image of book goes here
William Leap and Tom Boellstorff (eds)

Speaking in Queer Tongues
Globalization and Gay Language

Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004,
ISBN 0-252-07142-5, US$19.95, pp. 288

reviewed by Mark McLelland

  1. Is there an emerging 'global queer' identity, culture, lifestyle and language which looks to the Anglophone world for inspiration? Or are local queer cultures, particularly those located outside the west and drawing upon cultures, histories and traditions very different from those originating in the Anglo-Saxon tradition variously resisting, incorporating and blending aspects of a globally circulating queerscape? Debate on this topic, in Australia at least, has been lively since the publication by Dennis Altman of an article entitled 'On Global Queering' in the Australian Humanities Review in July 1996.
  2. In his article, Altman points to the 'unmistakable signs of American lesbian/gay imagery and self-presentation in almost every part of the rich world' and argues that the AIDS industry (conferences, WHO committees, advertising campaigns, information packs)[1] is but one significant agent of globalisation that is behind the spread of 'very Western notion[s] of how to be homosexual' even in developing nations. In the same issue of the journal, Altman's suggestions were challenged by a range of scholars who had been involved in fieldwork with sexual minority communities, largely in the Asian context. They argued that signs of American lesbian and gay imagery did not necessarily point to Americanisation, but that a more subtle process of hybridisation and localisation was at work. A decade later, there have been numerous studies that have argued this point[2]—but mostly in relation to societies in Asia (and which have long been regarded as 'other' to the West).
  3. Featuring essays from a range of scholars who have been involved in the Lavender Languages series of conferences, Speaking in Queer Tongues differs from previous collections in that it focuses primarily on language use, investigating the extent to which queer English functions as a vehicle of globalisation, and it also takes a more broadly global look at the issues, rather than focusing on societies in a particular region.
  4. The importance of the collection is that it questions the rhetoric of global queering in a broad context, including discussion of queer culture among the French-speaking Quebeçois of Canada, Spanish-speaking Cuban exiles in Miami and Afro-Americans, all communities situated close to the 'center' of North American influence and yet in many ways maintaining an oppositional stance toward Anglo-American hegemony. Notions of U.S. hegemony are further broken down by chapters looking at alternative European queer traditions based in France and Germany. Israel and South Africa, two societies about whose queer culture little has been reported, are also featured, as is discussion of the Maori population in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Two Asian societies are also discussed—Thailand and Indonesia. In all, the book's chapters offer a wide-ranging discussion drawing on multiple examples from countries and cultures which are all very differently positioned in relation to 'the West'.
  5. As a researcher who has long specialised in Asia, it was a pleasure to learn more about European queer culture, particularly that of France. French resistance to Americanisation and the French state's investment in the preservation of French language and institutions is well known and it was therefore interesting to learn, in a chapter by Denis Provencher, that some French gay media, at least, demonstrate a 'recognition (or outright acceptance) of an American-style way of being homosexual' (p. 29). Provencher identifies in France 'a postmodern and transnational gay culture' that relies primarily on North-American Anglophone signs, and that is 'based primarily on commercial aspects of leisure, including bars, clubs, saunas, dance music, travel excursions and on-line chat rooms' (p. 28). This observation—that there exists a 'transnational identity' (p. 47) available to queer-identified individuals throughout the world—is reiterated elsewhere, as in Heidi Manning's chapter on German queer identities where she argues that this is primarily a commercial identity evidenced by the fact that 'many gay organizations can only survive by becoming more pleasure oriented and less political' (p. 57).
  6. Yet, the demonstrated existence of an international queer vocabulary stands alongside the observation that few French celebrities are officially 'out' about their orientation and that compared with the U.S. where 'sexual identity…is seen as a kind of ethnic separateness', French gays and lesbians 'view themselves, first and foremost, as citizens of the French republican state' (p. 26). One must question, then, whether and to what extent the consumption and display of Anglophone signifiers of queerness impact upon non-commercialised aspects of an individual's lifestyle or self-conception. It is important, too, to consider that queer English vocabulary, when deployed in a non-Anglophone environment necessarily carries a different range of significations. As Minning points out, German use of the term 'queer', for instance, lacks 'the provocative force it carries for many English speakers' (p. 54). Rather, for many Germans, English borrowings like 'queer' signify 'a cool new term for ways they may feel different from social norms' (p. 55). Israelis, too, who frequent the gay scene and deploy Anglophone terminology often do so to demonstrate their 'sophistication and belonging to an international cohort' (p. 114) and consequently 'English is as much a commodity as a language in places where English is not the vernacular' (p. 111).
