When discussing the status of queer people in countries that form part of the so-called East, Global South or Third World, it is easy to fall prey to an Orientalist discourse of hopelessness with regard to LGBTQ issues; from the violent breakup of gay pride parades in Russia, to the banning of same-sex hugging in Zimbabwe and mob violence in Jamaica, the lives of queer people in non-Western countries seem extremely difficult and fraught with violent discrimination. Further still, Western news reporting on this subject, both inside and outside the LGBT community, reflects broader tensions and inequalities in the global relationship between East and West.

Edward Said introduced the concept of ‘Orientalism’ as a framework for analyzing the bases of Western knowledge about the East. He argued that whatever Westerners ‘know’ about the East is not the product of actual knowledge about Eastern societies, derived from ‘objective’ responses to sense impressions received from interaction with the Middle East, Africa, South America and Asia. Rather, it is the outcome of elaborate ‘Orientalist’ discourses, which limit the context in which knowledge about the East is acquired and presents the Western ‘observer’ with a ready-made blueprint of information about the non-Western world.

‘Orientalism’ is the cultural discourse through which the East is either imagined (for those that have never been there) or perceived (for those that have visited). In this discourse, all non-Western societies are constructed as fundamentally the same: they are basically the ‘opposite’ of the West. For instance, while Europe and the U.S. are imagined to be the realm of technology, progress, and liberalism, the East is always already constructed as that part of the world where traditionalism/conservatism, nature and ‘barbaric’ values still reign. An alternative Orientalist discourse involves portraying the West as ‘progressive, but boring and bland,’ while the East (with its barbarisms and quirks) is depicted as vivacious, exotic and ‘interesting’.

Given the above, how has representation of queer troubles in the East/South/Third World been held hostage by Orientalism? There has been an overwhelming tendency to focus on solely the negative aspects, or to write about queer life in the non-Western world only in the context of oppression. This ignores the fact that, despite awful discrimination, queer life goes on and numerous queer communities do emerge even in places in which one would least expect them to. The overwhelming focus on the discriminatory context of queer life in the East contributes to Orientalist discourses about the ‘backwardness’ and traditionalism of the non-Western world and obscures the fact that queer peoples and communities do find ways of managing life, even in very oppressive circumstances. Further, the actions of individuals and organizations working to resolve the problem become obscured – the sole focus is on the egregious human rights abuses (which make for sensational, eye-catching news) – and not the more mundane aspects of everyday LGBT activism and struggle.

Aside from continuing the emphasis on the savagery and barbarity of the East, there is also a tendency to ‘idealize’ the East as ‘exotic’ and sexually mysterious: a place that has been less subject to the regulative Western labeling of gender and sexuality. Indeed, in her book Queer in Russia, Laurie Essig posits Russia as a place where it is possible to actually live a truly ‘queer’ existence, outside the restrictive categories that many have built their lives around in the West. Although this version of Orientalism puts a considerably more positive spin on the ‘East’, it is ultimately discriminatory and inaccurate as well. By eroticizing and exoticizing the East, the authors writing under this framework again ignore the everyday inequalities that LGBT people in that area of the world have to deal with. While the discourse of ‘Eastern barbarism’ places too much emphasis on discrimination and inequality (so much so that it makes non-Western societies appear barbaric), the discourse of ‘Eastern exoticism’ totally ignores it.

On the whole, we have a representational conundrum – what is the solution? Perhaps it is time to let people from the global South/Third World/East speak for themselves. Since being represented by the West is fraught with ideological and political difficulties, perhaps the best thing that Western LGBT and human rights organizations can do is provide a forum for people from the East to speak. Rather than attempt to see them from the perspective of the West, it might be necessary to let them represent themselves on their own terms. And if this is not possible, then Westerners need to be aware of Orientalist discourses and to dedicate themselves to steering away from them in future writings.

***For More Information***
Definitely check out Edward Said’s Orientalism. It’s a classic read and provides a great framework for analyzing West/East and North/South international relations. Maria Todorova’s Imagining the Balkans is also useful. Although it has a more regional focus (on Southeastern Europe), she does provide a similar framework to Said’s which is just as valuable.

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