic imagination that seeks to both reveal and destabilize the boundaries of straight and gay politics, but is unable to avoid the pitfalls of inclusions and exclusions. In their definitive article on the nature and politics of Queer Nation, Lauren Berlant and Elizabeth Freeman (1993) describe its premise and the limitations. According to Berlant and Freeman, Queer Nation represents an important counter-strategy that entertains the possibility of nationalism as transgression and resistance by drawing on histories of insurgent nationalisms. In its promotion of a national sexuality, Queer Nation shows how hegemonic nationalism does avow and regulate sexualities through the use of laws, policies, and customs. Anti-assimilationist in its stance, Queer Nation not only emphasizes visibility as a means to safe public existence, but it also seeks to use an ‘in-your-face’ politics to appropriate national icons of spaces of quotidian life to make them safe for all persons in an everyday and embodied sense, according to Berlant and Freeman. Using and manipulating the most corporate of spaces – shopping malls and the print and advertising media—Queer Nation seeks to manipulate homosexuality as a ‘product’ that consumers find both pleasurable and unsettling in order to transform public culture; if sex sells, then, what better way to invoke the capacity of the body to experience transgressive pleasures? But, by marginalizing economic, racial, ethnic, and non-American cultures, they suggest the Queer Nation is unable to leave behind the fantasies of homogeneity that characterize American nationalism. If it’s a gay, white male who is at the centre of these insurgent politics, then the idea of Queer Nation is hardly free from the politics of inclusion and exclusion that is the questionable basis of dominant nationalisms to begin with. As long as Queer Nation is imagined from the perspective of the gay, white male, other racial/ sexual identities are once again excluded.

Rethinking the Links and Limitations between Nationalisms and Lesbian and Gay Sexualities

Since questions of nationalism, citizenship, and lesbian and gay sexualities cannot be taken for granted because not all queers have the same legal rights to the benefits and responsibilities of citizenship, clearly these links need to be theorized more systematically. For instance, earlier Herrell (1996) specified the three areas where notions of the ‘good citizen’ are negotiated within American national life without attending to the fact that many lesbian and gay people are not able to participate in these discussions because they are either of color, immigrants, or indigent. Gopinath (1996) makes a similar charge against Berlant and Freeman arguing that, by sidestepping the vexed relation of many queers of color to the regulatory mechanisms of the state and the nation, their analysis supports a nationalism that presupposes white, male, US citizen queers.

Lesbian/gay studies scholarship on nationalisms that privilege gay, white males raises at least two urgent concerns. For queers of color, notions of citizenship and belonging can hardly be taken for granted. This fundamental tension between the promise of nationalism and citizenship and the systematic exclusion of lesbians and gays of color is ignored in mainstream lesbian/gay studies. On the flip side, this also helps explain the complacency in white, Western mainstream scholarship on issues of nationalism and lesbian and gay sexualities. But, as the above discussions suggest, questions of nationalism are not altogether absent. What is striking, but perhaps not unexpected under the circumstances, is that the most careful attention to this issue comes from queers of color. The second related concern has to do with the vantage point from which one explores the links between nationalisms and lesbian and gay sexualities. Since there are no generic lesbian and gay communities, for the purpose of this discussion, I will briefly explore these issues by focusing on Asian American lesbian/gay studies. In so doing, I will try to shed light on what it means to be Asian American, queer, and displaced from the place to which one may have belonged, i.e. to be in diaspora. But to the extent that the displacement means that concepts of ‘nation,’ ‘home,’ and belonging are constantly negotiated, this vantage point also indicates the limitations of nationalism. Where does the second-generation queer Taiwanese American ‘belong?’ What is ‘home?’ Which communities can s/he belong to? These are not only difficult questions that must be constantly faced, but they also indicate how confining the idea of the nation-state as ‘home’ or place of belonging is especially for lesbian and gay Asian Americans.

