Thursday, March 7, 2013

A coincidence of Desire: Queer Indonesia and zines

 A Coincidence of Desire Lacks Intersectionality

by Smitty

A Coincidence of Desires is a series of writings done by Tom Boellstorff  ethnographizing a decade of visits to Indonesia exploring sexuality and gender as an anthropologist as well as an HIV prevention activist.  Even though each segment was profoundly interesting, overall the book was disjoined.  More like a series of articles written out of context from each other then thrown together with a weak attempt at cohesion with a claptrap about not having closure. What was most intriguing was his section on zines and thus the focus of this article. Zine culture is a potential gold mine in regards to “knowledge generation” and “Utilization and management of knowledge” (Delisle 2005, p.8) and underutilized in anthropology and by sex educators.

His case studies primarily focused on gay Indonesian men. Gay in Indonesia have a slightly different meaning from the English word and are italicized. He also covers warias “a combination of the terms wanita [women] and pria [man], can be roughly translated to male transvestite” (p.13-14), and lesbi (women who have sex with women), but notes from the beginning about his limited exposure to either of these communities. Furthermore he covers gay language and how it relates to belonging, religion and desire, and political homophobia. He concludes not by with closure, instead he “does not 'localize' (his) discussion of Indonesians but moves further outward, comparing 'queer' sexualities and gender across southeast Asia” (p.181).

It is impossible to speak to homosexuality and the trans* or gender variant community without intertwining sexually transmitted infections (STIs) specifically HIV and AIDs. Yet despite working in HIV prevention, Boellstorff never unpacks the intersectionality with safer sex education and the underground zine culture he enthographizes. What is most unexpected is that Boellstorff chose not to give much word count at all to the topic of sexual health/ safer sex type of educational zines or articles, leaving the reader wondering if there was any education or activism being done. Why did Boellstroff talk about sex education so briefly, in passing? Moreover, since much of his analysis was in contrast to the queer culture in the United States, it begs the question are there similar zines to his circulating in the United States?

Drawing from ten years as a Queer Zinester (someone who self-publishes zines and/or collects other people’s zines), I've seen maybe five. One of which I wrote; which is specifically about how to have sex with trans* individuals and trauma survivors and a second I distro is also about safer sex with trans* individuals. Both contain STI prevention methodology as well as consent and general language guidelines. The others I have seen are either primarily consent or queer sex education. A distro distributes (and sometimes also publishes) zines. Zines are usually small and hand photocopied, self-published and without a ISBNs Do It Yourself (DIY) ‘magazines’. They are thus easily reproducible and many zines are copy-left, meaning anyone can copy them for non-monetary gain. These conditions allow for a word of mouth type distribution of data which would allow for zines easily correlate to the peer-education model that many STI advocates consider best practices. “Global policy on HIV prevention among marginalized populations recommends a community-based approach with participant and mobilization as central features” (Evans 2008, p.467).

Most of the zines that Boellstorff inventoried were portrayed as identity or personal zines. Identity zines are very popular as they generally relate stories about a person's experience that can be helpful to others, who are say coming out, in knowing they are not alone in what they are experiencing (much like the “It Gets Better Project” but with better results). In reference to the zines he does catalog, Boellstorff uses the term 'subject position' instead of 'identity' which he defines as “a socially recognized category of selfhood; one with a particular history and typically inhabited in multiple ways” (p.36). In order to show the meaning of “the zines as part and parcel of the national character of gay sexuality,” he speaks to “two zones, or discourses, of desire – homosexual desire and desire for national belonging” (p.37).

Zines about STIs, safer sex, and sexual health would be under the self (community) education category.  Boellstorff, after defining gay in Indonesia as “not just proven with same-gender sex but other factors like the feeling of love...” goes on to state, “(t)he pattern is clear: sex is displaced onto desire and then onto love with each term more valorized than its predecessors^17” (Boellstorff p.59). Here refers to a note #17 that states:

  • The only context in which sex consistently appears in gay zines is in articles on preventing HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Such articles are fairly common in gay zines (but rarely in lesbi zines) because many are funded directly or indirectly through HIV prevention programs, in most cases by international development agencies (p.222 n17).
This exemplifies NGO's best practices in regards to “utilization and management of knowledge” (Delisle 2005, p.8). It also shows an integration of what are two separate styles, in the United States. Could these zines be more like an actual underground magazine than just identity zines? Could they have discovered an innovate approach to disseminate safer sex information given their environment that the US could learn from?
These questions remain unanswered, not allowing for much analysis, despite Boellstorff vaguely referring to the HIV/AIDs throughout the book as an “epidemic among male transvestites (p. 194); in reference to men's organizations (p.201, 212); lesbi zines (p.48, 222 n.14,17); and warias (p.192, 201; 91, 222 n.14)” (p.278)  and even states that “gay producers of zines are better linked to Indonesian and transnational HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment networks than is the average gay man^14.” (p.48) Note 14 goes on to explain “(i)n one such case, such networks helped fund the zine GAYa Celebes... which focus on gay men, although lesbi women and especially warias are often addressed as well.” (p.222) he even goes on to state “(m)ale transvestites sex workers have been hit particularly hard by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with some of the highest rates in the region.” Then where are the safer sex zines for them, Boellstorff? Maybe you never read Farmer (2004):
  • We must not limit ourselves to teaching only a select group of students who have avowed interest in health and human rights... A broader educational mandate would mean engaging students from all faculties – but also engaging members of the faculties. Beyond the university and various government bodies lies the broader public within affluent societies, for whom the connection between health and human rights have not even been traced.” (p.242)
As a reader I was left with the same burning questions about methodologies used in Indonesia and the United States. Are we utilizing best practices for peer education? And what can queer zine culture teach us about how we can do better peer based education? And how could we benefit from more cultural exchange between the two communities? Is this not our duty as anthropologists? If not then what the hell is?

Boellstorff, Tom. (2007). A Coincidence of Desire. Duke University Press, Durham, NC
Delisle, H., Roberts, J., Munro, M., Jones, L., & Gyorkos, T. W. (2005). The role of NGOs in

global health research for development. Health Research Policy & Systems 3, 3-21.

Evans, Catrin. (2008). Implementing community interventions for HIV prevention: Insights from

project ethnography. Social Science & Medicine 66(2), 467-478.

Farmer , P. & A. Sen. (2004). Rethinking health and human rights: Time for a paradigm shift. In

Pathologies of Power. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 213-249.

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