It’s been a little while since the last blog post. I’ve been busy organising and hosting the AHRC-funded symposium Homophobia Rewritten: New Literary and Cultural Perspectives on Violence and Sexuality.
This one-day event brought together a wide range of speakers to examine literary and cultural representations of, and responses, to homophobia. It took the term homophobia to mean all kinds of denials of, and attacks on, queer existence including, for example, heteronormative practices as well as verbal and physical attacks. Some papers examined historical examples of homophobia and their legacies (e.g. how homophobia shaped modern state politics, questions about the emergence of homosexual visibility in Europe), while others examined 21-century examples of homophobia and anti-homophobia in and across different countries and regions such as India, China, Sub-Saharan Africa, Canada, the US, the UK, and, in the case of Alison Donnell’s exemplary keynote, the Caribbean.
The papers dealing with historical contexts explored the links between politics and sexuality as well as the creation of popular images and stereotypes about the body that sometimes supported and sometimes undermined queer existence. Here the discussions ranged from the influence of Carlyle’s homophobic writings on Frederick the Great to British dandyism, from suicide in fin de siecle fiction to the impact of Section 28 on young adult fiction in Britain.
Presentations on contemporary contexts in turn indicated the usefulness of historical and cultural perspectives for understanding present-day science and politics. Discussing topics as diverse as sub-Saharan presidential narratives, transsexual marriage legislation in China and Taiwan, femme representation in the UK, and and the role of graphic novels in popularising Anglophone psychological theories about homosexuality, these papers made clear that despite the advances in equality legislation in many countries, homophobia remains part of the everyday experience of people whose bodies and desire do not conform to particular sexual and social norms. For instance, next to interpersonal encounters homophobia is perpetuated vial cultural representations that insist on portraying queer existence in terms of inevitable suffering. Negative stereotyping also continues in scientific and political debates about same-sex intimacies in and about non-Western contexts, which frequently deploy a racist rhetoric and fail to address real concerns with how to end anti-queer violence.
Some papers explored how queer subcultures police their own boundaries and are complicit in the creation of new norms (e.g. in relation to marriage, or gendered assumptions about what certain sexual identities should ‘look like’). Others discussed queer representations that explictly challenge social norms. The papers on First Nation fiction and Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, for instance, turned to literature to explore the intersections between racial injustice and violence against women. Issues of violence against women also informed the discussion of the Canadian-Indian film Fire. It took the recent attacks on women in India and the reintroduction of Section 377 in the country as its prompt for re-examining the complex representational strategies by which Indian women-who-love-women challenge cultural, social and religious norms.
The day concluded with a keynote on queer Caribbean literature, which illustrated beautifully the importance of fiction and poetry for understanding and reshaping sexual politics. Shifting the focus from dancehall homophobia to a wide-ranging literary archive of desire, the keynote offered an affirmative reading of nonnormative intimacies in the region. In so doing, it also modelled the benefits of what we might call a ‘literary approach’ – an imaginative, archival, critical analysis – to sexual politics in the Caribbean and beyond.
My own investment in putting together Homophobia Rewritten is linked to my project on Magnus Hirschfeld, which tries to gain a better understanding of the violent shaping of queer modernity. When planning the symposium, I deliberately introduced the notion of ‘rewriting’ to encourage contributions that record and critique homophobia in its different manifestation, and in so doing partake – perhaps willingly, perhaps not – in a project of transformative criticism. In its broadest ambition the symposium aimed to contribute to research that addresses what Judith Butler has called the question of ‘how to create a world in which those who understand their gender and their desire to be nonnormative can live and thrive not only without the threat of violence from the outside but without the pervasive sense of their own unreality’.
There are no easy answers or solutions to this question. But what emerged during Homophobia Rewritten, as the individual contributions looked across time and space and across disciplinary and generic contexts, was a sense of the importance of collective engagements with how to make lives liveable.