“We had him down as a rent boy,” remarked a bartender in Brussels about Salah Abdeslam, one of the suspected jihadists in the recent Paris attacks. Several reports noted that Abdeslam frequented gay bars and flirted with other men. These revelations were difficult to slot into existing media narratives and stood in uneasy relation to his posited allegiance with the group best known in the United States as ISIS. After all, there have been numerous credible reports of ISIS’s violent condemnation and abuse of queer people. In many instances, the penalty for homosexuality has been death.
Meanwhile, a select number of those who have fled war-torn Syria to seek resettlement in the United States have identified as LGBTQ. Their fears are many: the violence of a state takeover by ISIS, the oppressive regime of President Bashar Assad, being “found out” as queer, and becoming stateless, among others. But the process for resettlement is long, tenuous, and mired with red tape meant to keep them from entering the United States, where expressions of populist anti-Islamic sentiment (and pushback against gay marriage) are mainstream news. Furthermore, refugee policies in North America favor heteronormative families, while popular culture often pathologizes both migrant sexualities and foreign regimes of LGBTQ oppression.
A few months ago, we were invited to contribute to colloquy in the journal Diplomatic History on the topic of “Queering America and the World.” With all of these realities so pressing, it seems like queering US diplomatic history in its various expansive manifestations shouldn’t be particularly hard. But it is. Although the reasons are many, one is particularly significant: What do we mean by queer and queering? The field of queer studies has tackled this question for over two decades. We are not reinventing the wheel, but rather emphasizing what the United States and the World field has to contribute to this conversation, and how it may be implicated in it.
Of course we mean to insist on a focus on queer people—the soldiers, state department officials, transnational activists, aid workers, merchants, artists, and those, like Ugandans targeted by Christian leaders, who find themselves under the shadow of US influence. At times, this includes those who identify, or are identified, as queer, as well as those whose lives and work are shaped by that reality. Perhaps they are vulnerable to attack: roughed up, tortured, or fired from work and harassed at home. Perhaps, even at the same time, they are involved in sexual rights movements, protests, and the creation of new domestic and international politics.
All the while, queer perspectives also acknowledge the kinships, passions, and playful and sexy encounters—oftentimes jumbled together—that lead to new understandings in the United States and across borders. When satirists send dildos to Oregon militias or use Photoshop to superimpose them on terrorist or GOP-wielded AK-47s we are treated to a different vision of US militancy. But beyond such mockery, imperialist and foreign affairs have long been loaded with tropes and practices of seduction, intimacy, dominance, and penetration, as well as binary models of gendered power. Whether we’re talking about the secrets shared by spies, the partnerships between statesmen and women, or the transnational bonds linking gay activists, we aim to take the relationships part of special relationships seriously.
In the end, we also want queering the United States in the World to mean asking hard questions about the archive, about how stories are told and meanings are stabilized. It isn’t enough to talk about sex, although we want that too. We imagine also asking about what kinds of narratives the archives allow us to tell, and what is gained by viewing them askew, newly, or in a way that is off the straight and narrow path. The richness of queer life, after all, rarely finds reflection in official records, even when they speak strongly to its probing and regulation. Reversing that dynamic and queerly interrogating our source base aligns us to the important work of many others unwilling to be shaped by the priorities and orientations of history’s victors.
Some might fear that moves to queer the field of the United States and the World may trivialize its work, but we think the opposite: queerness is and should be everywhere, including queer people, and sexual politics, and methods of thinking queerly. It’s urgent to examine how power, including manifestations such as settler colonialism and consumer capitalism, both shapes and works through sex, intimacy, and affective life. But queering, while informed by political needs in the present, also helps us understand many historical events and processes that continue to exert tremendous effects in the world. Recent stories from Europe and the Middle East only remind us of that longer history. Like earlier revelations about US torture, they reveal sexuality’s complex imbrication with transnational circulations and geopolitical affairs, including US-sponsored wars and their aftermaths.
Like any intervention in a scholarly field, the practices of queering the history of US foreign relations will evolve as they are tested and reoriented. And we have to remain vigilant to ensure that in queering the study of the United States and the World we don’t court ahistorical thinking about what queerness means or looks like, or encourage forms of US exceptionalism. Yet it is exciting to imagine how US diplomatic historians’ skills and strengths—including their attention to international relations, creative use of multi-sited archives, and interest in changing power relations between people and nations—might enhance ongoing processes of queering happening in other subfields and disciplines. Our colloquy points to keywords, research questions, and methodologies through which queering promises to provide fresh impetus and complexity, even as it acknowledges that the bounds and definitions of the term “queer,” much like the fates of many LGBTQ refugees and activist projects, remain in flux.
Image Credit: “Bandeira LGBT no Congresso Nacional” by Antonio Cruz. CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.