Euro-American sex notions analyzed

by Yasmin Nair

The University of Illinois at Chicago ( UIC ) hosted the conference Race Sex Power: New Movements in Black and Latina/o Sexualities Conference at the UIC Forum, 725 W. Roosevelt, April 11-12. Some of the panels were either cancelled or reconfigured because attendees were left stranded by numerous flight cancellations by ATA and American Airlines. One of the Saturday forums, “Africa and Mexico,” was cancelled and merged with “Sexual Tourism/Sexual Bridges,” chaired by DePaul professor Lourdes Torres.

On April 12, three original panelists presented work that challenged Euro-American notions of same-sex desire and sex work. Carlos Decena’s paper, “Eroticized Return and U.S.—Caribbean Circuits of Desire,” was a ethno-historical study of Dominican men living in the United States, who engaged in sex and exchanged sex for money while traveling between the Dominican Republic and the U.S. He focused on the case of “Dominguez,” who inhabits a status of relative privilege in contrast to his friends whenever he returns to the island. While complicating ideas of power and travel, Decena pointed out that “mobility allows migrants of color privilege that’s usually associated with gay white tourists.”

Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley presented “What is an Uma?”: Women Performing African Diaspora Sexuality in Paramaribo, Suriname.” In 2007, the Dutch Supreme Court declared that gay marriages contracted in any part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands would be accepted in all its colonies, including Aruba. The media framed the ruling in terms of a conflict between Aruban backwardness and Dutch modernity. But, according to Tinsley, this binary erases the fact that Suriname has had long traditions of same-sex relationships that could not be defined by Euro-American notions of gay identity and which were, in fact, steadily eroded by colonialism because they challenged its economic structure. For Tinsley, such erasures legitimize European-style same-sex marriage as the most privileged within an uncomplicated discourse of international human rights.

Deirdre Guthrie’s paper spoke about her ongoing anthropological research in a small town in the Dominican Republic that has become a hub of sexual commerce for European white men. They see themselves following in the tradition of insurgents like pirates, and in the position of privileged masculine figures who rescue beautiful native women from their oppressive men. Guthrie’s paper examined the complicated sexual and economic relationships between the men and the women. Overall, she emphasized that a nuanced political and cultural study certainly challenged the sex tourists’ heroic narratives about themselves but that there was also a need for a more thorough and complex analysis of the economy that went beyond the colonial-colonized binary.

Ken Hamilton, originally part of the “Africa and Mexico” panel, presented “The Flame of Namugongo: Postcoloniality Meets Queer on African Soil?,” about the story of the 1886 martyrdom of Charles Lwanga and his male companions who were, according to Christian missionary narratives, sacrificed for their faith by King Mwanga II of the kingdom of Buganda. Stories about the executions often imply that Lwanga’s companions were killed because they would not consent to homosexual acts. According to Hamilton, such a retelling of the story allows the Catholic Church to simultaneously canonize African bodies as Christians and deny the possibility of African same-sex desire by placing it within a context of violent erasure. Hamilton theorized the martyrdom story within contemporary African politics, where traditional and European notions of same-sex desire and “homosexuality” play out contentiously within the AIDS epidemic, as evidenced by the rhetoric of both the Catholic Church and politicians like Robert Mugabe.

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