It is indisputable that intersections of race, ethnicity, nationality, and sexuality make it impossible for Asian Americans to take notions of citizenship or expectations of full participation in public life in the contemporary USA for granted. Indeed, in his article on diaspora, queerness, and Asian American studies, David Eng (1997) argues that for Asian Americans the claim to citizenship within the US nation-state is dubious at best. Describing this sense of displacement that does not allow any neat alignment between ‘nation’ and ‘home,’ Eng suggests that Asian Americans feel permanently disenfranchised from ‘home’ as they remain suspended between departure and arrival. When such ambivalent feelings remain unexamined, they can produce a kind of cultural nationalism that promotes an ideal Asian American citizen—male, heterosexual, working-class, American-born, and English-speaking. In order to claim their place in the US nation-state and counter the feminine and homosexual stereotypes of Asian American men, Asian American cultural nationalists might effectively marginalize those men and women who do not fit this ideal image—particularly queer Asian American. Thus, contrary to inadvertent assumptions underlying (white) queer and gay and lesbian studies, questions of ‘nation,’ ‘home,’ ‘belonging,’ and ‘community’ are pressing for Asian American queers.

If we can understand nation from a queer perspective, what it means to be queer is also shaped by perceptions of nation and ‘home.’ In his article, ‘Searching of community,’ Martin F. Manalansan IV (1996) takes on this task of exploring the shaping of ‘gay’ and ‘Filipino’ identities and community. While, elsewhere, Manalansan (1994) calls for an examination of the disjunctures between hegemonic representations and practices of gay Filipinos to understand the complex if ongoing nature of the negotiations, agency, and symbolic resistance, in this ethnography Manalansan focuses on the mutual articulations of what it means to be ‘gay’ and ‘Filipino.’ Based on his ethno graphy among fifty gay men, he notes important differences of social class, ethnic/racial affiliations, and varying cultural traditions and practices of homosexuality shaped how they articulated their homosexuality in his study. Filipino men, Manalansan suggests, whether American or Filipino born draw on more than one tradition of being homosexual—the American (hyper-masculine gay culture) and the bakla (socially constructed transvestite and/or effeminized being that occupies an in-between position between men and women). Invoking one and sometimes denigrating the other appears to allow these Filipino men to project differences in what it means to be homosexual. Yet, despite the cleavages that run across this group, there appear to be historical instances—such as the AIDS pandemic, the controversy regarding Miss Saigon, the changing flow of migrants and exiles—that make it necessary to continually reshape the cultural traditions of being ‘gay’ and ‘Filipino,’ and I would argue, being ‘American.’

Limitations of Nationalism

If this literature on the Asian American studies sheds light on the links between sexualities and nationalisms, then it also foregrounds the problems with limiting the analysis to hegemonic nationalisms. When approached from a critical viewpoint, the links between lesbian and gay sexualities and nationalisms indisputably dispel assumptions that nationalism is equally accessible to all citizens. On the contrary, it is clear that nationalism is thoroughly imbued with the inflections of genders and sexualities, just as representations of genders and sexualities are inflected with the politics of nationalism. More than anything else, the interrelations of sexualities and dominant nationalisms uncover the lines of inclusion and exclusion that are embodied in definitions of citizenship. Who counts as a citizen? What normative expectations of sexuality and gender mark this citizen? Who is excluded? Are some citizens more equal than others? The lines of inclusion and exclusion that are inherent to the liberal notions of citizen make it impossible to argue that dominant nationalisms can ever be completely inclusionary. In their ‘Introduction’ to Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies and Democratic Futures, the editors, M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty (1997) suggest that if anything the gender, race, class, and sexually contoured ‘universal citizen’ of capitalist democracies is supported by a legal system that transforms what are differences between ‘citizens’ into institutionalized inequality. Not only does the legal apparatus make heterosexuality seem normal and natural, but it also reneges on its promise to protect all citizens against violence, such as homophobia, according to them. Thus, while it is important to understand the links between sexualities and nationalisms, the inherent limitations of nationalism also necessitate analysing concepts of belonging, home, and communities from a different lens.

When viewed from the lens of the Asian American diaspora, the limitations of nationalism as the space in which to articulate rights and the demands to inclusion are especially obvious; in the case of communities that experience mobility, displacement, exile, and resettlement, questions of nationalisms, home, belonging, and inclusion are fraught. When ‘belonging’ and ‘home’ are plural and fraught, then the function of the nation, any nation, as a political site is inadequate. This is not to argue that the desire and fantasy of inclusion as an (equal) citizen of the nation is not present or worth fighting for, but ‘the nation’ does not augur well. There is more than one nation at stake, more than one history, and more than one community to belong to.

