Synthesis Two: Queer Studies in a Transnational Context

Nick Shaner


Queer Studies in a Transnational Context

In “Can We Teach a Transnational Queer Studies,” Donald Hall explains, “Students in the classes that I teach get a quick but I hope useful introduction to the changing field of queer theorization from a U.S. academic perspective.  I, however, learn much more than they do as I test and discover the very real, significant, and intellectually intriguing limitations of my version of queer theory, which become evident when I attempt to translate it across cultural, religious, and linguistic norms” (70).

While Queer Theory is a relatively new school of theory, researching in a transnational context is an even more recent trend that provides a useful angle for utilizing Queer Theory in literary and cultural studies.  What is most interesting about the connection between Queer Theory and transnational literary studies is that the reason for Queer Studies is to provide a voice for an oppressed segment of the population.  Yet, because most of the work in the Queer Theory arena is from a Western perspective and concerns predominantly U.S. and European scholars and subjects, non-Western viewpoints and issues are being largely ignored.  This problematic exists in most areas of academia where non-Western peoples are not the focal point, but it seems especially significant in schools of theory that are most closely associated with ending oppression and perpetuating equality.  I wanted to investigate the possibility of and even the movement towards teaching a Transnational Queer Studies that would allow for more viewpoints, subjects, and discourses between different cultures and outside the national paradigm.

The possibility of a transnational angle comes from a postmodern sense of subverting the binaries which have served as foundations of knowledge and power which naturally oppress and “other” certain groups.  Hall adds, “Given the global magnitude of the challenges we face in the twenty first century, we serve our students most responsibly when we vigorously resist the narrowing of any field of study to those concerns bounded by a single nation, a dominant language, or a particular class positioning” (71).  We provide a freedom to learning by resisting the study of any subject within a national framework or a particular social element.  By removing that narrowing, we facilitate the possibility of new types of discourse which lead to learning about innovative new methods for writing about queer issues in other cultures with different backgrounds and histories.

We should be careful not to attempt to globalize or normalize a singular conception of gay identity. In Another Country:  Queer Anti-Urbanism, Scott Herring argues, “we should not assume that the critical models introduced in these pages will apply beyond any U.S.-based study even as an uncritical model of metro normativity likes to think that it applies beyond every U.S. based study” (28).  We must be careful not to “other” differing conceptions of queer or sexuality than our own.  By looking at subnational and transnational movements and discourses, we can appreciate conceptions of queer without excluding specific groups.

There are other difficulties with teaching certain types of theory in new contexts.  Words like “queer” have vastly different meanings in certain cultures.  Hall explains that part of the difficult of teaching queer studies transnationally is that terms like “queer” do not translate well.  “Yet the term itself is one that remains unfamiliar to many or too deeply embedded in daunting poststructuralist U.S. and European literary cultural theory” (72).  Yet, although many theorists and critics present this difficulty in a negative light, it is also useful.  Only when we begin to consider Queer Theory in a new, transnational context, can we begin to bring these differing discourses together.  While some non-Western cultures may be unfamiliar with “queer” and other terms out of Western academia, it is important to establish a common discourse that will bring cultures together and allow each to teach the other about unfamiliar areas.  Even the fact that some of these terms are coded as colonizer terms for colonized nations, through changing knowledge foundations and power discourses, we can inscribe new meaning where oppression previously existed.

In turn, this changing of negative connotations of certain terms will allow us to analyze the history of queer discourse with historicist notions that will initiate even more new avenues for study.  In “The History of GLQ, Volume One:  LGBTQ Studies, Censorship, and Other Transnational Problems,” Carolyn Dinshaw claims, “So one critical question resulting from this GLQ narrative is how not to set up paradigms of sexuality and sexual politics in which progress is a property of the West and only of the West-or, to move away from that orientalist East and West terminology, a property of the global North as distinct from a backward and archaic global South” (20).  By leaving the study of history and theory in a linear fashion, we can begin to analyze specific moments in time for how cultural differences first emerge and how we can prevent situations where Western discourses and modes of thinking are prized over others.

This movement towards a transnational queer studies reminds me of a passage from Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home:  A Family Tragicomic.  Although this is an autobiographical account of Alison and her father’s experiences with homosexuality in rural U.S., there are elements of transnational studies through their living in a geographic borderlands between country and city.  Sometimes works of fiction with very different focuses can manifest theoretical ideas that change the way we analyze texts.  Bechdel argues, “The Appalachian Ridges-many longer than Hadrian’s Wall-historically discouraged cultural exchange” (126).  Alison is considering what could have happened to her now deceased father if he had moved to an urban area where he could have practiced his sexuality without fear of chastisement.

The natural topography of the Allegheny ridges and forest helped to separate cultural exchange between the rural and urban areas.  This is an example of different types of cultures being divided and affecting the exchange of ideas between the two, although this happens within one nation.  By doing away with the national paradigm and uniting Western and non-Western cultures through exchange of ideas, we can promote all different types of social movement and change.  Alison’s father may have lived a very different life and instead of dying early from an apparent suicide and a life of unhappiness, he could have helped to bridge a gap and bring two societies closer together.  This also presents the idea of a borderlands, where cultures clash and change the way individuals and groups on both sides consider ideas and form identities.

Works Cited

Bechdel, Alison.  Fun Home:  A Family Tragicomic.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin Company,


Dinshaw, Carolyn.  “The History of GLQ, Volume One:  LGBTQ Studies, Censorship, and

Other Transnational Problems.”  GLQ 12.1 (2006), pp. 5-26.

Hall, Donald E.  “Can We Teach a Transnational Queer Studies?”  Pedagogy 10.1 (2010) 69-78.

Herring, Scott.  Another Country:  Queer Anti-Urbanism.  New York University Press, 2010.

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