Guest post by Jamison Liang
As a graduate student in cultural anthropology whose research focuses on how international, national, and Islamic law have been applied to issues of gender and sexuality in the Indonesian province of Aceh, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to partake in the recent conference, Sexuality and Political Change: A New Training Program hosted by Sexuality Policy Watch (SPW).
The meeting took place in Rio de Janeiro from March 18-22 and brought together 17 individuals from around the world who do research on sexuality in the global south and look to link their work to movements of political and social change. Sexuality Policy Watch, a Rio and New York-based organization, serves as a global forum for researchers and activists who engage with policy debates and initiatives on sexuality, gender, sexual and reproductive rights, HIV/AIDS, and LGBT activism. This pilot program aimed to provide a forum for participants to share our research and experiences while reflecting on the intersection of theory, research, and change in the realm of genders and sexualities.
One factor that made this conference so important for me—but also challenging—was the diversity of the participants both in interests and backgrounds. Attendees came from Argentina, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, Brazil, India, Egypt, the Philippines, Cameroon, China, and Mexico, among others. I was one of two Americans. We ranged from current graduate students to established professors to queer activists to UN lawyers and had expertise in areas including sexual health, LGBT rights, migration, and sex work.
In forums such as this, it is always helpful as a space for knowledge sharing, but it is undoubtedly difficult to negotiate how we translate all of our local identities and nationally-bound political structures into terms and strategies that have currency at the transnational and international level.
The week began with participant presentations followed by intense discussions on how to theorize change in relation to our work. We were fortunate to have a visit from Jean Wyllys, Brazil’s first openly gay congressman, and lectures which considered the influences of “homonationalism,” religious fundamentalism, and international aid conditionality in Africa.
We debated about the extent to which victimization can serve as an effective narrative for achieving social justice and at what point subjects need to be recast as political agents. We then turned to case studies, including the court case which brought down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, thereby decriminalizing homosexual sex, and the political process that helped Argentina realize its outstanding law on gender identity.
My work in Aceh has prompted me to consider to what extent global human rights instruments on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) can help to protect LGBT communities. Does naming sexualities and genders in these documents, while increasing their visibility, ultimately lead to a backlash? If so, how do we mitigate this risk? Notably, one of the avenues which I am currently exploring is how to “translate” international human rights terminology into a locally understood and respected cultural framework, especially one that has legal traction. By doing so, it may be possible to overcome the false claim that queer identities are inherently Western and, as an extension, un-Islamic. As I presented my research as a case study, it was extremely helpful to hear feedback from participants who suggested alternative theoretical approaches to my work.
Still, this was a challenging conference for me personally because I was one of the only researchers from the global north and one of the few who did not study my own country. I found myself struggling to walk the line between saying I wished to do applied research without it being misread as an attempt to “save” queer Indonesians from oppression. Indeed, I had probably become too comfortable in the American academic world where doing work abroad is both common and accepted so long as one has a valid research interest and is respected by the community one wants to work with. What gave me the right to study Indonesians and why was I interested in them? What does it mean for me as a hapa located in the global north to be doing this work? While I often think about these questions privately, I was not used to having to justify my identity and positionality in such a contentious public space.
This conference offered me an opportunity for reflection on how I frame my research and how I position myself in relation to research participants. It opened my eyes to the different theories and strategies activists and academics from the global south galvanize around, perspectives that are often overlooked in American academia.
Jamison Liang is currently pursuing an MA in Anthropology and International Development as a National Science Foundation Fellow at George Washington University. His current research interests include the role of law in realizing social change in Aceh, Indonesia and the influence of development actors in shaping rights-based rhetoric around sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) policies. He received his BA from Washington University in St. Louis with concentrations in Art History, Anthropology, and Gender & Sexuality Studies.