DG: Why is this an exciting time for you to be in this part of the world?
JB: I think it is an exciting time especially because there is an emergent movement here. There is a chance to produce a new public understanding of what homophobia is, of what transphobia is, and to call attention to violent crimes that ought to be treated in the same way as any other violent crime would be treated. It’s particularly exciting to be in Turkey, because the terms of the debate are different from those in Europe or in the United States, and I stand to learn something important here. But Turkey is also in a state of transformation right now, which is an opportunity for activists to bring new issues to the table. So, I’m happy to be part of that effort.
What would you say to straight people in Turkey (young and old, men and women) who may be tempted to associate transgender or gay/lesbian identity with Western and secularist hegemonies? Or to those who see queerness as the cultural handmaiden of economic globalization and the disintegration of the national fabric?
OK, well let’s think about a couple of different categories. On the one hand it seems to me that throughout the Middle East and Central Asia there are all kinds of traditions among people who engage in same-sex relations. Now, it’s one thing to engage in those relations occasionally, to engage in those relations as a youth, or on the side of one’s usual life. It’s another thing to be called a homosexual or to assume an identity like this. For instance, in Latin America when there was a broad movement for people to come out as gay or lesbian, there was indeed a very strong resistance to these categories of identity, and they were considered to be an import from the United States. And in certain Spanish-speaking communities in Los Angeles, for instance, where people were doing AIDS education, outreach workers needed to know who was gay in order to reach them. But they couldn’t reach them through identity categories. Still, when they came into churches and into various organizations and said “How many of you have engaged in the following sexual acts?” the people raised their hands! (Laughter) It wasn’t a problem. They raised their hands, they agreed, and said: yes, indeed, I do sometimes engage in those sexual acts.
So I think the real question is: what is the hidden history of those sexual acts in this region? How long has that history been here? What forms does it take? How is it disavowed? How is it conducted? What are the regional differences in the ways in which it’s lived? The same is clearly true in Lebanon, or Palestine, or Jordan, and Egypt. These are long histories, and they are not brought by the West. And in fact, very often the West cannot understand them according to their own vocabularies. That’s terribly important.
Now, “lesbian” and “gay” tend to be identity categories. They tend to be associated with the process of coming out in public and claiming the category for oneself. “Queer” is something else. I don’t believe that queer is an identity category. I think queer is the sign of a certain sort of coalition. I think queer designates something that doesn’t quite fit among available categories. Queer is something that disturbs our usual scheme of categorization, and as such it wouldn’t be a clear category that I could ever claim by saying I’m queer. If you say I’m queer, I guess people assume that you mean I’m lesbian or gay. But I don’t think that’s really the term to use in that instance. But, you know, I don’t own the term.
I think what’s important is this: certain strategies for dealing with same-sex relations and same-sex acts have to be produced in local and regional contexts, through movements and languages that are attuned to the politics of the place. And it’s absolutely true that a global gay culture cannot come in and impose its categories. And if it were to do such a thing, I think it would be guilty of a certain cultural imperialism.
But when your early work was first published -Gender Trouble, Bodies That Matter, etc.- you had, I assume, no particular reason to be overly concerned with how your critiques and concepts would be translated abroad, for the multilingual afterlife of your work. From the vantage point of 2010, however, it is clear that queer theory has unleashed a massive, collective labor of conceptual translation in places like Turkey, and in some cases a subsequent or simultaneous conceptual back-translation. One could say that you are now—to borrow a phrase from Alestair Pennycook—a critic “always already in translation.” Does the multilingual afterlife of your work, which has in the past decade become so incontrovertible and influential, now affect the way you shape your arguments and interventions?
It’s true. In fact I have a project on translation and geopolitics, which emerges from the experience of having my work returned to me in different languages in different parts of the world. And I agree that I am working in translation all the time. And even when I am working in English, I understand my English to be—a problem. (Laughter) More than I did before. I think what happens when a text enters into another language is that it enters into another political temporality; it’s associated with other texts, with other movements. It follows on texts that I don’t know, or it comes to comment on texts that I’ve never read. And the text becomes increasingly dissociated from the author. But if I follow it, if I follow my text where it travels, then I stand to learn a great deal about what’s happening with it there, and then I am able to write new kinds of essays and pursue new kinds of topics. For instance, my work in the Middle East been informed by the fact that my texts have not been translated very much into Arabic. So, when I go to Arabic-speaking countries, I actually have to begin anew, or I have to talk with translators about how this might work and how it doesn’t work. It does enter through French, for instance, or it enters through other languages. In China the translation of my work has been truly fascinating, and I’m hoping to go there to understand what is happening with it there at some point. So this does indeed affect the way I shape my arguments, although I also think that sometimes, inevitably, my arguments are parochial or provincial. They cannot travel everywhere. But of course what’s most interesting is that sometimes they travel without my being able to anticipate where they might go. So yes! (Laughter) It has changed my work.