Finally, the adequacy of the nation as a political space from and to which lesbian and gay sexualities should articulate demands of full participation is debatable due to the diminishing importance of the nation-state. As Mohanty (1991) notes in her essay, ‘Cartographies of struggle: Third World women and the politics of feminism,’ with the proliferation of transnational economic structures and massive migrations of ex-colonial populations leading to multi-ethnic and multiracial social contexts, the nation-state is no longer an adequate unit of analysis. However, argues Stuart Hall (1997), insofar as entities of power are more threatening at the moment of decline, the erosion of nation-states, national economies, and national cultural identities under the onslaught of globalization represents a dangerous moment. Thus, it may be argued that the turn into the twenty-first century represents a paradoxical moment. On the one hand, the importance of the nation-state is declining due to socio-economic factors and, on the other hand, nationalisms may be heightened under the onslaught of global, transnational cultural and economic influences.

Although others would insist that despite these changes, global capital nonetheless exerts its demands within the confines of the nation-state (for example, Eng, 1997), these arguments cannot explain how representations of cultural and sexual identities can be both somewhat homogeneous across national boundaries and different in their local manifestations. Sexual identities, such as ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian,’ across a wide range of national cultural contexts are a case in point. It is crucial to understand the conditions under which sexualities can express themselves as identity across cultural contexts, as well as the differences between what ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ mean from one context to another. It is indisputable that national identity is materially relevant in contemporary life; indeed, the discussion over the last many pages supports the extant significance of the nation and nationalisms. However, it would be short-sighted to ignore the similarities and differences in sexualities across national boundaries. To that extent, then, it is necessary to understand and contest the significance of nationalisms to lesbian and gay politics, but also to understand the transnational, globalizing framework that shapes the expression of these sexual identities.

Sexualities and Transnationalism

In this section, I wish to briefly explore the importance of juxtaposing a critique of nationalism with a transnational approach to lesbian and gay sexualities. By a transnational approach, I mean a method that is critical of nations as a unit of analysis and is, instead, attentive to the links, similarities, and power differences that exist across cultural settings within and across nation-states (for example, queer ‘Indians’ from cities like New Delhi and queer South Asians in New York or London). While it is crucial to understand how the ‘imagined communities’ of nationalism include and exclude lesbian and gay sexualities and to what extent these sexualities are shaped by notions of national cultural identity and the desire for unequivocal inclusion within the national imaginary, it is equally important to understand how and why ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ identities can proliferate outside of their national units. I use these terms within quotes to suggest that even though these are the political terms avowed by various groups, they may not necessarily connote the same meanings. I emphasize the importance of including a transnational approach to lesbian and gay sexualities for two reasons: to help understand the emergence of lesbian and gay sexualities as identities across national contexts; and to consider possibilities for transnational political alliances between such groups marginalized from national cultural life.

In his article, ‘Rupture or continuity? The internationalization of gay identities,’ Dennis Altman (1996) addresses the apparent internationalization of social and cultural identity based on homosexuality, and wonders to what extent a proliferating ‘universal gay identity’ is the product of economic and cultural forces of globalization that engender a common consciousness and identity based on homosexuality. According to Altman:

There is great temptation to ‘explain’ differences in homosexuality in different countries with reference to cultural tradition. What strikes me is that within a given country, whether Indonesia or the United States, Thailand or Italy, the range of constructions of homosexuality is growing, and that in the past two decades there has emerged a definable group of self-identified homosexuals—to data many more men than women—who see themselves as part of a global community, whose commonalities override but do not deny those of race and nationality. (1996: 424)

If Altman is correct that increasingly women and men identify with a global community based on their sexualities, then this proliferation of sexual identities raises important concerns: to what extent is this about the dominance of a Western style of identity and politics?; to what extent is this proliferation about the regulation and containment of sexual identities?; to what extent does this enable and limit homoerotic sexual politics?

