When taking a number of courses connected in some way to the Gender and Women’s Studies department, you occasionally have “perfect storm” weeks, and I had one such earlier this semester.
The theme—across feminist theory, “Gender, Power, and The Body,” a talk by Judith Halberstam, and a queer studies reading group on race, region, and sexual diasporas—was that there are times when the people we would prefer to see as the “good guys” end up being the “bad guys.” Or alternately, it was expressed by the professor in the feminist theory course as “writing fuller histories means writing ethical histories.”
It started on Monday night that week, at Halberstam’s talk, "The Killer in Me is the Killer in You: Homosexuality and Fascism" (See the recap). In the talk, Halberstam elaborated the ways in which Nazis were actually fairly okay with gays.
Yes, there was a pink triangle, and yes, homos were sent to concentration camps, but Nazis thought homosexuality was social rather than innate and therefore could be cured. Moreover, what Nazis really wanted to prevent, according to Halberstam, was male effeminacy, not necessarily homosex. Butch gays weren’t that big of a deal, and indeed given Nazi misogyny there was a sense in which the less one had to do with women the better.
All of this means that the received history that gays were also subject to widespread execution isn’t that accurate. Lots of men who had sex with other men served in Hitler’s army, Halberstam argued, doing all the horrible things that gay history has imagined were only done to them. We may want them to be the good guys and in solidarity with the other victims, but it was way more complicated than that.
Tuesday brought feminist theory, in which we had a special guest, Terence Ranger, who wanted to reorient the issue of agency away from reductive contentions on the order of “all that one needed to know about the history of Africans in Bulawayo up to 1980 [ . . . ] was that they had been ‘crushed under the boot of colonialism’. They had been denied citizenship; had been unable to exercise agency; and had been unable to create culture” (Ranger, 2004, p. 112).
Without disregarding the violences of colonialism, that is, Ranger contends that there is a more multifaceted interplay of forces, such that some groups of Zimbabweans imposed their cultural practices (around, in this case, death) on other groups, such that resistance has to be understood as happening not just between colonizer and colonized but between Africans themselves.
Thus, in the end, though the parts of Zimbabwean history that mark the oppression of some Africans by others may make us uncomfortable, it is ethically incumbent on us to recognize that they happened, as much as it might feel better to focus only on the colonizers’ violences.
On Wednesday in Gender, Power, and the Body we discussed Aberrations in Black, and as we saw in last week’s blog, Ferguson’s (2003) book is nothing if not attentive to complicities among the strangest of bedfellows.
Finally, later that Wednesday night was queer reading group with a theme of queers and settler colonialism and the critique was again about unacknowledged complicities. Smith (2010) argues that queer theory, for all its troubling of norms, falls short of taking on settler colonialism and is thus complicit with its violences.
Similarly, Morgensen (2010) notes the ways in which the retroactive claiming of Native practices as “really” gay but just lacking the terminology is a form of imperialism. The recognition of these complicities and (perhaps inadvertent) violences is a vital part of a more honest and ethical look at the position queers occupy, such that rather than strictly claiming oppression we have to be attentive to the ways we’re also oppressive.
Thus, everywhere I went that week, the message was clear: we can’t shy away from the spots of history, even when telling histories of disadvantaged people; instead, we must recognize the complexity of a world in which positionalities aren’t simple “villain” or “hero.”
Ferguson, R. A. (2003). Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press.
Morgensen, S. L. (2010). Settler Homonationalism: Theorizing Settler Colonialism within Queer Modernities. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 16(1-2), 105-131.
Ranger, T. (2004). Dignifying Death: The Politics of Burial in Bulawayo. Journal of Religion in Africa, 34(1/2), 110-144.
Smith, A. (2010). Queer Theory and Native Studies: The Heteronormativity of Settler Colonialism. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 16(1-2), 41-68.