At present, here in Turkey, there is a set of ordinances called the Kabahatler kanunu (Civil misdemeanor law) which targets "behaviors adverse to societal morals" ("toplumsal ahlaka aykýrý davranýþlar"): Sexual and gender minority friends of mine have been harassed and picked up under these ordinances as recently as this week. The ticket is often less than 100 lira, but perpetual fear is the message. And the pressure from police commandants in Istanbul and Ankara has increased greatly in the past three years. For instance, upon your arrival you may have seen a significant police presence in Ankara's downtown Cumhuriyet Parký (Republic Park). This is, among other things, an unprecedented, vigorous show of force against trans and gay association in public places. The park is also a historically noteworthy cruising spot, but these days it's more likely that one will get stopped for being a biological male with bleached, long hair than for being engaged in cruising of any sort. I have a gay former student, 22 years old, who joined the police force because he couldn't find another job, and is now tasked with ticketing transvestites in public. The tragic thing is that, since he was 15, he's known pretty much everything about queer culture from the Internet, and from the Internet only. I find his current cognitive dissonance as a gay functionary of the Turkish security state—charged with carrying out systematic harassment of transpeople—somehow iconic for our moment. So the question is: what does this young person need to know about his position in history that the Internet can’t tell him?
For people who know gay sexuality or gay and lesbian fantasy through the Internet alone, it can indeed remain a space of pure fantasy. And that’s fine! There need to be spaces of pure fantasy. But in addition to it being a domain of fantasized pleasure, it’s also a lived risk in the world. And one of the facts of being embodied as a gay person or a transgendered person in the world—who is readable, or whose gender does not visibly fit with others—is that one is at risk for harassment, for discrimination, and for violence. So perhaps gay and lesbian identity, under pervasive conditions of homophobia, has to be understood as a certain kind of risk of danger and also a pursuit of pleasure. We have to keep both of those dimensions in mind.
But, more generally, I would ask: what is the structural relation between the [Turkish] Minister of Health, [Selma Aliye Kavaf] who proclaims her belief that homosexuality is a disorder; the ticketing of transgendered people on the street because they don’t appear in the right way and defy a law that governs modes of appearance; the harassment by police, by students, or by others of gay, lesbian, and transgendered people; and the murder of transgendered people? Now, of course, ticketing someone is not the same as murdering them. Saying that you think homosexuals have a disorder is not murdering them. But the ticketing—and the public proclamation and defense of homophobia—create a climate in which openly gay and transgendered people become social targets. And what one sees, when one looks at the periodic way that gender and sexual minorities are targeted, is that a systematic pattern is produced in which the lives of these individuals are not respected as lives, their rights are not honored as rights, and their deaths are considered inconsequential. And that is a criminal condition. That is a criminal phenomenon.
Speaking of criminal phenomena: Turkey has no conscientious objector statute, a position it shares only with Azerbaijan and Belarus among the European and European “privileged partnership” countries. Consequently, a gay or trans man who objects to military service is often required to show proof of his homosexuality, in order to get a “pink slip” that deems him psychologically unfit to serve. Gay rights organizations continue to counsel young draftees to appear at their exemption interviews with photographs or video of them being the passive partner in anal or oral sex, and to make sure their face is fully visible in these images. What is this act, exactly? What does this ritual reiteration—this constellation of shame, compulsory performativity, and forensics—mean for militarism in general? How do you analyze what that act is: that handing in an evidentiary photograph, that setting up the scene to take such a photograph, that going to the military hospital with that photograph your pocket? Is the military inventing new forms of homophobia for the 21st century?
I have to tell you that I find this so appalling that I’ve not been able to think about it very well. But it does remind me a little bit of the photographic practices in Abu Ghraib, even though those were obviously coerced, or taken under conditions of coercion. [Pause] I have to say, I’m rendered speechless. But I should be able to say something, so let me try! [Laughter] I think it is an extraordinary invasion of privacy to ask someone to take such a photograph. I feel it is a form of prurient persecution to ask for the visual evidence of sex, and for these medical and military personnel to be the visual consumers of such a photograph. I think, as well, that it misunderstands what homosexuality is, because it reduces it to a set of sexual acts. Now, my guess is that there are a lot of heterosexuals that have engaged in homosexual sex, and who are not homosexual, or who would not call themselves that. There are a lot of sexual acts that porn stars do for the camera that they don’t do in their regular life. The reduction of the sexual act to that piece of visual evidence strikes me as a way of trying to abase or degrade the person who is petitioning to be exempted from military service. It is a kind of ritual punishment, whereby you must expose yourself, you must shame yourself.
