News Queerfest 2014

Globalizing Queer: Queer Theory and Activism in Motion

On September 21st was successfully held in the midst of St. Petersburg. The workshop ran in a safe space and therefore in a very pleasant and relaxed atmosphere. Approximately thirty people joined the event organized by Masha, a Russian-German and neo-Viennese activist and scholar and Kathi, a Viennese activist and scholar.

Masha and Kathi investigated into the globalization of the term and concept queer. They talked about the origins of the English term 'queer,' which used to mean 'different, odd, strange' and was used as a derogatory term for homosexuals and other non-normative people. During the 1980s and 90s street kids, homosexuals, trans*gender, sex workers, (illegal) immigrants and others appropriated 'queer' as affirmative label of self-identification.

The group who is strongest connected with queer within history writing is the US activist group 'Queer Nation.' They transported the term from the 'streets' into activism. They used the term that still had negative connotations at that time as provocation, taking 'queer' away from the hands of their oppressors and re-signifying it with pride. "We're Here! We're Queer!

Get used to it!" was their most well known slogan. Queer Nation was very successful in promoting the term 'queer' as positive identification and means of social criticism. Already during the 1990s and especially in the new millennium many lesbian-, gay-, trans*-identified people all over the world started using the term for their social criticism and activism. At the same time the term was introduced into the universities and especially white gay and lesbian scholars started producing queer theory. This transportation, Kathi and Masha argued in their workshop, was often a kind of "whitewashing" of queer. Aspects of queer politics addressing class issues, the unequal distribution of power and wealth, racialization and racism often got lost during the term's and concepts' globalization. In many cases 'queer' became synonym with gay and lesbian identity. Trans* and Intersex issues and people were much less frequently addressed with and included in queer, and the specific discrimination of lgbtiq people of color was ignored. When queer theory was imported into non-English speaking contexts for example in Germany and Austria, those US works that addressed racialization or class were equally ignored and queer theory became a very elitist 'high theory' for a well educated privileged lgbt minority.

The whitewashing of a term 'queer' and its transfer from the street and the underclass into elite circles, however, was not unchallenged. Many activists and scholars try to reconnect queer with antiracist politics and critical stances towards class, within the US as well as at other places.

Kathi and Masha asked critically for the gains and losses of the transfer of queer into different contexts and languages. They were especially interested in the import of queer into Russian contexts. Together with the organizers of Queerfest and the audience they talked about the fact that it can be quite useful that 'queer' does not have previous connotations and meanings in non-English speaking contexts. In a hostile environment the usage of 'queer' for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* activism can allow for subversion, because the foreign term is not immediately rejected, like the terms gay, lesbian, bi, or trans* would be.

On the other hand, because queer has no meaning for the majority of people within the non-English-speaking world it can also be very elitist. Often it functions as a kind of a code word
and signifies belonging to an 'in-group.'

This can be problematic in terms of alliance building. Kathi and Masha suggested that a focus on alliances with other oppressed groups would benefit queer activism greatly. Moreover, queer should not only focus on lgbt issues alone, but also address issues of racialization, racism, classism, gender-based violence and oppression, and agism.

The origins of queer can be a good example of the fact that alliances between differently oppressed people can reach a lot. The history of queer until now, however, also serves as a negative example: it shows that those who benefit from single issued struggle are almost always those who are already most privileged among the not-so-much privileged people. Queer activism worked to support the inclusion of white gay males into mainstream society in the USA, Austria, Germany etc. Trans*, intersex, gays, lesbians and bisexuals of color, the under- and workingclass, (illegal) migrants etc. are still oppressed in the US and beyond.

Unfortunately, the workshop had to stop at a point, where the discussion with the workshop participants about different strategies of queer appropriation within the Russian context got very interesting. We had to leave the space at 8 PM, but some people continued the discussion in an informal setting in a cafe.

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