If the visibility of sexual identities is indeed about the domination of a Western modernity and its humanist, individual model of politics, then this, in turn, raises the anxiety that such a model of sexual politics would marginalize other non-Western forms of lesbian and gay sexualities. Insofar as a Western binary model of sex/gender and sexuality is privileged, it might end up suppressing other possibilities, and not just in the so-called non-Western parts of the world. On the surface, the proliferation of ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ identity politics into various cultural, national contexts marks the expansion of a Westernized category and politics rooted in categories of identity. Altman (1996, 1997) defines this contemporary form of homosexuality as one that recognizes a difference in sexual and gender identities, and is marked by an emphasis on emotional and sexual relationships and the development of public homosexual worlds, such as a gay press, gay social and political organizations, etc. However much this model may be avowed by groups in various parts of the world—South Africa, Thailand, England, France, India, to name a few—it does not speak to the concern that other instances of the sex-gender system that involve homoeroticism, but cannot be categorized as ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay,’ may be suppressed or marginalized. Echoing this fear, Manalansan (1995) wonders to what extent the globalization of the language of gay and lesbian oppression is masking hierarchical relations between the first world and third world, between the urban and suburban. There is particular concern that the dominance of this Western model is more specifically and implicitly privileging an ‘Americanization’ of sexual politics. Expressing similar unease, John Champagne (1999) cautions that US gay culture has played so dominant a role in this transnational sphere that the Anglo-American subject may have come to stand in for the transnational queer. Put briefly, the seeming proliferation of sexual identities may, in fact, be the predominance of a Western/US hegemonic model of sexual identity politics.

Therefore, ignoring a careful analysis of sexual identities in a transnational context might either obscure other expressions of homoerotic sexualities, or color all lesbian and gay sexualities by a Western/US lens, characterized by dual categories male-female and homo-heterosexuality. Arguing against this sidelining of homoerotic sexualities in non-Western contexts, Rosalind Morris (1994) analyses the category of kathoey in contemporary Thailand in order to explode Western ethnocentric assumptions about dual sex-gender systems and dual sexual identities. Not easily translatable into the idiom of English, kathoey (transvestite/transsexual/hermaphrodite) possibly represents a naturalized third possibility of sexual identity for biological males. However, Morris cautions, this is a system of sexual and gendered identities, not of hetero-and homosexualities. In contrast to this system of three sexualities, Morris describes a second, co-existent (Westernized?) sex/gender system. Unlike the first system, this system is characterized by dual categories of male-female and hetero-homo-sexuality, where sexual activity is seen as the product of sexual identity. This second, co-existent system acknowledges four sexualities—homosexual women or men and heterosexual women or men—and kathoeys may pass as gay men or as women. Through this instructive approach, Morris demonstrates not only the importance of a careful, contextual analysis of homoeroticism, but also the value of understanding the interactions between ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’ models of homoeroticism.

But there is another concern related to the meaning of the proliferation of sexualities as identities across cultural contexts. The concern is that this dual model of hetero and homosexuality that undergirds ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ identity may challenge compulsory heterosexuality and homophobia only in a limited way. In fact, even in its Western context, this binary model of sexual identity, which is at the heart of lesbian/gay studies, is an important point of concern. The work of queer theorists such as Eve Sedgwick (1990) compellingly demonstrates that the dual categories of homo/hetero might represent more a strategy of accommodation than a politics of liberation. Speaking to the concerns with identity-based politics, Steven Seidman (1993) notes that if ‘hetero-sexuality’ and ‘homosexuality’ are mutually determining, hierarchical terms, then a politics of identity necessarily reproduces the relationship of what is considered normal and what is excluded. For example, referring back to the discussion on Queer Nation, attempting to include alternative sexualities only ends up privileging certain identities (gay, white, male) and marginalizing others. Seen in this way, it is both crucial to explore the conditions under which there is an apparent proliferation of ‘lesbian,’ ‘gay,’ and, more recently, ‘bisexual’ identities, their contextual meanings, and the possibilities of an oppositional politics thereof.