  7. As numerous contributors point out, English never completely replaces local terms but is often used alongside local vocabulary, suggesting both that no terms are 'sufficient for the identities they index' (p. 176) and that the use of local or international language choices often reflects a 'linguistic division of labor' (p. 150). Individuals select from a range of available terminology, both local and international and in so doing create hybridised creoles which reflect local concerns and understandings as much as they reduplicate characteristically Anglo-Saxon categories and lifestyles.
  8. This is particularly clear in the case in Thailand which has long been a focal point of international sex tourism and consequently has been targeted by international AIDS agencies. Peter Jackson notes how the superficial borrowing of certain Anglophone terminologies (such as 'lesbian' and 'gay') has done little to alter fundamental Thai understandings of erotic categories which continue to be understood in terms of gender as opposed to sex. He notes a single term—phet—is used to translate the English terms 'sex', 'gender' and 'sexuality' and that 'no clear distinction is made among these notions in popular understandings' (p. 208). Hence, 'notions of masculine or feminine gender identity are not clearly differentiated from sexuality in the contemporary English sense of an identity based on erotic preference for partners of either the same or opposite sex' (p. 208). So, even though a term like 'gay' may be incorporated phonetically unchanged into Thai, 'its location within the context of Thai erotic culture means that it does not have precisely the same sense as in western sexual cultures' (p. 224). He points out how there are four generally acknowledged forms of phet for male-bodied persons, the categories, 'man', gay king (inserter in sexual interactions with other men), gay queen (passive partner in sexual interactions with other men) and kathoey (male-to-female transgender). However, Jackson points out that the identity 'bisexual' is only dimly cognised, with most people believing men who have penetrative sex with both men and women to be contained within the category 'man'. Hence, 'there is no clear identity category for either bisexual men or for the partners of transsexual or transvestite kathoeys' (p. 216). This observation invites comparison with Susana Peña's chapter on Cuban-American sexualities where 'sexual aim' (the desire to penetrate or be penetrated) 'is the primary determinant of identity'. As in Thailand, among Cuban men, the desire to penetrate—be it a man or a woman—'is deemed to fall into the boundaries of masculine behavior' (p. 235). My one criticism of the collection is that opportunities to engage in dialogue between chapters have not been explored and it would have been interesting to have both Jackson and Pena comment upon this apparent similarity between the Thai and Latin sexual systems.
  9. Boellstorff's chapter is, to an extent, set apart from the rest in that he argues that English has had only a negligible effect upon homosexual cultures in Indonesia. Despite the fact that he identifies a national gay mode of communication which he terms bahasa gayor 'gay language', he points out that 'the term gay is one of only a handful of English-derived terms that appear in bahasa gay', and he italicises gay throughout in order to underline that its usage in the Indonesian context is not commensurable with its use in English. Boellstorff points out that Indonesia's history as a Dutch (and briefly Japanese colony) has meant that English has not been widely disseminated throughout the society and despite their use of the term gay, few Indonesian homosexuals are cognisant of the meaning of international gay symbols and activities (such as rainbow flags or pride parades). Gay Indonesians, then, have only 'fragmented concept of homosexuality gleaned from the mass media' (p. 185,) but this has not stopped them from developing a lively and sophisticated local gay lingo based on Indonesian—a 'national' language that only recently took shape as part of the movement for independence. Boellstorff suggests that for many gay Indonesians, it is through development of bahasa gay, a lingo based on the national language (and containing very few foreign loanwords and almost no local dialects), that they 'imagine a form of life in which they are authentic members of the nation' (pp. 197-98). The borrowing of the term 'gay' to describe this language masks the fact that in terms of its content and purpose, it is very much local concerns which are paramount.
  10. On the whole, this is an excellent collection that should appeal to a range of interdisciplinary interests, from anthropology and linguistics through to cultural, queer and gender studies.


    [1] This point is also reiterated in the chapter in this volume by Susana Peña who argues that 'the globalized AIDS industry has reinforced U.S. gay categories in the region', pp. 235-36.

    [2] See for example Chris Berry, Fran Martin and Audrey Yue, Mobile Cultures: New Media and Queer Asia, Durham: Duke 2003; Fran Martin, Situating Sexualities: Queer Representations in Taiwanese Film, Fiction and Public Culture, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2003; or my own Queer Japan from the Pacific War to the Internet Age, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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