Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 3, January 2000

Scott Bravman

Queer Fictions of the Past
— History, Culture and Difference

Cambridge and New York:
Cambridge University Press, 1997,
pp. xv, 174. Includes index.
IBSN 0521 599075 (paperback),
0521 1591015 (hardback),
paperback RRP AUD $26.95.

review article by Peter A. Jackson

Opportunities and Dangers in American Postmodernist Historiography

  1. Queer Fictions of the Past is a reflexive exercise in meta-history, critically assessing how American gay and lesbian authors have used historical discourses to 'produce, contest, and destabilise historically contingent fictive identities' (p. ix). In the words of the author, Scott Bravman, 'The primary aim of this book's project of queer cultural studies of history is to look at how identities and differences construct and are constructed through queer fictions of the past' (p. 15). Bravman's book is not an empirical study, but a post-structuralist review of how American gay and lesbian historiography has been practised in the twentieth century. Queer Fictions of the Past takes its place amongst an expanding genre of texts in the humanities and the social sciences which assess the impact of post-structuralist critiques on different disciplines. The purpose of this interdisciplinary genre is to reconstruct the disciplines in the knowledge that old ways of doing history, literary criticism, anthropology, politics, sociology and so on are now untenable and the scholarly undertaking needs to be reimagined.
  2. Bravman writes primarily for an audience of gay and lesbian academic historians and those interested in queer theory, a term which denotes the application of post-structuralist theories of identity, in particular, the work of Michel Foucault, to the study of sexual and gender diversity. While not being a book that many Pacific or Asian historians might think to place at the top of their reading list, Queer Fictions of the Past raises issues that are relevant to all historians interested in documenting changing notions of identity, whether that construct is inflected in ethnic, racial, cultural, sexual or gender terms. However, the book suffers from a pervasive Amerocentrism which at times reduces study of the societies of the Pacific and Asia to the diasporic communities living within the United States. I first consider the relevance of Bravman's study to Pacific and Asian historiography and conclude by critiquing its failure to imagine 'difference' as extending beyond the borders of the United States.

    Fictive Histories
  3. Bravman sees his study and queer approaches to historiography in general as 'a shift away from understanding lesbian and gay historical representations as literal or descriptive accounts of the past, towards reading those representations as performative sites where meanings are invented' (p. 97). The use of 'fiction' in the title and references to identities as 'fictive' do not denote a notion of history as concocted or fabulous, but reflect an acknowledgment of the open-endedness of the historiographical undertaking where interrogations of sources on the past are recognised as being open to multiple imaginings and continual retellings. As Bravman tells the reader, 'this approach refuses both a notion of total history and a singular interpretation of any particular event, period or historical narrative ...' (p. 125).
  4. In placing the notion of historiography as fictive writing at the centre of his study, Bravman reveals how literary forms such as tragedy and comedy often dominate imaginings of the past. By analysing accounts of ancient Greek homosexuality and gay liberation activism, Bravman shows how American gay and lesbian history has often been constructed in the form of a saga. This saga begins with tragic tales of the oppression of sexual and gender difference, moves on to recount some recent liberative successes and is infused with imaginings of a future happy ending in a society reconstructed upon the acceptance of sexual diversity. In understanding the fictive (but not fictional) nature of such historical writing, and its conformity to established literary tropes, we can see relationships between all forms of story telling, both those which claim to relate what 'actually happened' (history) and those which make no attempt to hide their fabricated origins (fiction).
  5. Bravman's first chapter on 'Metanarrative and Gay Identity' provides an excellent summary of postmodernist critiques of modernist historiography. In particular, he critiques the 'linear narrative' underlying much gay/lesbian history written in the form of a saga, that is, the idea that this history describes an underlying march towards emancipation and sexual liberty. For Bravman, a key problem with this modernist formulation is that in positing a single overarching dynamic it effaces the multiplicity of class, ethnic and other histories of homoeroticism and transgenderism. He sees his task as being to place cultural diversity, class difference and ethnic multiplicity at the centre of the historical enterprise rather than as appendices to an historiography imagined as representing a single process or a uniform set of transformations. Bravman explores the possibility of writing a history of sexualised identities that is not uniform and which finds room for several, perhaps many, co-existing narratives.

