Queer customs, customarily queer

Kirk Fiereck

01 Feb 2018
Photo from the feature film 'Inxeba'Photo from the feature film 'Inxeba'

My dissertation research set out to examine the relationship between the social processes of race, risk, and LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming sexualities in urban South Africa. I was also interested to see how these processes were affected by the technopolitical context of a society with the largest HIV epidemic and ARV program in the world, where biomedicine and pharmaceuticals have become integrated into everyday life for so many people. This initial focus was based upon observations made during two summer field research trips to South Africa. During these brief visits, I met individuals from a number of LGBTQ- and health-focused NGOs who indicated that race and class were the primary ways queer sexual politics were being articulated in civil society.

‘Can you both oppose heteronormativity while also engaging in customary rites of passage?’

About six months into my field research in 2010, I was examining the sociocultural aspects of sexuality and race within the context of a clinical trial in Cape Town. As I got to know the trial participants, who were primarily Xhosa-speaking black gay men from lower-, middle-class, and poor families in townships, many of them described choosing to undertake male initiation rituals and circumcision. Upper-class and wealthy Xhosa-speaking informants told me they did not feel compelled to undergo initiation. Those undergoing customary rites of passage wanted to be seen specifically as ‘gay men’, not as boys, women, or merely straight men, in the eyes of ethnic traditionalists. In their narratives, their gender and sexual identities were undeniably entwined with these customs, or what some might gloss as ‘indigenous’ or ‘ethnic’ cultural sensibilities. Ethnicity was not a central concern for the NGOs I had been working with and I had not planned on looking at male circumcision in South Africa during my initial research. It was surprising, then, when these men spoke about their re-engagement with what South Africans describe as ‘traditional Xhosa culture’. This situation presented an anthropological paradox for me, but also for queer theory and studies more broadly. These gay men forced the question, ‘Can you both oppose heteronormativity while also engaging in customary rites of passage?’

My other research sites were based in Johannesburg. After returning there from Cape Town, certain aspects of black LGBTQ South Africans’ lives, such as gender nonconformity, began to make more sense to me. For instance, many informants were raised to think and/or thought of themselves as girls or women growing up, despite being male-bodied. Many times these girls would grow up and decide that the words ‘gay’ and ‘man’ were more appropriate to describe them. These men diverge in identity from gay women who retained their female identity when also becoming gay men. Likewise, it was quite common among black and coloured LGBTQ South Africans who identified as lesbian to also identify as men. In both sets of cases, these male-bodied women and female-bodied men did not always identify as transgender. However, as the public profile of transgender advocacy in South Africa increased, transgender identities became increasingly available to these individuals. In all cases, being a ‘gay woman’ (male-bodied woman, and not transgender) or a ‘lesbian man’ (female-bodied man, and not transgender) involved a situation in which subjects were considered as gays or lesbians in civil society contexts but as women or men, respectively, in customary contexts. Given the availability and customary significance of the ‘gay woman’ and ‘lesbian man’ subject positions, many informants did not feel compelled to identify as transgender. As transgender civil society NGOs increase their presence in South Africa, this is changing, but not to a large degree. Customary practices and meanings retain their significance in the lives of the majority of South Africans. This is because LGBTQ identities are largely categories that are significant within civil society’s liberal forms of sexual governance, such as NGOs. Such matrices of meaning and identity do not encompass the large and expanding forms of customary gender relations enacted by the majority of South Africans who are either poor and/or living in townships and rural areas.

Subject positions like ‘gay woman’ or ‘lesbian man’ signify that most South Africans do not have consistent access to the domain of liberalism’s gender relations and sexual identities exemplified by LGBTQ subjectivities and human rights. For example, gay women are typically ‘gay’ in relation to civil society actors and ‘women’ when they navigate customary cultural domains. Despite the issue of access, health-focused NGOs frequently referenced the need for HIV structural interventions for men who have sex with men (MSM) to address ‘universal human rights’. This type of human rights discourse has been referred to as ‘fundamentalist’ in African contexts (Hoad 2016). Anthropological critiques of liberal fundamentalisms point to their racist, classist, and ethnocentric underpinnings as they universalize a local-regional Euro-American form of personhood (Chanock 2000; Mahmood 2005; Mamdani 2000). To try to address this ethnocentrism, human rights pragmatists championed fundamental human rights with the caveat that ‘most South Africans cannot access these rights’. None of these anthropological analyses suggest that the customary is a potential site of queer agency. Effectively silenced by human rights fundamentalists, pragmatists, and their critics were black LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming South Africans who were re-engaging with customs on the ground to oppose traditionalist heterosexisms without recourse to human rights fundamentalisms. Due to these field experiences the gay women I met started to emerge in my ethnographic view as human rights radicalists. Instead of reacting to a conservative traditionalist monopoly over the customary and ‘rights to culture’ in civil society, they attempted to renegotiate the customary. By producing new cultural subject positions, such as the circumcised Xhosa-speaking gay man, they had broken new ground beyond the staid antinomies produced by South African liberalism and ethnic traditionalisms.