Now, the other problem with it is that it presumes that the public exposure of a homosexual act is a source of shame. It also orchestrates that exposure in a shameful way. What would be interesting would be to think about that photographic practice in relationship to gay male erotica, where sexual acts are performed with cameras, or in some relationship to cameras. And it would be interesting to think about that in relation to straight erotica or straight romance, where sexual acts are performed as part of common narratives, very often leading to marriage and children. [Laughter]
So, I find it a strange medicalization of homosexuality, I find it a prurient visual effort to capture the act and to reduce the individual to the act. I also think it is unacceptable that those who seek conscientious objector status cannot argue on moral grounds that they should be exempt. To supply the photograph is essentially to say “I am unfit for military service because you hate me. And this is what you hate.” And it’s an instrumental way to get out of military service that reminds me of young Israelis who claimed that they were mentally ill. But after a while, the Israelis developed a movement against the claim of mental illness, because they really felt that they needed to make moral and political arguments against Israeli militarism. And I would urge those who are taking such photographs to resist the practice of self-abasement for such a purpose, and to join a movement—one that would have great international support—toward establishing moral and political grounds for conscientious objection.
So does this mean that gay and lesbian organizations here in Turkey should not, on their websites, advise young people to be ready with these kinds of evidentiary photographs or videos when they go to their interview?
Look, I think any way to get out of military service is understandable. So I don’t judge it. But I think there has to be an analysis of what’s going on, and whether homosexuality is being reproduced as a debased and degraded activity, and as prurient material for disciplinary powers that are basically engaging in surveillance. I don’t think our sexual lives should be exposed to surveillance. That’s just so upsetting to me I can barely stand it.
As the Cold War era recedes and Turkey’s unique role as the NATO nation-state in West Asia fades, the TSK (Turkish Armed Forces) elites are reinventing themselves. No longer does one reach the highest echelons of the military hierarchy by first taking a post in Brussels or in a Western capital. Now, one earns one’s stripes on the fields of southeastern Turkey, pursuing Kurdish separatists. So a new form of securitism has emerged in the last 15 years here that has given rise to new domestic discourses of Turkish exceptionalism, cultural isolationism, and xenophobia. And all of the major political parties (whether traditionally perceived as left or right) seem to be grabbing for a piece of this new instantiation of Turkey’s armed forces agenda. In the symbolic cross-hairs of this discourse of securitist nationalism (whether advocated by parties on the center-left CHP, the ruling AK center-right party, or MHP on the nationalist right) are Armenian, Kurdish, and queer citizens of the Republic of Turkey—all of whom are perceived to be under the undue influence of foreign powers. Queers, in particular, are preemptively associated with Europe and the US; in this way they symbolically undermine the new, muscular independence from the West that military brass insist is necessary to maintain national integrity in the global age. Despite all this, many European critics see fit to chalk up homophobia in Turkey to religious conservatism alone.
Yes, I think they don’t understand what’s going on here.
So, why is it such an attractive narrative to blame anti-gay violence on the religion of the people, rather than, say, the vast and overwhelming police and military forces perennially hailed as the guarantors of state secularism?
I think there are a number of things going on. But the history of secularism in Turkey is regularly misunderstood or ignored by European debates. And there’s no way to tell the story of modern secularism in Turkey—or indeed of modernity itself— without understanding the alliance between secularism and militarism. Most of the military coups in this country, after all, have been performed by secularists.
Indeed, all of them.
So let’s think about that. And countries like the Netherlands and the UK are constantly saying: we must have stronger police forces on the border, we have to fight Islamic populations in Iraq and Afghanistan, we need to police Islamic minorities at home, because these are all threats to our national integrity. They use anti-Islam as the condition for justifying increased militarization—not just militarization in the sense of war-waging, but also in the sense of bolstering the securitarian state and the rights of surveillance, a topic to which we return once again. My sense is that it’s Dutch nationalism and xenophobia that have cast Islam as the threat to its culture, and I think it’s a form of racism. As anyone who studies Islam knows, if you have a radical Islamist group that claims to stand for something like the essence of Islam, or a radical political Islamic group that is engaged in violent activity, it can in no way be understood as coextensive with Islam, or even as typical of Islam.