Earlier, I mentioned the importance of a transnational approach insofar as it also enables the possibilities of a politics of empowerment and political alliances across national contexts. The transnational proliferation of lesbian and gay identities may raise concerns about the possible hegemony of a specific US/Western gay politics or that such identities may end up limiting rather than liberating. However, what is indisputable is that these identities also enable and empower individuals and groups to challenge homophobia and heterosexuality. Sexual identities, such as ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ present a basis for a politics of resistance and social change. For example, in what may be considered a definitive report on the status of homosexuality in India, Less Than Gay: A Citizen s Report on the Status of Homosexuality in India, the authors (ABVA, 1991) purposefully claim the term ‘gay’ as a politicized self-identity that challenges the suppression and control of homosexuality. According to them,

When we employ the word ‘gay’ we do not mean to reduce these rich and varied exotic spaces into a medical model of ‘heterosexual,’ ‘homosexual’ and ‘bisexual’ behavior. We use it consciously both as a description of people who see themselves as gay and as a sensibility encompassing the entire area of same-sex eroticism. We feel that ‘gay’ should be used as a politically desirable intervention in a context of state (legal and medical) regulation of homo/sexuality. (1991: 5)

In his comments on the narratives of South Asian queers, Nayan Shah (1993) astutely notes the emphasis on ‘coming out,’ a process that is an essential aspect of gay politics. According to Shah, these narratives explain the process of developing a queer identity and how sexual desire is shaped by a political model.

If these models of sexual identities can be politically strategic and empowering, then they also present the possibilities for fostering transnational alliances. Elsewhere I (Puri, 1999) have analysed the example of Trikone, the oldest surviving gay and lesbian South Asian organization. I have argued that this organization presents an example of the importance of establishing alliances between lesbians and gays across national context. The founder of the organization, Arvind Kumar, suggests that this kind of networking is a matter of survival and establishing mutual relationships. What appears to distinguish these transnational alliances is that these alliances are sought on the basis of common histories of marginality of lesbian and gay sexualities, or what Mohanty (1991) has elsewhere called a common context of struggle.

However, even as we explore the possibilities for transnational alliances of sexual identities and the ways in which that might shape their expressions, we need to consider when this transnational framework of gay politics may also be limiting in some ways. In a particularly interesting consideration of the ban on gay teachers by the Ratchabat Institute that provides teacher training in Thailand, Morris (1997) identifies the pitfalls of a transnational framework that enables gay politics. Noting that the state chose to enforce the ban only after a three-year period in which it lay dormant, Morris argues that this was an attempt to eliminate lesbian and gay sexualities in response to transnational discourses on sex and sexuality that paradoxically helped incite national cultural conservatism. The Institute’s ban may be seen as a conservative reaction to gay activism by pathologizing lesbian and gay identities. But, in a particularly ironic twist, the Institute’s ban on gay teacher trainers also suggests that it acknowledges the concept of ‘gayness’ as its problem, even as it attempts to displace ‘gayness’ as foreign or alien.

My point in the foregoing discussion is not to argue both sides of the issue. On the contrary, what I am leading up to is that while we can acknowledge the importance of taking a transnational approach in lesbian/gay studies and entertain both the possibilities and limitations of the proliferation of sexual identities thereof, we have few studies to provide much needed direction. There are few empirical and theoretical studies that attempt to address the politics of the emergence of lesbian and gay sexual identities within a transnational context. Nonetheless, there is emerging consensus on the importance of understanding the significance of the expansion of capital and the proliferation of sexual identities in a transnational context. Indeed, Manalansan (1995) argues that ‘gay’ is synonymous with capitalist expansion. Without suggesting that sexual identities—‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’—are necessarily identitical across cultural settings, this scholarship indicates that the expansion of capital and attendant social changes may have facilitated the expression of these identities.

What is undeniably necessary is more theoretical work and careful ethnographies of sexual identities in various cultural contexts to answer pressing questions. What are the social, cultural conditions that appear to encourage the proliferation of sexual identities? What explains this ‘internationalization’? What kinds of networks of power and resistance effect sexualities as identities? How is sexual desire in diverse contexts shaped and produced through this political model? What kinds of lesbian and gay sexualities are thereby marginalized? What alternative models of sexual liberation may exist? This is where lesbian/gay studies has more work to do and much to contribute. Particularly when coupled with sociological methodology, lesbian/gay studies can shed needed light on the commonalities and differences across social contexts that are witnessing the emergence of ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ identities. Tracing, rather than assuming, the meaning of categories such as lesbian and gay in their cultural contexts would be especially useful to understand how these sexual identities are shaped by national context and, at the same time, invoke political models of resistance that are not limited to the incentive nature of national culture. In effect, exploring the conditions and meanings of sexual identities would be about not only understanding the possibilities of these politicized identities but also their attendant limitations.