    Writing 'Ourselves' in Stories About 'Others'
  6. In his later chapters Bravman explores the challenges that face all authors who attempt to document shifts in culturally hybridised identities, in particular where groups within a society are united by some factors (e.g. sexual identity) but simultaneously separated from each other by other factors (e.g. ethnic/racial identity). As he remarks, 'To whatever extent ... queer identity exerts a centripetal force drawing "us" together towards some fictive or imagined centre, it does so only against, even necessarily in tandem with, the centrifugal force of racial formations that ceaselessly pull "us" apart, moving us outward and away from each other towards other locations that mark our complexly racially divided societies' (p. 75). Since the early 1990s queer theory and its applications in gay/lesbian ethnography and historiography have sought to conceptualise the contradictions and paradoxes of sexual and gender difference in the context of ethnic, cultural and racial hybridity.
  7. Foucault's work on power and identity has been highly influential in this context, with a key focus of recent queer historiography being the investigation of 'the power historical narratives have to construct boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, of identity and difference' (p. 98). Within queer analyses all historiography - whether reflexive accounts about 'our' past or the pasts of cultural 'others' - is seen as contributing to imagining both who 'we' are and who the 'others' are from whom we distinguish ourselves. Such an understanding of identity formation would seem productive in a wide range of situations. For example, it can lead to a meta-historical analysis of much Pacific and Asian historiography as reflecting western anxieties about self-definition as much as any ostensible 'pure' interest in appreciating other societies.
  8. In fields as diverse as physics, the social sciences and the humanities, postmodernist analyses have argued that the knowing subject is implicated in all attempts to know the 'other', whether that other is an inanimate phenomenon such as the structure of the atom or the cultures and peoples of different societies. Just as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle places limits on what is humanly knowable about the physical universe, so the skepticism of post-structuralist thought posits limits to what is knowable about the social and cultural universes. Some may think that this skepticism portends the end of the possibility of history. While it certainly marks the end of history imagined as an empirical recounting of actual events, claims of disciplinary doom would seem unfounded. Skeptical postmodernist historiography requires a greater degree of theoretical sophistication, an openness to inquiring into one's own investments in the historical enterprise, and a preparedness to explore new modes of inquiry and forms expression. However, we should not mistake this theoretical and methodological transformation for intellectual collapse.

    Exploring New Ways of Writing History
  9. To acknowledge that we as authors of historical studies are as much a part of the stories told as the 'others' we describe is to be forced to consider new ways of understanding what history is and how it is to be written. In this context, perhaps one of the most interesting sections of Bravman's text for historians of the Pacific and Asia is his explorations of new ways of writing about the past. He considers a number of Americans who believe that traditional 'linear narrative' forms of historical writing mask complexity and contradiction under a constructed facade of discursive continuity and as a consequence are exploring new approaches, 'These approaches are especially evident in a number of recent hybrid texts produced by lesbians and gay men of colour that weave autobiography, poetry, documentary material, feminist theory, personal narratives of desire, critical analyses of the structures of social domination, (science) fiction, and at times visual images into complex representations of queer historical subjects' (p. 98).
  10. Such hybrid forms of writing provide exciting models for telling the stories of the peoples of the Pacific and Asia. Which western-trained historian of the 'non-West' has not at times felt oppressed by the incapacity of academic discourse to represent the richness of the memories and texts excavated to construct his or her narratives? The experiments of the gay and lesbian historians that Bravman discusses provide encouragement to all historians to dare to write in new ways.

