Guest post by J. Daniel Luther: ‘Queer’ Asia 2018 – Towards a decolonial network and platform

In this post, J. Daniel Luther discusses the ethos, constraints, and activities of the annual ‘Queer’ Asia conferences and film festival and the struggles and challenges faced therein, including organising across state borders, negotiating financial limitations, and disciplinary boundaries.

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Installation on migration, refugees, and inequality from the ‘Queer’ Asia art exhibition

The third edition of the ‘Queer’ Asia (QA) conference and film festival concluded late June 2018. The popularity and attendance this June overshadowed the earlier two conferences in 2016 and 2017; this conference, titled ‘Bodies X Borders,’ saw a gathering of over 200 academics, artists, filmmakers, and theatre practitioners from around the world. Individuals and groups from over forty different countries came to attend the third conference, which was spread across The British Museum, University College London, the University of Warwick, and SOAS. The film festival alone sold over 1300 tickets. The conference and film festival, spanning a week, was a unique commingling of differences in pursuit of a common need to reflect, analyse, and engage with varied queer positionalities as they intersect with the geo-politics of Asia. The inter-regional dialogue, the inter-disciplinary focus, and the inter-medium — film, art, theatre, theory — exchanges contributed towards the creation of an ephemeral but rewarding decolonial space.

The conference and film festival along with the monthly events contribute to making QA a platform that reflects the ethos of the QA network. The ethos of the network is the creation of a supportive space for two crucial intersections. The first is to provide an opportunity for a much needed inter-regional dialogue on issues affecting non-normative communities, individuals, and movements within different ethno-political regions in Asia. The second is to decolonise the underlying Western epistemology travelling eastward under the nomenclature of ‘Queer’ and LGBT (see ‘Introduction’ in Luther and Ung Loh, 2019).

The first conference in June 2016, titled “Diversity, Contestations, and Developments”, was supposed to be a one-off attempt at engendering such a cross pollination. In adhering to this ethos, all the conference panels were made up of participants addressing different geo-political contexts on a particular disciplinary focus. This setup seeded conversations that surpassed our expectations; not only did the panels bring together diverse experiences and create new linkages, but they also flowed over into rich audience discussions, with participants reflecting various specialist positions. The overall effect of this was to create an environment of eager engagement and learning. Such an atmosphere resulted in calls for subsequent conferences and events. Thus, June 2017 saw the second conference and the first ever film festival titled “Desire, Decolonisation and Decriminalisation” and more recently “Bodies X Borders” in June 2018.

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‘Queer’ Asia Bodies X Borders Keynote Panel, from left to right – Dr. Nour Abu Assab, Prof. Geeta Patel, Dr. Vanja Hamzic, Prof. Suen Yiu-Tung

The diverse and engaging environs of the earliest conference carried over into the next two conferences, but the increased focus on films and other media, including theatre, and art in June 2018 resulted in harnessing multiple mediums through which non-normative sexualities and genders could be expressed, imagined, and explored. Embracing a multi-modal format was a crucial learning point from the feedback of the first conference. It was a response to the popularity of the conference with community partners, diasporic community groups, activist and policy specialists. Several members of these groups also identified themselves as non-academic audiences and provided feedback regarding the difficulty they faced in accessing some post-structuralist theorisation on crucial issues pertaining to queer Asian experiences. Such feedback included but was not limited to unequal access to university resources or opportunities which precluded their inclusion into the ready circulation of post-structural jargon encapsulating important concepts and tools. Therefore the committee responded to this feedback through embracing multiple forms through varied media within which non-normativity and forms of queerness are theorised within Asia. This year, 2018, these nuanced modalities were evinced in Jayan Cherian’s activist film Ka Bodyscapes that narrativizes and imagines a queer/feminist/Marxist intersectionality around the struggles of activists and artists in Kerala against societal opprobrium, Hindu hegemony, and state censorship. It emerged in the reflection of Peruvian film maker Santi Zagerra and Columbian trans activist Giovanna Rincon discussing the intersectional struggles of their and other non-normative immigrants in France, including a Russian transman, a Lesbian Ugandan woman, and a Chinese gay man. It emerged in the cross pollination at the “Bodies X Borders” exhibition where artists from Syria, Japan, the Filipina Diaspora, India, South Korea, amongst others reflected on the way queer lives and bodies of queer people negotiate state borders and borders of the mind. Such a plethora of intersection is also reflected in the engagement of academics participating in the conference and writing blogs about the impact of these transnational connections on their thought.

Critically, the conference exceeds the limitations of an academic conference by fostering a community where each participant at the platform contributes to building towards not just a burgeoning collective of non-normativity in rethinking societal, cultural, national or transnational oppressions but also simultaneously engaging in a decolonial nexus working to dismantle imperialist regionalisms, travelling queerness, or bracketed off identities. Such a nexus was visible at the closing panel of the Film Festival in 2017 that saw six film makers responding to each other, the audience, and the discussion in relation to each other’s films and how these influenced their thinking. It is also evinced in the format for the panels and each keynote that takes intersectionality as its baseline. It is the focus on this decolonial nexus that drives the ‘Queer’ Asia committee in voluntarily labouring all year round to provide a freely accessible, inclusive, and diverse space. Such a drive contributes to our tireless efforts to raise funds so as to be able to offer financial support to participants who encounter state borders and societal barriers. However, despite these efforts, the very real borders that hinder transnational solidarity and organising are insurmountable. These were abundant in the many visas that were denied despite full funding via ‘Queer’ Asia such as for the gay Syrian refugee Alqumit whose art was featured at the exhibition or the Indian film makers financially prevented from accessing reimbursements due to institutional policies. QA often relies on internet platforms to dial in speakers especially where visas are denied, and in the instance of several artists and film makers in June 2018 also set up a protest addressed to the Home Office that was signed by many participants at conference.

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From the ‘Queer’ Asia Bodies X Borders Keynote Panel

Cognisant of these hurdles the committee understands the implication of continuing to host QA in London. Much as we wish for QA to be hosted within Asia, as students we are hindered by the minutiae of working multiple jobs to support ourselves, carrying out our own research, and sparing time to work freely and willingly towards enabling such a conference and film festival. Within these constraints we are cumbered with struggling against neo-liberal logics of minoritisation and co-option even as we recognise the importance of continuing to build a platform. However, it is the ethos of enabling a decolonial nexus — that refuses to remain bracketed within conventional disciplines nor adheres to the colonial and cold-war imperialist brackets of Area Studies — whether it emerges once a year at QA, or lives on in blogs and multi-modal transnational intersectional thought processes that we hope is the lasting impact of the conference and the film festival.

About J. Daniel Luther

Daniel Luther completed their doctoral research from SOAS, University of London, and is beginning a Visiting Research Fellowship at Kings College London. They are teaching in the Sociology Department, University of Warwick. They are also one of the co-founder of the annual Queer Asia international conference and film festival. Their forthcoming co-edited book with Dr. Jennifer Ung Loh titled ‘Queer’ Asia: Decolonising and Reimagining Sexuality and Gender details many of the theoretical challenges in conceptualising the intersection of queer and Asia as rooted in the activities of the ‘Queer’ Asia platform and network.

Note from Conference Inference editors: Conference Inference is now taking its annual break until the end of January 2019, when we will be back with our 2nd anniversary post!

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