In my research, informants pushed me to engage critically with the notions of ‘queer’ and ‘transgression’. I considered them as open questions in culturally diverse contexts, not normatively defined essences that emanate from Euro-America. Due to how informants enacted their sexuality through the customary, I decided to focus on phenomena that I refer to as ‘ethnointimacies’ and to use that notion in translating my dissertation research into a book-length monograph. Ethnointimacies refers to the aspects of intimate, culturally specific practices and discourses that interact with the universalizing tendencies of the global paradigm of sexuality. They also disrupt and critique that paradigm by inflecting local, customary ways of life with deconstructive ‘worlding practices’ (Spivak 1985). Such practices are the things people say and do that produce culturally legible things like LGBTQ identities and make things like ‘gay women’ seem confusing to people who limit their understanding of gender and sexuality to the normative presumptions of so many liberalisms globally. Informants’ practices reflect Gayatri Spivak’s counterliberal readings of imperial, Heideggerian forms of worlding. This is how informants helped me to see how customary practices could be a powerful, accessible form of political action and agency. In other words, ethnointimacies are everyday local practices that expand the limits of LGBTQ forms of personhood within the terms of customary sociality and against so many ethnic traditionalisms and queer liberalisms globally.  

Most importantly, these field experiences raise ongoing theoretical questions for anthropology related to its problematic legacy of uncritically valorizing heteronormative and traditionalist versions of the customary while marginalizing the critical insights that queer anthropological analysis would otherwise provide to the discipline. While there has been a great deal of critical anthropology that has deconstructed traditionalist sentiments as thoroughly modern phenomena, these analyses have not yet considered how queer anthropology adds a new dimension to the relationship between temporality, the customary, ethnicity, and intimacy. My research suggests that queer groups are using discourses of the customary to deconstruct Euro-American presumptions about the boundaries of ‘queer’. Queer reengagement with the customary, including with traditional male circumcision and initiation rituals, also indexes new postcolonial political dynamics. These dynamics require methodological innovations within anthropology and queer studies to deconstruct and tease out the differences between the customary, ethnicity, and ethnicism. Where ethnicism is a form of tribalism – a conservative, modern reification of things deemed ‘authentic tradition’ by self-appointed (chiefly) authorities – ethnicity is the liberal idea that there are culturally distinct ways of being in the world to which people have an affective attachment. The customary allows for a still broader category of meaning linked to notions of both ethnicity and ethnicism, yet can potentially deconstruct both. For the LGBTQ informants I spent time with in South Africa the customary was first and foremost a space of political uncertainty: a mode of creative cultural reengagement, inhabitation, and inflection. Unfortunately for Euro-American scholars whose research lacks ethnographic fieldwork and methodologies, all too often these radical cultural inflections are ethnocentrically fetishized as an unthinking recapitulation of ‘culture talk’ rather than what they are: a critical renegotiation of the limits of multiple cultural legibilities.

About the author

Dr. Fiereck is engaged with two ethnographic projects. The first, ‘Ethnointimacies’, explores the entwinement of ethnicity and sexuality when LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming South Africans draw upon customary, constitutional, and biomedical sex/gender ideologies to enact new forms of queer personhood. They do so when juxtaposing sexual and gender identities across overlapping cultural contexts. The second, ‘Biofinance’, explores how ethnointimacies are effaced by global health interventions based on new sexual risk-hedging technologies, such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), which emerge as pharmaceutical derivatives. As such they mirror the trading of financial derivatives whereby subjects speculatively hedge (or treat) risk instead of disease. 


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Hoad, Neville. 2016. ‘Queer Customs against the Law’. Research in African Literatures 47, no. 2: 1–19.
Mahmood, Saba. 2005. The Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Mamdani, Mahmood, ed. 2000. Beyond Rights Talk and Culture Talk: Comparative Essays on the Politics of Rights and Culture. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1985. ‘Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism’. Critical Inquiry 12, no. 1: 243–61.