Bridging the gap between English as the academic lingua franca and ‘other’ contexts is a tricky affair. A lot of writing on feminism as traveling theory (Kathy Davis and Mary Evans ‘Transatlantic Conversations Feminism as Travelling Theory being one of my favorites), and critics such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1988) have reminded us that theory (and ideology) production is entrenched in a global economic history.
What happens to the immense queer-feminist knowledge that has been flooded out of US and UK higher education systems? If as feminists we have come to conclusion that knowledge is always situated, always embedded in power dynamics and that critique is never finished, why is there only so little attention to all these contexts where queer-feminist theory is applied, re-conceptualised and turned into something new?
The question of what it means to apply queer-feminist theory in ‘other’ contexts is particularly pertinent for me. I have had my academic socialization in Switzerland and the UK and just bridging the gap between different European contexts and languages, academic cultures and political struggles have presented a recurring probe.
A few months ago I decided to come to Berlin – keen to find out how queer-feminist theory is doing in the much lauded European capital of kink culture, bohemian dreams and radical history. Here, ‘queer’ is everywhere – or this is at least what the Siegessäule, Berlin’s self-proclaimed ‘queer city magazine’ promises. But as I am turning the slick pages, I suddenly question whether my understanding of ‘queer’ correlates with that of Berlin’s ‘hip and cool’ scene makers. It does not take a deep analysis to note that the main target audience of the Siegessäule listings are gay white men with cash to spend. The Siegessäule which received its name from the military monument Victory Column declares not only ‘queer’ ways to spend money but also delineates a ‘queer’ politics.
At the moment, the magazine’s political focus lies on LGBT rights in Russia. It isn’t really a surprising trope that ‘queer’ Berlin is celebrating its ‘queer’ freedoms against Russian oppression. The Victory Column has declared war on Russian homophobia, sending football teams with Siegessäule t-shirts to Sochi whilst holding the home front with an Olympic-Games-web-campaign-blog on LGBTI* rights in Russia.
In Germany, the trope of the ‘barbaric Russians’ is nothing new, as I am learning from my colleagues at Humboldt University. My colleagues have also gotten used to the fact that ‘queer’ has been appropriated for a middle class (but not bourgeois) hipster lifestyle, political assimilation and racist politics. So what does this mean for queer theory made in Berlin? And how can we separate the queers from the ‘queers’?
My search leads me to an impressive array of graduate work on the not-so-queer politics of the Siegessäule and their allies. These analyses use the work of queer of colour theorists such as Sara Ahmed, Jin Haritaworn and Jaspir Puar to bridge to the German context. In Alles so schön bunt hier…?! Rassifizierte Diskurspraxen und Weißsein in ‘queeren’ Zeiten, Agnes Böhmelt, Katrin M. Kämpf and Matthias Mergl describe how the Siegessäule produces normative and assimilable white homosexual subjects in contrast to unassimilable Turkish and Arab men who are framed as the main perpetrators of homophobic violence in Berlin.
Transnational anti-racist queer-feminist theorist Jin Haritaworn (2011) has equally picked up on this trope and identified a “migrant homophobia discourse” mediated by the ‘queer’ magazine and its political allies including the city council and the Lesbian and Gay Foundation LSVD. In Queer Injuries: The Racial Politics of “Homophobic Hate Crime” in Germany, Haritaworn explores how the nostalgic self-articulation of Berlin as an exceptional hub for “diversity, tolerance and freedom” is signified through an anti-Muslim discourse.
On a broader level, the edited collection Kritik des Okzidentalismus. Transdisziplinäre Beiträge zu (Neo-)Orientalismus und Geschlecht explores Occidental self-articulations and gender (equality) discourses. Although the point of reference lies (maybe too much) on an Occident-Orient binary, Occidentalism seems a fruitful piece for a theorization of a (West) European exceptionalism in relation to gender and sexual liberties.
Jin Haritaworn calls for a transnational framework for the analysis of global and local articulations and appropriations of feminist and queer discourses. However, in order to fully conceptualise a critique of ‘post-homophobic ‘ or ‘post-feminist’ Europe and what that means in different European contexts, convergences and differences between Occidental Self-articulations, imperialism, post-Sowiet imaginaries, classisms and homonationalisms need to be further explored.
Looking at the journeys concepts, theories and methods take when they are deployed in different contexts is not just significant for local analyses but might also open up new avenues for the countries that are most successful in exporting queer-feminist knowledge. And maybe this is the moment for us to advocate for more intra-European and international conversations across language barriers.
Stefanie C Boulila is writing her PhD about gender and sexuality discourses in European salsa dance communities at the University of Leeds. She is currently a visiting researcher at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Notes from Berlin is a blog series about queer-feminist academia and activism in the capital of kink. Find Stefanie on Twitter @StefanieBoulila. You can also find Stephanie on Acedemia.edu