Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 21, September 2009
Fran Martin, Peter A. Jackson, Mark McLelland, and Audrey Yue (eds)

Rethinking Genders and Sexualities

Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-252-07507-0 (pbk); 278pp.

reviewed by Katsuhiko Suganuma

  1. It is perhaps not necessary to reiterate the idea in its entirely that certain forms of culture vary from one society to another. Those of gender and sexuality are no exception to this. When one attempts to create a dialogue between the discourses of gender and sexuality in the so-called 'West' and those in the 'non-West,' one cannot do it without expanding and modifying the analytical tools already available to and emanating from a specific location and time. Since the 1990s, the academic interests of LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) cultures in Asia have surged. In the last decade, numerous studies and essays on LGBTQ cultures in Asia have been published in English, of which AsiaPacifiQueer should be seen as another important contribution.
  2. Consisting of fourteen chapters, AsiaPacifiQueer sheds light on an array of LGBTQ cultures in areas as geographically diverse as Japan, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand, New Zealand, Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia. The discussions of the queer cultures from Australia and New Zealand are the only concessions to the 'Pacific' part of 'Asia-Pacific' in this volume. However such an effort is necessary and important at least for two reasons. First, the inclusion of Oceanian countries in the discussion of LGBTQ cultures in Asia does decentre and broaden the concepts in other than 'Asian' contexts. Second, resituating Australia and New Zealand not simply as a part of the 'West,' but as 'non-metropolitan Western counties' or part of both the 'West and Oceania,' the notion of the West itself can be redefined (pp. 3–6). The analytical methods employed by the essays in this volume are fundamentally interdisciplinary. And yet, scholars and research students who specialise in cultural studies, cinema studies, social linguistics, anthropology and history will find this anthology engaging and informative. It will also interest, albeit to a lesser extent, social scientists and political scientists.
  3. The collected essays are put together and edited by four scholars (Fran Martin, Peter A. Jackson, Mark McLelland, and Audrey Yue) who are the founders and core associates of the academic network AsiaPacifiQueer (APQ hereafter). Established in 2000, APQ has engaged in academic activism of 'bringing together academics and research students in a collective attempt to inscribe queer studies within Asian studies and equally importantly to locate Asia, and the non-West, within queer studies' (p. 3). One manifestation of this was the first large-scale international conference on LGBTQ cultures in Asia, 'Sexualities, Genders, and Rights in Asia: The First International Conference of Asian Queer Studies,' which was held in Bangkok in July 2005.
  4. As the subtitle of the book indicates, this volume sets as its objective to 'rethink' the discourses of gender and sexuality in Anglophone cultures by way of shifting attention to Asia. In this process of 'rethinking,' more often than not, it is all too easy to rely on the binary opposition of 'West' and 'non-West' to give perspective to Asian LGBTQ cultures. Some may observe that a range of LGBTQ cultures in Asia, especially since the early 1990s, are byproducts of the globalisation and westernisation of Asian societies. Others might, instead, insist that certain forms of LGBTQ cultures in Asia are particular to the region, and thus should be seen as distinct from those in the West. Yet such a way of understanding the constructions of gender and sexuality in Asia does little to 'rethink' those in the West in the first place. Both ways of viewing Asian LGBTQ cultures—either as an imitation of the West, or being manifested themselves independent of the West—are concomitant with the re-inscription of the binary categorisation between the West and non-West. In this, the West remains static, and continues to be a primary point of reference against which the non-West is measured.
  5. The editors of AsiaPacifiQueer are critically aware of this problem. In order to avoid such a perpetuation of the binary between the West and non-West, the editors formulate an alternative perspective. In the introduction chapter, they propose a model—'the queer hybridization model' that 'moves beyond the reductiveness of earlier approaches that located the sexual cultures and practices of other societies along a continuum of sameness versus difference from those of the West' (p. 6). According to the editors, it is the 'hybrid' in 'the queer hybridization' model that deconstructs and calls into question the binary itself without reinvigorating it. Most of the essays in this volume follow this model, and show the usefulness of the methodology. A good example is J. Neil C. Garcia's chapter on the historical hybridisation processes of the notion of the indigenous male transgender (bakla) and the English concept of gay in the Philippines. Garcia contends,

      [All] cross-cultural encounters…end up producing nothing purely native nor purely foreign. As these various texts suggest, the contemporary Filipino gay, like contemporary gay discourse itself, is a syncretism of local and Western gender and sexual constructions (pp. 174–75).

    AsiaPacifiQueer enters into such examinations of the intersections of global and local LGBTQ cultures, and is not an uncritical observation of the sameness or differences between them. That is the major strength and success of this volume.
  6. One disappointment of this volume is an unfulfilled objective which was ambitiously proposed in the introductory chapter. The editors set a major aim of this anthology as the creation of an intraregional/intra-Asian conversation within diverse LGBTQ cultures without first referencing Western theories and discourses (pp. 2, 4). Although such a project is much needed and important, most of the essays in this volume still conduct their analyses along national boundaries. The editors aptly point to the similarities, and the differences, among the queer discourses in Asia, such as the socio-linguistic function of the Chinese term tongzhi across Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the interpretations of transgender terminology in Southeast Asia including Thai kathoey, Filipino bakla, and Malaysian mak nyah (p. 14). The discussions of the cultural meanings of these terms are carried out individually in each essay. And yet, despite the aim identified by the editors, it is still left to the readers to tease out the intraregional dialogues between these essays. We learn from the endnotes that some essays in this volume spent nearly a decade going through revisions, and conversions from earlier drafts. Knowing this, some readers might expect further efforts by each author to speak to each other and address intraregional dialogues in Asia.
  7. However, there is, of course, a limit to what one anthology can do. AsiaPacifiQueer deserves credit for initiating such a difficult and uncommon inquiry, that opens up new paradigms in understanding LGBTQ cultures in Asia and beyond.


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