    Amerocentrism: Reducing 'China' to 'Chinatown'
  11. While there is much in Bravman's text that is relevant to Pacific-Asian historians, his text nevertheless suffers from frequent stylistic obscurantism and from a structural Amerocentrism which produces a blindspot in his analysis. Unfortunately the text of this book appears to reflect the impact of cost-cutting efficiencies within the publishing industry. The density of much of the prose and the often over-long sentences betray an absence of editorial engagement. Admittedly, part of the density of Bravman's text comes from a legitimate refusal to simplify what he sees as the irreducible complexity of gay, lesbian, transgender and other sexed and gendered identities in the United States. However, more thorough text-editing would have made this book much less of an effort to read. As Perry Anderson shows in his eminently readable recent study, The Origins of Postmodernity,[1] it is possible to write about the intricacies of postmodernity as a cultural condition and of postmodernism as a body of theories in prose that is both lucid and accessible.
  12. Queer Fictions of the Past also reflects the widespread parochialism of much American intellectual life. While Bravman takes great pains to detail the internal ethnic, gender and sexual multiplicities of contemporary American society, he universalises the American experience and glosses over the even greater multiplicities of all those societies located outside the United States. His text masks the cultural and political specificity of the history of the United States by a persistent refusal to use national or culturally defining qualifiers. In reading this book I was often annoyed by the absence of the words 'American' or 'North American' before 'gay/lesbian', an absence that has the effect of presenting American gay/lesbian history as if it were the story of sexual and gender diversity for the entire planet. This is, of course, a book about American historiography and it is not be critiqued for this specificity. However, Bravman writes as if America is the world not just one part of it. There is a contradiction between his style and his form expression, which silences 'non-America' or 'the rest' of the world at a structural level, despite the text's persistent rhetorical emphasis on acknowledging 'diversity', 'difference' and 'multiplicity'.
  13. In recent years I have detected a trend for American parochialism to extend increasingly to fields such as 'Asia-Pacific Studies'. Large scale immigration and the powerful influence of ethnic-based identity politics within the US have had an impact on the academy, with fields such as 'Asia-Pacific Studies' increasingly coming to denote the study of the Pacific-American and Asian-American diaspora within the country. While diasporic studies are an important field, the rise of this area of inquiry has at times meant that the study of the Pacific and Asian homelands of the diasporic communities has been devalued. 'Asia-Pacific Studies' is often conflated with the Amerocentric concerns of expatriate Pacific and Asian communities seeking to claim a place of prestige within the polity and culture of their new homeland.
  14. This tendency for studies of 'China' to be reduced to analyses of American 'Chinatowns', and other ethnic enclaves, is reflected in Queer Fictions of the Past. Bravman's only extended consideration of non-Western sexuality is a discussion (pp. 62-3) of a 1992 critique of Bret Hinsch's Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China[2] by Ming-Yeung Lu, an Asian-American living in California. Neither Lu nor Bravman in his reprise of Lu consider Hinsch's text from the perspective of what it tells us about pre-modern China. Instead they critique it in terms of its relevance or otherwise to the political project of Asian-American homosexual men seeking recognition of their ethnic specificity within White-dominated American gay culture. Whatever the legitimacy of this contemporary American ethnic-political-sexual struggle, it was an issue beyond Hinsch's concern in documenting pre-modern Chinese attitudes to homosexuality. While I do not wish to defend Hinsch's empiricist methodology, I do not think it is legitimate for his book to be critiqued for omitting consideration of the concerns of the gay Asian-American diaspora. If such a parochial line of argument is followed, then the only legitimate form of Pacific and Asian historiography is that which always includes an American perspective.
  15. Bravman's book should be read ethnographically as an artefact or distinctive cultural product of the contemporary United States. It shows us that in order to understand some of the types of 'Pacific History' and 'Asian History' now being produced within the US academy it is essential to understand American ethnicity-based identity politics.
  16. Bravman would have benefited from a wider reading of non-Western queer historiography in order to find models for representing his analysis in particularist rather than universalist terms. His text would also have benefited from a more frequent use of his PC's style-checker program. Nevertheless, those engaged in the task of imagining the pasts of the Pacific and Asia can still gain much from this book in understanding how others are approaching the challenges to historiography posed by post-structuralist critiques. Indeed, the fields of Pacific and Asian historiography would benefit immensely from the type of reflexive effort at discursive and disciplinary reconstruction that Bravman has attempted in his own area of research.


    [1] Perry Anderson, The Origins of Postmodernity, London: Verso, 1998.
    [2] Bret Hinsch, Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990, p. 7.


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

This page has been optimised for 800x600
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.
From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL:

HTML last modified: 17 March 2008 1347 by
Carolyn Brewer.

© Copyright