And yet there is a concerted effort not to study Islam. So that even people in France who argue about the veil never want to know what the meaning of the veil actually is or how it functions. They never want to know about Muslim communities or religious practice. And even my liberal friends, who are against the prohibition on the veil, are against it because they think that no religious minority should be discriminated against. But if I ask them: have you every thought what the veil actually is, or are you interested in understanding its cultural significance, and its varied cultural significance, they would say no. They would say no. Because there is a profound cultural aversion. It’s not a history they want to know, it’s not a religion they want to understand. In fact, they don’t want to understand any religion. I find that this bias and prejudice is everywhere, even among those liberals who are holding out for certain kinds of political rights for religious minorities. It is really problematic. But I think the Turkish configuration has a lot to teach us, because the very idea that US or European militarism is going to bring secular democracy to the rest of the world is just a stunning and monstrous assumption.
OK, and finally, you get to pick whether we talk about secular Islam or Lady Gaga.
Either one. I’m happy to talk about both. (Laughter)
OK. State secularism has an intricate and violent history in Republican Turkey. Yet on the personal level, the civic trait of “being secular” has for generations meant a willingness to carry out your public affairs regardless of your interlocutor’s faith practice. Thus it is often understood as a kind of “siblingship” (kardeþlik) across differences, rather than as an identification with atheism. Nonetheless, the story of twentieth-century Turkey is often told as a great battle between religious people and secular people. This narrative fails to recognize the vast swaths of this society who are both secular and religious, and have no need to explain the coexistence of these two principles within their own subjectivity. But it seems to me that European and American observers seldom conceptualize “secular Islam” in the way they are willing to do with “secular Judaism” and “secular Christianity.” Where do you suppose this unwillingness comes from, to whom is it of the greatest use, and whose responsibility is it to change the narrative?
I think secular Islam is, for most people in the US and even in Europe, an unthinkable combination. And this is nonsensical, given how often we refer to the secular Jew, which is understood as utterly possible. We even can talk about secular Catholics now, apparently. I always thought you could only talk about “fallen” Catholics, but I guess you can talk about secular Catholics now. And a lot of that just depends on what kind of government structure or civil life you’re committed to, and where and how you place religion in your life. But it is a presupposition in the Netherlands, in Belgium, and the UK, that a particular combination of secularism and religion can work with Judeo-Christian religions, but that it cannot work with Islam, that Islam will attack and override and engulf and destroy whatever is left of secularism. And this strikes me as a paranoid assumption, an ignorant assumption, and one that persists in misunderstanding the various ways in which Islam is actually lived.
Lady Gaga I can also talk about, but what do we want to know?
Everything. But let’s start with this: How do you understand the viral spread of the video reenactment of Lady Gaga’s Telephone video, as produced by US soldiers in Afghanistan? What are we to make of the vigor with which these soldiers performed these reenactments on camera, and the glee with which the video has been trafficked on youtube? Are we seeing a queering of militarism here, or a militarization of queerness?
Well, I am a lot happier with this video coming out of the US military than the Abu Ghraib ones, and so I think we should maybe put it in that context. As in: what are they doing with their digital camcorders at this moment? At least they’re doing this.
I think the video is interesting, I think it’s controversial, I think it walks a line. You ask the question, are we seeing a queering of militarism or a militarization of queerness; I think we do not know, and that it opens up that very question. Again, I want to distinguish between what’s queer and, maybe, what’s gay and lesbian. Queering the military would mean that the military would be no longer operating according to its appropriate purposes, that its direction has gotten skewed. And there are a whole lot of military personnel now who no longer know why they’re there, how long they’re going to be there, and what the aim of their war efforts are. And what I think we’re seeing [in this video] is: We’re going to give purpose to something here, and we’re all a bit skeptical about what is going on. You have to remember that a lot of people in the military right now, especially the men, are trying to get Green Cards. The US is selling Green Cards through conscription. So they’re trying to get access to technical schools so that they can get work in a very bad economy. And I am not so sure that they are clear about what the rationale is, in the same way as the US population is not so clear why Obama is continuing a war in Afghanistan and even escalating it. It’s not utterly clear. So I don’t know what to make of it. I don’t know what to make of it. Not yet.
(For their feedback and help with preparation, the interviewer warmly thanks Ahmet Gürata, Nevin Öztop, Ömer Akpýnar, Anne Moore, Jason Arvey, Damon Young, Mehtap Söyler, and the Kaos GL team at www.kaosgl.com.)