However, I am not simply calling for ‘internationalization’ of lesbian/gay studies because such a move would reinforce the collusion of a mainstream Western-oriented lesbian/gay studies with the dominance of an US/Western style of sexual politics. On the contrary, I am suggesting that given the productive history of the discipline of lesbian/gay studies, what might be useful is to re-examine the meanings of categories of sexual identity, their meanings and ramifications, and their possibilities and limitations across disparate settings. Such theoretical and ethnographic considerations would not only inform the possible range of meanings of categories such as lesbian and gay, but they would also counter the risk of, to rephrase Champagne’s unease, seeing the lesbian or gay subject as Anglo-American. Rather than seeing sexual desire as the result of ‘sexual difference’ that can be truthfully expressed through ‘coming out,’ it might be more useful to interrogate the cultural conditions that tend to shape a range of experiences of lesbian and gay sexual identities across cultural settings in a transnational, globalizing context. What are the cultural conditions under which the stories of middle-class lesbian and gay youth in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay), India, seem remarkably similar to those told by their counterparts in Boston, USA—the expectations of ‘coming out,’ of knowing one’s difference since an early age, of isolation? What are the differences between the stories? And, finally, if some stories are possible only as others are suppressed, then what kinds of issues, differences, sexualities, and possibilities are not being told?


In this chapter, my primary aim was to explore the relevance and meaning of dominant nationalisms from a lesbian and gay perspective. As should have been clear from the above discussion, this task would be difficult without juxtaposing feminist theory on nationalism alongside the literature within lesbian/gay studies. Aside from the fact the useful insights on nationalism and gender and sexuality were first articulated within feminist theory, albeit from a limited perspective, bringing it together with lesbian and gay scholarship on nationalisms is necessary to avoid reproducing the division of labor that has been faulted by many others—that feminist theory primarily attends to issues of gender while lesbian/gay studies mostly takes on issues of lesbian and gay sexualities.

A related aim in this chapter was also to help mainstream questions of nationalism in lesbian/gay studies. Parallel to the feminist scholarship on nationalisms, attention to lesbian and gay sexualities and nationalisms comes from the more marginalized sectors within lesbian/gay studies. In that sense, critical analysis of the ways in which nationalisms constrain and contain sexual identities and how sexual identities and their politics are shaped within this national cultural unit remains ghettoized within lesbian/gay studies. Perhaps not totally unexpectedly, with the exception of scholars such as Cindy Patton, the most careful and crucial insights come from queers of color. In this chapter, I chose to focus on scholarship within Asian American lesbian/gay studies to map salient issues and debates in the field.

My second, and equally important, aim was to suggest that looking at issues of lesbian and gay sexualities and nationalisms, especially from the perspective of Asian American lesbian/gay studies, indicates the limitations of nationalism as an analytical and political category. In this latter section, I argued the usefulness of a transnational approach that would enable us to recognize the complex meaning of the proliferation of ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ sexual identities; to explore the possible hegemony of such a model and its political possibilities and limitations. Therefore, in a more concrete and methodological turn, I suggested the importance of unraveling categories of lesbian and gay sexual identities within lesbian/gay studies across disparate, Western and non-Western cultural contexts. I suggested that this move would be necessary to shed light on the meaning, ramifications, possibilities and limitations of categories of ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ identity. What would be especially useful is to consider the social and cultural conditions under which certain identities appear possible and, ultimately, normal.

In effect, my purpose was to also suggest the useful directions that lesbian/gay studies could take in order to further investigate this propagation of sexual identities without reproducing in lesbian/gay studies the hegemony of the US/Western lesbian and gay style of politics. Because in the last instance, given the history of the discipline of lesbian/ gay studies, without a less ethnocentric focus and a willingness to re-examine familiar categories and politics, the discipline would undermine its commitment to an oppositional politics.