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There was a lesson I was taught in my first year of graduate school. It is a lesson many postcolonial (poco) scholars must learn before engaging in talks on cultural relativism, poco politics, and poco societies. It is also a lesson poco scholars must learn before they assume that every colonial story is the same – a fallacy many new/non-poco scholars often overlook. This lesson is the ‘danger of a single story’. In a TED talk from 2009, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a brilliant postcolonial Nigerian writer and scholar, warns people of the dangers of accepting or believing a single story. She says:
Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story, and to start with, ‘secondly.’ Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story… All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience, and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story… I would like to end with this thought: That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.
Adichie provides the frameworks for understanding another culture, not solely on the basis of a single image. Yet, she also provides a warning for those who engage in trying to understand experiences and stories other than their own. It is dangerous to simply believe what we assume to be the only truth of a given person, people, or culture – there are always two sides to any one story. She also claims, inadvertently, that cultural relativism is the only way to truly understand the story of another. There is no ‘debate’ over cultural relativism – to engage in talks on sexuality, culture, and race, one accepts the idea that cultural relativism is the only means necessary. Finally, she believes that no colonial story is the same. Many countries were colonised, however each in a different way. As such, each case of colonialism needs to be read from the beginning of the first contact between the colonised and the coloniser.
Keeping Adichie’s warning in mind, we can begin to understand how in certain societies homophobia is the direct inheritance of colonial rule – to think otherwise is to silence the voices that fight so hard against the injustices that plague queer people living in postpostcolonial (and in some cases colonial) societies. Since the concept of ‘gay’, as many Western activists describe same-sex relationships, is a Western construct stemming from the gay rights movement, I will use the term ‘queer’ to describe poco sexualities. That is: ‘queer’ not as in ‘deviant’, but rather ‘queer’ as in any sexuality other than heterosexuality – queer as liberation and freedom. By using the term queer, I mean to avoid any universal claim that homosexuality is the same cross-culturally – thus avoiding the idea that tolerance of homosexuality is a Western construct.
To understand the way sexuality is constructed in poco societies, one cannot simply toss out the laws and histories of the colonised society. Nor can we glorify the (once) colonisers who have come to new understandings for the ways in which their laws were once oppressive and horrific. Just because many European countries are now more tolerant for same-sex marriage does not mean that their homophobic legacies do not live on. These legacies do live on in the name of ‘patriotism’ and ‘ethnic purity’. In societies where colonisation has taken place, there is often a second colonisation that takes place – sometimes long after the colonisers have left.
The new colonisers are the colonised who, as leaders, perpetuate the actions of their oppressors. They colonise those that were once their brethren, creating new ‘others’ seen as inferior, different, unequal. These new ‘others’ are called the subaltern (a term created by the cultural sociologist Antonio Gramsci, later used by Gaytri Spivak). Therefore, neocolonial regimes are established upon the principles of the coloniser’s society- meaning forms of colonisation still exist in many ‘post’ colonial societies.
Before I move on, I’d like to point out that these countries are not so-called ‘developing countries’. To call them developing is to see them as somehow inferior and less than other more ‘advanced’ countries. They are simply countries trying to return to the origins of their cultures, history, and lives prior to colonisation. Those who are subaltern get swept up in the struggles of neocolonial states, given a place not of their choosing, and colonised for the sake of cultural purity. They are viewed by their once ‘brethren’ as a threat to the newly regained independence, a twisted and hybrid representation of the past. In some cases, these subalterns were once honored and given exonerations of esteemed praise – they were once crucial to the pre-colonised culture but now suffer at the hands of their fellow colonised.
One such people are the Two-spirits of Native American culture. Two-spirit is a modern name that encompasses a variety of gender roles, same-sex relationships, and Native Americans who do not embody the patriarchal norms that were instituted during colonisation. I could not begin to describe the complexities of Two-spirits in Native American culture, but they were people who represented a third and fourth gender (men who performed both male and female gender roles, and women who performed both male and female gender roles). For a full history of Native Two-spirit culture see Will Roscoe’s Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. Let me be clear here: I do not presume to speak for these people. Instead, my aim is to create awareness and engage in a dialogue with the work of decolonisation being done by Two-spirit peoples.
I bring up the Two-spirit peoples here to highlight the fact that some Native Americans do not believe that they live in a poco society. On the other hand many settler colonialists believe that Native Americans have fully assimilated into ‘Western’ culture. This means that Native American theorists see colonisation as still taking place. Qwo-Li Driskill, a queer Cherokee activist, is one such person who focuses on the intersections between indigenous decolonial activism and queer activism. Ze states, in his essay, ‘Doubleweaving Two-Spirit Critiques Building Alliances between Native and Queer Studies’:
For Native Two-Spirit/GLBTQ people and our allies, part of imagining our futures is through creating theories and activism that weave together Native and GLBTQ critiques that speak to our present colonial realities… If you are reading this in the United States or Canada, whose land are you on, dear reader? What are the specific names of the Native nation(s) who have historical claim to the territory on which you currently read this article? What are their histories before European invasion? What are their historical and present acts of resistance to colonial occupation? If you are like most people in the United States and Canada, you cannot answer these questions. And this disturbs me. This essay is meant to challenge queer studies not only to pay attention to Native people and Native histories but also to shift its critiques in order to include a consciousness about the ongoing colonial reality in which all of us living in settler-colonial states are entrenched.
Driskill speaks eloquently of the present realities that face queer indigenous peoples. I am not saying that queer Native Americans speak for all indigenous peoples, but the fundamentals to understanding poco societies, and the homophobia therein, reside in this passage of past and present realities. We as queer activists cannot ignore the past, and we cannot claim to understand the struggles facing queer indigenous peoples in present poco/neo societies. If we ignore the dialogues of such peoples, we cannot begin to understand how cultures have changed by embracing the past while simultaneously rejecting it. We must never accept the single story or idea that ‘Colonialism is not to blame for the present state of homophobia in poco societies’. There is no debate on cultural relativism in the search to understand the lives of oppressed queer peoples in colonial societies. It is simply the belief that queer/poco critiques can work together to improve the lives of queer peoples.
Homophobia is not the unshackling of the metaphorical chains of colonialism. IT IS COLONIALISM. It is an extension of the past and there is no collective guilt deep enough to absolve the crimes of the past which create the present realities. There is only one hope: a hope of a future where colonialism is no longer a legacy and an extension in the present, but an idea of the past. THAT begins by understanding the intersections between culture, race, sexuality, and how history has shaped all three. LGBT+ is a Western fad, an extension of universalisms that claim there is a universal gay brotherhood where one must be ‘gay’ to belong. I believe in a collective freedom of queer peoples, a collective freedom of the human soul. To do otherwise, is to silence the voices of queer indigenous peoples and to ignore the current colonial realities that plague neocolonial societies. There is no blame, only reality.